While we’re still in the first flush of the New Year, making plans with the blank page of the future open before us, it’s maybe worth considering this question.
It’s become a kind of evangelical evangelistic cliché: ‘God loves you and has a perfect plan for your life’. But does he?
And if he does, is it a single set way that it we divert from we’ve strayed from the true path of God’s will? Or is it okay to wander around a bit, make it up as you go along, practice serendipity, even muck it up a bit?
These questions become particularly relevant and urgent around major life decisions. What happens if we mess up our choice of career, marriage, house move, school for the kids?
We’re currently in process of looking for a new house, and also for secondary schools for our daughter (high schools for US readers). Is there a right one that she should go to, and what happens if we don’t choose that one (or she doesn’t get in)? Do we even have any choice – will God’s Perfect Plan be carried out regardless of our efforts and our mistakes? Or will the rest of her life be blighted because we haven’t followed God’s Perfect Plan For Her Life™?
I don’t actually believe that, but for an anxious, obsessive neurotic like me it’s easy to get hung up on these things.
How much is up for grabs?
What it really comes down to is what we believe God’s will is like and how it operates. Is God’s will a set of train tracks from which we cannot depart (though we may perhaps be derailed)? Or is it a rigid, pre-determined route with set markers and stop-offs, from which we can stray but any diversion is a sin and a problem? Or are there only a few set points on the route and the rest is up for grabs, meaning we can take very different routes so long as we do take in those few set points? Or is it indeed all up for grabs except perhaps the final destination… and is even that completely set?
Will God’s will always be done, and will he make sure we reach the set points of his will regardless of our obedience and choices – or will he let us screw up on major life decisions? And if we do that, are we from then on outside his will? Or does he ‘recalibrate’ his will like a spiritual sat nav to accommodate our decision, and to offer us a path from where we are now (however non-ideal) to where he ultimately wants us to get to?
God’s Perfect Plan?
So does God have a Perfect Plan for our Lives?
Yes, and no.
I do believe that God has a general common purpose for all of our lives. It’s for us to become ever more Christlike, and to take our place among the community of those who are being made Christlike – which I hope (though I’m not sure) may ultimately include everyone.
However, as we’re all unique individuals, the working out of that common purpose will look different for each of us. To that extent, God perhaps does have tailored plans for each one of us. We all have our unique combination of personality, gifts and weaknesses, experiences and circumstances, passions, and problems. So there will perhaps be things we can do that no-one else can, and maybe things we can’t do that everyone else can. Humans are not generic so the shape and path of our lives will not be either.
Neo-Calvinists and other religious determinists of course believe that the sovereign God has planned and mapped our lives out entirely according to his eternal will, perhaps even down to the last detail. They will quote scripture verses such as ‘A person plans his course,
but the Lord directs his steps’ (Prov 16:9) or ‘we are… created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do’ (Ephesians 2:10). While these verses need to be taken into account, I don’t think they provide the full picture.
I believe there’s considerable flexibility in God’s plan and route for our lives; that a lot of things aren’t set in stone, or can be changed.
I also strongly suspect that God’s ‘Perfect Plan’ (to the extent that there is one) will not look or feel the way we’d expect a perfect plan for our lives to. We might imagine that it means a problem-free ride, with the perfect career and perfect marriage and perfect house all falling painlessly into place. God unfortunately seems to have other criteria for his ‘perfect plan’.
Redemption, not perfection
It strikes me that God isn’t as concerned about perfection (in our usual understanding of it) as he is about redemption, and about love.
So I get the feeling that God does his greatest work in redemption of ‘bad’ things, ‘bad’ situations and ‘bad’ people. Perhaps that’s because it’s the way of love – not trashing and starting again with perfection, but persevering to bring out the deep-buried good in something or someone that’s gone wrong.
I love sunny days when all seems right with the world. But it often seems that God prefers to use the rainy, dreary, dismal ones when nothing seems right with the world, or when there seems no hope of the sun breaking through again. He blesses us through the sunshine, but he transforms and redeems us through the rain. Maybe.
Again, Jesus seemed to prefer the company of forgiven sinners who were truly grateful and loving to that of the already righteous people who didn’t think they needed anything.
Redeeming our mistakes
What’s this got to do with the ‘Perfect Plan’? Just that God redeems. We may well muck up even over the big decisions, and chances are most of the time he’ll let us – he won’t generally step in to stop us making a mess. But there’s always a way from here to where God wants us to be, even though as the apocryphal anecdote puts it ‘If I were trying to get there I wouldn’t start from here’. For none of us ever start from the ideal place for getting to where we need to go.
I suspect that where God wants us to be is more to do with our character and the kind of person we’re becoming than the specific details of the route to get there. There is, I believe, an almost infinite variety of genuine choice, and in many cases it really doesn’t matter whether we choose A, B, C or Z any more than it matters which colour wallpaper we go for.
Yes, our choices will take us on different paths, but it’s not always a case of right or wrong; and even ‘wrong’ is not irredeemable or irremediable. There is not, I believe, just One True Path we’re meant to follow. If there were, why would God make it so hard for us to find it, and why would apparently random chance and free choice play such a large part in the unfolding of our lives?
What decisions matter?
As an aside, what are major life decisions, and which don’t really matter? I assume it’s not important which socks I put on in the morning, and that God hasn’t predetermined that in advance (though if he hasn’t, the strong Calvinist view starts to unravel). But might some apparently insignificant decisions matter and have unforeseen consequences – e.g. which route you take to work meaning that you either avoid or are involved in an accident? And conversely, might some decisions which seem huge to us (choice of career or partner) not actually be massively significant in the scheme of things?
We’re all familiar with the Chaos theory scenario of the butterfly flapping its wings somehow leading to a hurricane on the other side of the globe. It’s the idea that the most insignificant actions may possibly have unforeseeable and apparently unrelated consequences. However, if it’s indeed true it is also imponderable – we just have to accept that we can’t predict all the consequences of any of our actions.
We can become tied up in knots by this, refusing to act at all, like the one-talent man in the parable – yet even this has consequences. More reasonably, we can act according to the effects that we can know about and at least partly predict.
So there’s no point worrying that putting on our socks in a particular order could lead to cosmic devastation, because if so then putting them on the other way (or not at all) might equally have that effect. But we can know that, say, cheating on our spouse or embezzling funds from work will very likely lead to all sorts of fairly awful things.
Plan, but don’t worry
So should we just leave everything in God’s hands, or should we play an active role in making the ‘right’ future come about? Both/and, I think. By all means let’s plan and prepare, and let’s also pray. Can’t hurt.
But above all, let’s not get hung up on whether we’re making the right choice, and whether we’re following God’s Perfect Plan. If it’s not obvious what God’s will is, then it probably doesn’t matter – or it’ll become clearer further down the line. And if we get it wrong, it’s not the end of the world – well, unless we’re the President pressing the red button that is…