"God's Plan"

THE CHALLENGE: A friend of mine recently wrote me,

"I'd like to challenge you to take on my biggest peeve about... Well I guess every religion. I view it as a cop out when people say phrases such as "It is God's plan", or "God works in mysterious ways." I find this annoying for two reasons. One is that it doesn't explain anything, and, in my opinion, that is why we have religion. Two is that whole pesky freewill thing that we atheists like to point out. (Mind you, I'm not a rabble-rouser. Just want to hear your response). If God has a plan, why bother giving us the option to choose? What's going to happen is going to happen regardless."

So, the task is set before me to attempt to detail in short-enough space that readers will stay with me, yet long enough to provide a thoughtful answer.

THE SCENARIOS: Many well-intending Christians like to throw a few statements around at some very difficult times.  "Lightning just struck my house and it burned to the ground," might be the scenario.  And a Christian is likely to respond, "Well, you know, God works in mysterious ways. Everything happens for a reason."  Or maybe next to your dying parent's hospital bed you hear, "This is God's plan for her that..."

What on earth is that all about, anyway?!  What is well-intended to be comforting words only comes across as naive, simplistic, and hurtful.  "Do you mean it's God's plan for my mother to die a slow, painful death from breast cancer?  Get out of this room, jerk!"  And if he's nice, at least then he may ONLY call you a jerk.

THE BACKGROUND: Here are two bits of insight I think may provide some explanation why many believers use these trite-sounding phrases.  The second (and longer) point stems from a personal experience I had with this issue.

1) First, we Christians believe that God is the creator of all that we see, and that He is in complete control.  After all, it's His universe and He likely knows what He's doing. This thought process speaks to our understanding (albeit limited) of God's omniscience (His knowledge of everything) and omnipotence (His power).  These two beliefs are underscored by his omnibenevolence (His perfect love).  In other words, we believe that God performs certain events -- or allows them -- as an outflow of His perfect love.  He's not doing/permitting (insert atrocity here) because He is spiteful, angry, mean, cruel, etc.  Instead, He does/permits happenings out of His love -- and even sometimes corrective love -- for His creation. The long-short of the point is this: if God is all three of those "omni's", and if we are obviously not any of those "omni's", then maybe we might actually be willing and able to chalk this particular trial or atrocity up to our notion that God knows what He's doing better than we do.

2) Second, the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to Christians in Rome (Romans 8:28) that, "God works all things together for the good of those who love him."  It is my humble opinion that this is one of THE most oft-quoted verses by Christians that is potentially more damaging to people who are hurting than it is helpful.  One caveat in this particular passage that cannot be ignored is that Christians believe even bad things that happen today will be for my good BECAUSE I love God.  Believing it and living it are two different things...but I digress.  

Sadly, however, those who do not consider Christ as Lord do not share this same hope.  I wish it said, "God works ALL things together for good for everybody."  Period.  But it doesn't.  While God works ALL things together for His ultimate glory, he works all things together for the good of those who love Him.  Those who love Him also trust Him; and those who trust Him, also believe He has our frail lives in His hands.  On the other hand, those who do not love Him also do not trust Him; and those who do not trust Him are without hope that the atrocity ends hopefully.

One of the problems inherent in the "God works all things..." passage is not so much with the passage itself, but with the Christians who flippantly fling it out there at your dying mother's bedside, or when (fill in atrocity) occurs.  Hearing this passage quoted doesn't have the same effect on me when I'm hurting as does a loving arm wrapped around my shoulder and a simple, "I'm so sorry."  

I experienced this very situation when my wife and I discovered my son was diagnosed with permanent blindness in one of his eyes (you can read more here, here, and here, if you wish) due to a congenital defect.  I was never so scared in all my adult life.  Learning of my son's blindness was the worst news my ears have ever beheld.  A small handful of well-meaning Christians quoted this verse at differing times during my "dark night of the soul" struggle of faith, and I can honestly say it bothered me more than it comforted.  

While in the midst of suffering and grieving, our minds tend not to think rationally; we tend to forget those things we firmly believe, as our minds are clouded by emotions.  So when I heard that phrase -- even as a Christian -- I thought to myself, "Great, then let ME take control of this.  I apparently know better than God what my son needs."  I cried many nights; I punched my pillows; I pounded on my steering wheel through tear-filled eyes.  "WHY GOD?!!  WHY WON'T YOU ANSWER?!!"

That was a year ago now.  Of all the words people said to me during the past year, the most helpful came from a beloved friend and saint who I'll call Doug.  "Mike, I'm so sorry", he said.  And he simply cried by my side.  It was quite powerful.  In all, it was his love and care for me in the midst of my hurt that reminded me of God's faithfulness, as described in the Bible, "I am here with you always.  I will never leave you nor forsake you."  Because of my friend Doug, I was reminded -- when my emotions clouded my reasoning -- that God cares.  Where was God during that grieving process?  Right there, crying with me during warm-ups at a softball game.

