“God’s plan for your life isn’t a map you see all at once, but a scroll unrolled a little at a time, requiring faith,” Rick Warren recently tweeted.
“God will accelerate his plan for your life as you put your trust in him. God is giving you victory sooner than you think,” says Joel Osteen.
Less prominent Christians champion the theology as well. In responding to a new believer’s question about his career, a contributor to Bible-Knowledge.com writes, “God will now be the one to fully guide you into whatever jobs he will want you to have. . . . The choice is no longer yours! In the meantime, God will make sure you have enough money and support coming in to keep you afloat until this next job comes through.”
It is comforting to believe God has mapped out our future. It is exciting to think he’s bringing me victory. And I would love for God to make sure I have enough money while I passively wait for it to happen.
But unlike pastors Warren and Osteen, Mr. Bible-Knowledge, and many Christians I know, I don’t believe God has created a plan for my life—or for yours.
Problems with “The Plan”
• We take verses out of context.
Jeremiah 29:11 is a cherished verse, frequently used for encouragement in graduation cards, post-breakup pep talks and, yes, job searches. (Well-meaning believers have recited it to me in all three contexts.) Along with The Bachelorette and people who refuse to vaccinate their children, its yanked-out-of-context use is one of the biggest pet peeves of my life.
Somehow we forget the grim reality surrounding this verse: amidst oracles of doom and judgment against Judah, Jeremiah says these words to comfort the people (as a group) with promises of eventual restoration and return from exile.
This is a bit different from claiming it as a guarantee of a fulfilling job, wonderful spouse, or ministry “call.”
Moreover, for every verse we quote to support the presence of a divine plan, there are others suggesting God is not super concerned with our understanding of it.
Throughout the Bible we encounter people frustrated and confused by life. Abraham is challenged to sacrifice Isaac. Joseph is jailed in Egypt for speaking the truth and behaving honorably. Hosea is asked to marry a prostitute. John the Baptist is imprisoned and beheaded; before his death he questions the point of his entire ministry. “Are you really the one?” he asks Jesus.
Most of the “Bible heroes” experienced huge setbacks with little explanation. As for the “ordinary” believers, Jesus spoke in parables his followers didn’t understand and weren’t supposed to (Luke 8:10).
From his caution about trees in the Garden to the mysteries of Revelation, the Bible consistently communicates God’s love, his wisdom—and his apparent unconcern that we figure him out.
• It can harm, not help.
For years I believed God not only had a specific plan for my life, but he was keeping it from me. As I struggled to choose a major in college, I wondered about all the other 20-year-olds in my dorm. Did they have it figured out? Why would God enlighten them and not me? As I made the first steps of my career I pleaded with God to show me his will. “You know I’ll do anything you want,” I once prayed. “Why won’t you tell me?”
My friends have struggled, as well. When I explored these concepts on my blog, one commented, “Doesn’t God lead us if we spend enough time in his presence? Isn’t a lack of ‘calling’ really a sign of an immature Christian?”
If we don’t see The Plan, it’s easy to feel forgotten or ignored by God. The belief in a heavenly micromanager almost guarantees feelings of anger and resentment when the answers don’t come.
Or, like my friend, we assume the communication problem is our own lack of faithfulness. Perhaps if we prayed more fervently, fasted more frequently, or read the Bible more regularly God would finally break down and give us a glimpse of his will.
The God-has-a-plan theology must also encompass our heartaches. Does his plan really include sexually molested children? If God “gave you” your spouse, why does your equally faithful friend remain unmarried? If we believe God has a detailed plan full of good things for every person, we must also have an answer (better than “everything happens for a reason”) for that devastated child and lonely single man.
• It ignores the freedom God gives us.
“The choice is no longer yours!” exclaims the website writer, apparently delighted at his loss of options.
Yet the Bible consistently points to God giving us many choices; from asking Adam to name the animals to allowing our rejection of his Son, God offers humanity a staggering amount of freedom.
We love to talk about God as Father when it comes to his love, care, and compassion, but if we are going to use the metaphor we must accept its full ramifications. My own father does not control my life. He does not make decisions for me, tell me where to work, or insist I marry a specific person. He did not tell me what to write in this article. He raised me to think critically, develop my character, and use good judgment.
If good earthly fathers do not dictate life for their children, why would a perfect heavenly Father?
So why is the belief in God’s master plan still so prevalent?
For one thing, it’s a spiritual way to abdicate responsibility—if I can figure out what ministry or profession I’m “called” to, I don’t have to risk making a bad decision on my own.
If God has already planned our majors, careers, spouses, and futures we can bypass the hard work of dating, auditioning, interviewing, researching, moving, learning, and failing. (It’s interesting that while many of us will reject Calvinist theology in matters of salvation, we embrace the idea of a predestined personal life.)
By the way, my childhood dream was to become a belly dancer, which I consider irrefutable proof that your first “calling” is not always the best one.
Many of us also believe life is a movie and we have a starring role. Have you ever noticed God always calls people to plant a church, start a ministry, or launch a speaking career? No one ever gets called to work as a maid at the Best Western in Altoona, Kansas (population 454). No one “has a passion” for less excitement or less attention. As the popular Monster.com commercials remind us, no child ever said, “When I grow up I want to file all day.”
But believing God has a specific (and blessing-filled) plan for their lives lets American individualists feel special. Preoccupation with oneself seems more holy if wrapped in Christianese language.
The problem is we aren’t all special. There was one Moses and millions of followers, one Mary and a country full of unremarkable Jewish girls. For every Billy Graham there are stadiums full of “ordinary” Christians.
Do we not feel “called” to be one of these nameless, obedient believers, or does it just offend our sense of importance? As author Donald Miller says, if you are a pregnant virgin or an angel wants to wrestle with you, God may have a plan for you. Otherwise, it’s likely you are a not a main character in the story he’s writing.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Because we’ve tied a belief in God’s plan to our understanding of his love for us, a sense of loss can accompany this realization. Some people feel scared or alone; others confuse it with lack of faith in God’s sovereignty. When I once told a boyfriend I didn’t believe God had chosen a specific person for me to marry, he sputtered and stammered, “Are you really a Christian?”
Yes, I am a Christian (one who is glad she ended that relationship). I believe God is firmly in control of his creation, accomplishing his work of redemption and salvation through (and in spite of) us, and inviting us to partner with him. I believe the call to every believer is the same—to become more like Jesus and to serve him in our own small corners of the world.
But he allows us to choose how we obey this call, and for me this is proof of his great love. He promises to direct our steps, but not to dictate them. He doesn’t say we’ll always understand, but he promises we won’t be abandoned. Jeremiah’s assurance of “a hope and a future” is not a guarantee of career fulfillment or marital bliss; it’s the promise of real relationship with a faithful, mysterious Father.
Jennifer Taylor, one of CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors, lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Read her blog at www.seejenwrite.com.