Monday 27 January 2014

Newsflash: God Does Not Have a Plan for Your Life*

*OK. Hold the phones. This blog title may or may not be a sensational exaggeration employed for rhetorical effect. Please don't throw anything at me. Put down your rocks. Thank you. Now we all feel better.

There was a point to that sensationalism, though. It's this: many Christians are unhealthily obsessed with what I call 'the plan'. I'm talking about 'God's plan for your life', the idea that God is pursuing "His will" in every minute detail of a person's life. That when you become a Christian everything - the job you get, the person you marry, the place you live, the weather you wake up to, the availability of parking spaces (yep, I mean everything) - is subject what God has decreed. Sometimes our understanding of God's plan for our lives balloons into a scheme of dizzying complexity. The level of precision planning involved is about the same as a heist to steal the crown jewels. A Biblical basis for 'the plan' is often based on one key verse:
"I say this because I know what I am planning for you," says the LORD. "I have good plans for you, not plans to hurt you. I will give you hope and a good future."
Jeremiah 29:11

It probably wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that this is the single most prominent abuse of reading a Bible passage in separation from its original context, and morphing it to mean something completely different. Let me be quite clear. It simply isn't possible to read this verse as an endorsement of 'the plan'. Jeremiah 29:11 is not a blank cheque that entitles us to a perfect life devoid of difficulties. It is not a ticket to a picket-fenced dream where God has our marriage partner, career path and church role worked out for us from the year dot. It does not mean that there is only one chosen route that our lives can take that God is ever happy with.

If we're going to get closer to what Jeremiah 29:11 means for us then ripping one verse apart from its surrounding context isn't an option (ignoring context is always a recipe for disaster). And that context is a letter, sent by Jeremiah to a group of exiled and captive people in a foreign land. God's chosen people were used to dwelling securely in Israel under His protection and so much of their faith was based on their land. What do you do when a Babylonian king conquers your land and trashes your Temple (2 Chronicles 36:15-21)? Is God...gone? Defeated? Where is He in all this? In other words, Jeremiah 29 is written to a people who don't have purpose. It is an injection of hope.

But what it decisively does not state is that God is going to make everything perfect overnight. In fact, it says the precise opposite. Its message is that God has not left Israel and that He will restore His people to a place of blessing - but not yet. They are going to have to wait 70 years (v10). It'll be a whole generation before God brings these promises to fruition. The message is 'settle in, build houses, grow some stuff, let your kids get married - this is going to take a while' (v5-6). The harsh reality is that God's plan for His people's lives, in the short term at least, when Jeremiah is writing is exile, exclusion and servitude in a foreign land. In fact, Jeremiah 29 is actively hostile to the idea that God's going to burst in with all guns blazing and provide a quick fix. God warns against the teachings of false prophets (v8-9). The identity of these false prophets isn't obvious but it seems reasonable that God could be referring to people like Hananiah, who challenged Jeremiah in chapter 28 by teaching that the exile would last only two years (Jeremiah 28:1-3). Claiming that Jeremiah 29 safeguards a Christian from pain, unhappiness or tragedy simply isn't being fair to the text.

Sometimes life sucks. That's when we tend to get disillusioned with 'the plan'. If we believe that God has predetermined every little detail then we wonder why God's plan for us involves so much bad stuff. What we need is a worldview that insists on God's sovereignty (on God being involved and in overall control) but also allows there to be such a thing as chance. Is God capable of determining every little thing in His universe? Of course He is (He's God, duh). We just have no reason to believe that He does. When two people bump into one another in the street that could be because God really wanted them to have a conversation. Or it could just be because they live in the same town and happened to walk down the same road. More often than not (although not every time) these everyday details will be down to pure and simple coincidence. Digging for some deeper purpose behind everything simply isn't necessary.

The truth is that the real reason why we make Jeremiah 29:11 fit into some divine masterplan is probably too close to home. We want God to have a plan for our careers, our love lives and where we live because those are the things that we care about. Ultimately, we have to ask seriously if we're way too focused on ourselves. Are we open to the possibility that God may not actually care whether we go to university or not, let alone which one we go to or what we study? Or that God could be completely apathetic about what job we choose to apply for? Or that there are a range of suitable marriage partners out there rather than just one ideal person that we have to find? This is not an easy truth to realise. It requires some tough soul-searching and the realisation that God's priorities for your life may not be the same as your own. It's a process that I'm going through myself as I prepare to graduate into the big, bad world. I'm having to continually give myself perspective about what's important. I'm happy to have a range of options open to me, and for God to give me the freedom to choose between them myself. Of course, God does sometimes call people into specific locations or circumstances and so it's always good to remain prayerful. But, frankly, Christian young people would be less stressed if they didn't feel like they had to find 'the plan'.

Back to my disclaimer. The truth is that God does have a plan for your life. I guarantee it. God's plan for you has been forged since before the beginning of the world (Matthew 25:34). Are you ready? God's plan for you has always been that you should be His child (Ephesians 1:4-5). Being a son or a daughter - this is your primary vocation. Your finite earthly life could go in any one of a million directions and that overarching endpoint wouldn't change one iota. God may or may not want you to be in specific places or relationships or situations in your future. But, fortunately, God's plan for you is so much bigger than any of those things. It is a plan which prioritises identity over vocation. Which is concerned with how we live as well as what we do. Which is perhaps not as rigid as we sometimes like to think. It's the plan that offered hope to Jeremiah's audience in the realisation that God's plans for them were so much bigger than their current circumstances. It's the plan that involves every detail of our lives but which is greater than the sum of its parts. We would be wise to pursue it first and foremost.