A while back I lost my job. For months afterward, well meaning Christians of all shapes and sizes came up to me, put their arms around me, patted me on the back, and said, “I know it may not seem like it right now, but God has a plan.”
These same words came out of my friend’s mouth when he was going through some problems in his marriage. With teary eyes he would look at me and say, “I just don’t understand why this is happening, but I know God has a plan.”
When my father died, it only took a few seconds for the first compassion filled Christian to hug me and say, “Everything is going to be okay. God has a plan.”
God has a plan.
Well I’m calling bullshit.
Bullshit on “God has a plan.”
Bullshit on the way we use the phrase, anyway.
“But Jeff, it’s in the Bible,” you say. “The Bible says that God has a plan.”
No. No it’s not. No the Bible does not.
Let’s look at the top four verses used to back up the whole “God has a plan” thing.
#1 Hebrews 12:1 – Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
I’ve seen the final phrase of this verse, “…the race marked out for us,” used as justification that there is a specific path God wants you walking. Others have used this verse to say that there is a course God intends for you to take, a “plan” for your life.
In college I remember agonizing over my “calling.” What was it God wanted me to be? What profession did he want me to have?” The image in my mind was that God had a specific job he wanted me to do, and my task as his follower was to discover it.
Since then I’ve moved from one venture to the next. My life has been a constant flow of new challenges. Sometimes I’ve succeeded, sometimes I’ve failed. Not once has God chastised me for it. Never have I heard God say, “Well, that was it. That was where I wanted you to be. And now you’re too far off course. This whole thing is ruined. Way to go Jeff.”
No. He was right there with me, all along the way, with every twist and turn.
When we use verses like this one to claim that God has a specific plan for our lives, we turn God into a cruel Easter Bunny, hiding his plan from us in the bushes of a dark and scary forest, watching us search, and chastising us when we don’t find them fast enough.
What this verse says we do have is a mission. This mission is not hidden. Christ laid it out multiple times in the Gospels. Our mission as his followers is devote ourselves to knowing him and to loving other people. This is the “race marked out for us.” It is not hidden. It is clear, and there are a thousand different ways we can go about it.
#2 Ephesians 2:10 – For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Imagine a long hallway full of puzzles. First there is a riddle you must solve, next there is a pile of M&Ms you must sort by color, then there is a word search you must complete, and finally there is a rubik’s cube you must solve. Every day your only job is to make it to the end of the hallway. Every night a crazy janitor, with nothing better to do, lays out new puzzles for you to complete.
God is not a crazy, bored, puzzling janitor; but sadly, this is how many of us think of him.
Once again, we apply specificity to the text where there doesn’t need to be any. Please allow me to give you a different image.
I want you to imagine a banquet table. Every morning, you rise and enter the hall. On the table are beautifully prepared dishes a waiting you, wonderful things waiting for you to try. You take your seat, and the chef sits next to you, excited to watch you savor each one, full of anticipation to see which you will pick first. What are these dishes? They are joy and laughter, compassion and empathy, personal sacrifice and the defense of those in need, wonder and peace.
These are the works God has place before us each day. They are not riddles laid out by a crazy janitor, they are the experiences of an abundant life. And the goal is not to solve them all, your day is not a pass or fail test. The dishes are all available to you at all times. The Great Chef gave you this life and filled it with rich dishes of experience so that you might live it to its fullness.
#3 Jeremiah 29:11-12 -For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord,” plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.”
Let’s shift gears now and talk about the types of plans God does make.
For hundreds of years, through multiple voices, God warned the people, “If you continue to ignore me and pretend like I do not exist, I will act like I do not exist, and you will feel what life is like without my protection.” And then it happened, the Babylonians placed Jerusalem under siege. Many were forcibly deported. Many more were killed. The scene was horrific.
And there, left behind in the rubble, was Jeremiah. Despair could have come easily to the prophet, but he understood the character of God. Instead of wallowing in sorrow, he penned a letter to all of those who had been drug away. It is a letter of hope. It is a letter that promises restoration. It is a promise that, although they are in a distant land, they are not distant from God.
This is the kind of plotting God does. He plots for us to have a beautiful life filled with his love and our love for others. I believe there were a thousand different paths for that plan to come to fruition. It is not a specific course as we imply with the words “God has a plan.” Rather, it is a dream, a desire, an longing that he will see fulfilled.
There are times when God arranges events in history – like the Exile – but when he does, he makes his involvement and intentions clear. For example, he warned of the Exile for generations.
#4 Romans 8:28 – “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
There is an important difference between “God has designed all things for the good of those who love him…” and “…in all things God works for the good of those who love him…”
The first says that when my friend had marriage problems, God was somehow designing and directing the conflict according to some mysterious design we were incapable of understanding. The second places God next to my friend, mourning the painful choices that had been made, comforting him with the softly whispered words, “It’s going to be okay. We’ll get through this together.”
The first says that I lost my job because I my life is a car on a roller-coaster track that had just hit a valley, and that the feeling of my stomach lurching into my throat was designed by God before I was born because he needed to teach me something he couldn’t get across to me without pain and rejection. The second says that God was as sad and surprised as I was on the day that it happened, but working along side me the next morning when I opened up my laptop and began my new job search.
The first says that my father’s sudden and unexpected death that preemptively ended the amazing work he was doing around the world to relieve the suffering of others was designed by God for reasons only he knows. The second says that God wept with my family at the grave site, sat with us in silence on the couch the next day, and compassionately listened to me rage in my room about the injustice of it all.
God does not have a plan for you. Not the kind of plan we usually mean when we say those words.
But God does have a mission for you, and amazing things he hopes you will try, and dreams for your future.
He is not a demented Easter Bunny, or a crazy-puzzle-building janitor.
But he is active and present in your daily struggle.
I know what you are thinking right now. “Oh shit, Jeff. You’re right. God doesn’t have every moment in my life planned out! Everything is different now! Life is over as I know it. It’s done! We’re all done! We’re all going to die! Hide your kids! Hide your wife!”
It’s going to be okay.
If we accept that God does not have specific plans, but rather works in the present, there are three things about our lives that must change.
First, prayer must become a central part of who we are.
You ever notice that Jesus talks a lot about prayer, and that when he does, he seems to give it a lot more weight and power than we do?
Jesus takes prayer seriously because he understands that, if we are to call ourselves his followers in a chaotically changing world, we need to be connected to him, at all times.
Second, know that God shares your pain.
There are a lot of reasons for the bad stuff that happens. Sometimes it is the consequence of poor choices. Sometimes it is the byproduct of living in a broken world. Unless he has told you otherwise, rest assured that God didn’t plan your suffering. He didn’t chose it for you. He is walking with you through it.
Finally, celebrate the adventure of the unknown.
The unplanned life is exciting. Your path is not defined. There are billion options before you. You are not on a trolley that goes one way and one way only. You and God are on a grand adventure.
Try new things and fail.
Savor every moment.
There is joy in moving off the trail and venturing off, into the wild. Live every day like you are God are on a great, unplanned adventure together.