WHY BOTHER CHOOSING:  So, if all of this pain and suffering is going to take place anyway, then why bother choosing?  No matter what I choose, I'm doomed for suffering on earth, aren't I?  What free will do I have to love or to hate?

I still -- even as a believer -- find it difficult to pray, asking God to fix or change something, when in the back of my mind I know God is going to do what God is going to do anyway.  While my prayers (as in the case of my son's eye) for healing and intervention from God are sincere, I know that it is often the case that prayer changes ME, and not necessarily God.  It changes MY perspective and outlook on those rather bleak circumstances.  So getting back to the "choosing" issue, I think THIS is precisely what moves God's heart -- He loves to see us choose to trust Him, in spite of not knowing what lies ahead.

WHY WE HOPE:  I am unashamed that I take great hope in the words of my loving Creator.  At the end of the day, when my mind can think clearly about a particular atrocity, I know God indeed works in ways that I will likely never understand.  And I know that God indeed is working things through some crazy webbing to do me good.  How do I know?  He has proven Himself faithful to His people since the beginning of time, and He has proven Himself faithful to me and many of my friends and family.  As I reflect on how His hand has been upon my past, I trust that my present days are also still in His hands -- in spite of the tragedies I face.

CONCLUSION: So there you have it: a rather brief summary (longer volumes have been written more eloquently on the subject) on why Christians might say or hold dearly some of the seemingly odd things we do.  I hope that I and my brothers and sisters in Christ will extend grace, mercy, and loving-kindness to you when you are grieving, rather than provide you with flippant Bible-speak.  In exchange, I hope you, too, are able to extend to us even a small bit of grace -- because NONE of us has it all figured out, and we will continue to make mistakes.  Prayerfully, God will continue to change us to have a heart very much like His.


  1. Anonymous10:55 PM

    Purpose. To me that one word explains the rationale behind why I believe there is not just a God, but a God who specifically created all things. If we, "Man," were just a primordial accident, as some would suggest, then everything that we are and do has no purpose! Without purpose, what reason is there for us to exist. But perhaps that is a discussion for another day.
    As for having a choice, perhaps we can take current events and use that to answer your questions as why we are allowed to make our own choices.
    For instance, how about the Affordable Healthcare Act. I don't think that there is anyone out there who dislikes the idea of everyone in America having the access to reasonable and affordable healthcare. The biggest problem is that there is no Choice when it comes to this implementation of it. We must have healthcare insurance, or we will be punished! We must have things that our current policy doesn't have, which we may not even use or need!
    Or to look at it slightly differently, how about milk? You are out of milk. You goto the store to buy milk. The Cashier tell you that you can't buy milk unless you buy 12 other vary specific and expensive items. Furthermore, Now that you have taken the milk from the cooler, you cannot return it nor can you leave the store until you pay for it. You think about ditching it, but stationed next to the door stands an armed police officer.
    Or how about on the freeway? You are wizzing down I-94, guardrails on either side, and a tenth of a mile past that last exit you see an orange sign stating, "Next 20 exits closed for construction, be prepared for slowdowns." Before you even get a quarter mile, you round that next bend and suddenly have to slam on the breaks because all 3 lanes are at a complete standstill. before you can backup over to the shoulder, and carefully back up that last half mile to that last open ramp, you are boxed in by 10 cars. Then there is 20. Then more and more.
    God has given Man free-will because He wants us to choose Him. A great part of our Purpose is to have a relationship with him. It is, in part, why we were created. God has already chosen us. When we choose God, it makes the relationship complete.
    Have you ever dated someone who really didn't want anything thing to do with you? Can you imagine what it would be like to desire someone who barely knew you existed? How would you feel if said person spent all your time together pinning for some hockey player, all but ignoring you, but would keep going out with you only because you had season tickets behind the Wings bench?
    Would you not want to spend time with someone you were attracted to, who thought you were the most amazing, interesting, individual they ever met?
    Unlike Mike, I haven't had a child who was facing such a huge life changing permanent physical issue. But I have had my share of "Why God, Why?" moments. I won't lie and say that there are not time when I don't struggle with parts of my faith.
    What I can say is this. I believe that there is a God. I believe that he will provide for me. I believe that all the terrible things that God allowed to happen to me, were part of His plans to improve my life, and allow me to give Him the thanks and the glory!
    A fatal crash that nearly took my leg and life, positioned me to meet and marry the mother of my 4 children.
    Losing my job twice in fairly quick succession put me in a region and mindset to eventually be in the job I've held for the last 10 years.
    Having my wife walk away from me and our 4 very young kids was huge! But the blessings in disguise that came out of that were and still are truly staggering, even 6 years later.
    I'm not trying to preach. That's more Mike's department. Me, I'm normally more of the "standup comedian" or maybe the "plucky comic relief" type.
    I'm just trying to better explain why freewill exist.

  2. Appreciate this post. I sure agree that none of us has it all figured out. I also pray that I might be that person who just comes alongside those that are hurting and is with them. I'm grateful that even when I don't understand things I can trust in God. I'm grateful that no matter how bad things sometimes get, that I'm never alone - He is always with me. Grateful that because of God I have hope.