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.

8 comments:

  1. I believe that every particle of dust that dances in the sunbeam does not move an atom more or less than God wishes— that every particle of spray that dashes against the steamboat has its orbit, as well as the sun in the heavens— that the chaff from the hand of the winnower is steered as the stars in their courses. The creeping of an aphid over the rosebud is as much fixed as the march of the devastating pestilence— the fall of sere leaves from a poplar is as fully ordained as the tumbling of an avalanche. Charles Spurgeon

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  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSSLLpVChng

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  3. Thanks for your comments! Those are certainly some thought-provoking words. I have a great deal of respect for people like Spurgeon and Piper who hold such a strong position of God's sovereignty; it's a bold stance for some of the reasons Piper mentions. The reason I don't take such a position isn't because I think it's wrong per se, more that I think it's unnecessary. The issues that stem from this discussion - namely, predestination and the problem of evil - are huge issues in their own right and I can't hope to do justice to them in a blog comment. However, here are a couple of words in response on predestination.

    Does predestination apply to God? Certainly. God is both present and active in the world. He has predestined us as His children (Ephesians 1:4-5, Romans 8:28-30). So God is certainly capable of predestining everything. And He certainly predestines some things. For me, that doesn't mean that God has predestined everything, down to the dust particles. Where you draw the line isn't clear; ultimately, only God knows the details.

    Proverbs 16:33 is an interesting verse in this discussion. I'll most likely need to give more thought to its significance. However, Ecclesiastes 7:11 would be a valuable verse to set alongside it.

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  4. Hello. Thank you for your blog. I really appreciate the concern for interpreting scripture within their original context and wholeheartedly agree that this is one of the most abused verses in all scripture (along with maybe Phil 4:13). I will put my cards on the table however and say that I most truly believe what Piper and Spurgeon and indeed what the reformed tradition has upheld for centuries is the message of the Bible.

    'A biblical basis for 'the plan' is often based on one verse'. I don't think this is true - if you were to choose one verse for its basis you would choose Romans 8:28 which does not pit God's purposes against our identity but rather uses our cast-iron identity as his children as a basis for his working EVERYTHING for our good. And yes life does such at times - the context of this passage is rooted in the most profound suffering of the Roman believers. Adherents to God's absolute sovereignty are usually those with the most robust theology of suffering. And this is just one of many other verse I believe would come far ahead of Jeremiah 29:11.

    'The reason I don't take such a position isn't because I think it's wrong per se, more that I think it's unnecessary.' The selling of Joseph into slavery by the evil of his brothers may have just been one of those coincidences which was not necessary to look to the sovereignty of God. But through it, came about the 12 tribes, the history of Israel, the promise of a messiah, the coming of the Christ and indeed the redemption of the world. It was most certainly necessary.

    It may seem as though I am splitting hairs but such a 'nuanced' view of God's sporadic sovereignty has devastating pastoral implications for those suffering. How do I know if this is an instance of God's loving kindness or just the random fate of a 'coincidence'? This view sounds way too close to the disinterested, materialistic, purposeless cosmos advocated by the so-called new-atheists.

    The bigger issue is not whether God has a plan, but the modern fixation on the fact that God is working out a plan 'for' my life. He is not. He is working out his great purpose of redemption in every detail of our lives, for his glory, the great end of all creation.

    Thanks for writing. I look forward to the next one :)

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    1. Hi there postandgate,

      I really appreciate your interaction with my post. I should say a couple of things initially. Firstly, I realise that I’ve tackled a big issue that others have most likely devoted a great deal more thought to than I have. I know that I will inevitably get things wrong sometimes so I’m prayerful for the humility to learn from others and let the input of others such as yourself shape my thinking. Secondly, when I suggested that Jeremiah 29:11 is often the primary text which is cited in relation to this issue I was referring to the approach taken by Christians in general (in my experience) rather than that taken by people who seriously seek to construct a biblical theology of God’s sovereignty. Those are two different groups and I guess that my post was primarily aimed at the former rather than the latter. My linking sentence may have been poorly conceived when put in relation to those thinking about this seriously; if so then you have my apologies and I welcome your correction, as well as the chance to dialogue on this issue.

      Let me clarify what I’m arguing for, and what I’m not. I’m emphatically not advocating either a deism wherein God chooses not to intervene at all or an atheism wherein there is no God to intervene. It’s vital that we maintain that God gets involved. He does it all the time, from the miraculous to the things we don’t even notice. God’s sovereignty is genuine and it is constant – it isn’t fleeting or intermittent. My argument isn’t that God adopts a ‘hands off’ attitude but that sovereignty doesn’t necessitate, for me, that God initiates every little detail. In all things God is present. Whether He is has ordained it for a purpose and actively brought it about is more difficult to say. Again, God does this all the time and so we shouldn’t be surprised if we find that He has. My point is that it is not necessary in every circumstance to say that He does. I don’t believe that this perspective should give those who are suffering, or anyone else, cause for alarm. People going through suffering, including those in exile in Bablyon, will generally want to know that they are not alone, that God is with them, that He is in overall control and that He is working to bring about a better future. That much we can agree, I hope, is there for them.

      I’ll briefly respond to the texts you brought up. You’re right, Romans 8:28 is a key text for this. Its primary context is the future redemption of creation in which God’s aim is that those who love Him would be “conformed to the image of His Son” as His children (v30). I think that it follows from this verse that God has a purpose for all creation. I’m not convinced that it follows that God working in all things means that each individual dust speck has a purpose in its trajectory. Working in all things for an overall purpose and giving each minute object its own purpose are two different things.

      On Joseph, I’d agree that this was clearly an example of God arranging miniscule circumstances in order to make things happen the way they did. Standing back and with the aid of Scripture we can see that God’s purpose in that situation was to get Joseph to Egypt with the longer-term aim of saving His chosen people from famine. But if we were to approach the story from your perspective, as I understand it, we would have to say that not only was there purpose in Joseph’s enslavement but that there was purpose in every detail. The fact that it was in Dothan and not somewhere else, the number of shekels paid by the Midianite merchants, the time they bought him, the humidity levels that day, the arrangement of each grain of sand on the ground they walked on, whether the chains they used to bind him were made by one blacksmith or another. One has to say that not only did God know about the infinite number of details that made up that situation, not only that He allowed them but that He purposed them and executed them. I’m afraid that I don’t see how such a degree of intentionality is necessary for God to be sovereign.

      And your last paragraph: amen and amen.

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    2. I'm aware that wasn't a terribly concise response. Apologies for that! Although if it's an indication of how thought-provoking I'm finding this then maybe that's no bad thing. If you reply feel free not to address every point!

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    3. I'm sure we'll have a beer together in the new creation and reminisce over our former ignorance as to the fullness of God's sovereignty.

      Much love in our Lord,

      postandgate.wordpress.com

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