Friday, September 19, 2014

Does God have a plan?

I was at a gathering of professional church leaders this week and heard a speaker making a strong case for the fact that God doesn’t have a plan for us. He seemed to be reacting to people who like to explain whatever happens by saying that it was all a part of God’s plan. The idea that God has a plan for each of us can be comforting when your cancer goes into remission. But it’s downright disturbing when it has spread into all your vital organs. It’s hard to see how the God of goodness and love could plan such a thing. And if that’s what it means to say that God has a plan, I would agree with him.

That’s why some of the clichés used by Christians drive me up a wall. One is, “There but by the grace of God go I.” It’s used when we see someone who is struggling in life and we take comfort in the fact that our lives may not be great, but they’re not as bad as the miserable-excuse-for-a-life that poor slob is living. Saying, “There but by the grace of God go I” begs the question, “Why would a God of grace decide to give you a life of ease, while inflicting a life of suffering on someone else?” It doesn’t make sense. How could the grace of God be dispensed to some but withheld from others like that?

Another cliché that drives me up a wall and onto the ceiling is, “God is good… all the time.” This is something I always hear when things have gone well in a person’s life. “We got the offer we wanted on the house. God is good…” And then someone will nod in agreement and finish the thought, “…all the time.” All the time, God is good. I don’t have a problem with the statement. My beef is with the times we use it. I’ve never heard those words spoken by someone whose life has just gone down the toilet. And yet, if God is good all the time, that would include those times when we’re one flush away from losing everything.

So, if that’s the sort of thing we mean when we say that God has a plan for us, I would agree with the speaker. But then he supported his point with the story from Acts 1, where the apostles needed to find a replacement for the vacancy left by Judas. They decided to do this by saying a prayer and casting lots. I think the speaker’s point was that it’s ludicrous to think God has a specific plan for us. It’s all just a crap shoot. 

I've been thinking about this for several days now and have decided that I can't agree with him. If anything, the story from Acts seems to refute his point. As it turned out, God did have a plan for the apostles. It didn’t happen for his followers according to their timeline, nor did it happen in the way they had expected. But God chose an apostle to round out the twelve. His name was Saul. (After God chose him, he became known as Paul.)  

I don’t think it’s true that God doesn’t have a plan for us. But I do believe that we can’t possibly presume to know what that plan is. Such presumption always gets us into trouble because we can’t get around assigning our very human way of thinking to God. We assume things should go a certain way based on the bias we have for whatever works best for us. This puts us in the position of judging God’s performance according to how well God is meeting our expectations. We blame God when tragedy strikes, or we pat God on the back when things go well. But God is so much bigger than that. We can’t presume to see the ways of creation as the Creator does. So how can we possibly presume to understand God’s plan?

Of course, this also means we have to admit that we ourselves have no control over God’s plan. We can’t make it unfold the way we would like it to no matter how hard we try. The fact is, it will unfold, often despite our best efforts.

What I want is to be a willing participant in God’s plan. I want God to use me in accomplishing his will. I learned from Martin Luther that God’s will is going to be done with or without my help. But it’s a lot better for me when it’s done with me than when it’s done despite me.

God’s gonna do what God’s gonna do. I can’t begin to imagine what that is. I liken God’s plan to a swiftly flowing stream. It’s headed somewhere, but I have no idea where that might be. It’s always moving, always changing. I can sit back and watch the stream flow by, or I can jump into it and be a part of it. When I find myself in it, I can resist it and expend untold energy trying to change its direction. Or I can be open to where it takes me. I can give myself to the stream and allow it to pull me with it. That takes openness and a lot of trust. And it’s what I’m trying to do these days. I might bump up against some rocks from time to time, I might be thrown upon the shore, or thrust into the depths so that I’m gasping for air. But all that is a part of what it means to be in relationship with a God who has a plan.  

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