(Check out other articles in the Silly Things Christians Say series.)
About six months ago, I was sitting in church - sobbing. I had spent huge amounts of time preparing and fundraising to move to the Middle East to begin my work with Syrian refugees. My whole community had given me incredible support. But then came the bad news: only a few days before I was supposed to leave, I was told that my visa application had not been processed. We had to delay the trip. I had to move into my friend’s basement. “Okay,” I thought, “I can wait.” A few weeks later, just two days before I was supposed to get on my second flight, we heard that we still didn’t have the visa. Needless to say, I was getting worried. It looked like I might not ever get my papers. We started talking about the possibility of assigning me to another country. But my heart was in Lebanon, with the kids I had already spent so much time with.
I thought I was handling it pretty well. After all, God has taught me a lot about being patient, being present, and being able to go with the flow. I’ve learned that the ability to adapt is really important. But this particular Sunday, something in the worship or the sermon (I can’t remember) just hit me hard and I started weeping. Like the kind of choking, gasping weeping where everyone around you knows it and no one knows what to do. And when the service ended, it only got worse. It was a full-on breakdown. I’m not talking like one or two minutes here - it was probably at least ten or fifteen (but who times their weep-a-thons anyway?).
I am so grateful for beautiful friends who were willing to sit with their arms around me and not say a word, but just let me cry and spit out words about my anger, frustration, and grief. But still, during those few minutes, I had two or three people come up and try to “encourage” me. “One day, you’ll look back on all of this and see how God was in all of it,” one of them said. The other just gave me that ubiquitous and pithy cliche: “God has a plan.”
I think when we use “God has a plan” so tritely, we actually diminish the fact that there really is a much bigger plan. It becomes white noise in our lives.
I think I’ll remember that scene for the rest of my life. But can you guess which group of people was more helpful? Can you guess which group made me want to throw up in my mouth a little? Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t angry at them - after all, I know them well, and their intentions were only the best. But I’ve been in the church for my whole life. With all due respect, I’ve heard God has a plan before, and I really don’t need you to tell me that right now. What I need is you to let me weep and grieve. And perhaps, I even need you to let me be angry with God a little bit. (He can handle your anger at him if you’re willing to talk to him about it. Just read the Psalms.)
“God has a plan” is one of those silly little things Christians throw out when they’re not sure what else to say. We often turn it into nothing more than a cheap religious anxiety pill. We use it at the worst times: funerals, job loss, times of chaos and upheaval. And however you feel about “God’s plan,” whatever approach you choose to take to the topic theologically, we all just need to step back and consider that it isn’t always the most helpful thing to say - even when it’s true. We need to honor people’s ability to grieve, and I think sometimes saying “God has a plan” is just a way of escaping the awkwardness of actually doing that.
There’s another guy in the Bible who got tossed the same bone. Job’s friends tried in numerous ways to use the “God has a plan” thing on him, and they were not commended for it. Actually, they were quite harshly scolded by God for trying to brush it all off or explain it away. Even though Job is said to be “blameless” and initially refuses to blame God for what has happened to him, he also goes on for chapter after chapter of weeping and grieving. Eventually he starts questioning God’s justice and even God himself. At the end of this long, meandering book, God shows up on the scene and doesn’t explain himself to Job, but simply says that the universe is a whole lot more complex than our limited vantage points can tell. He calls Job out for his doubts and accusations, but at the end of the book, it is Job who has “spoken rightly” about God, and not the three “God has a plan” friends.
Even though Job went through various stages of disbelief, frustration, anger, doubt, and even accusation against God - the point is that he was still directing his search toward finding God. And when God shows up, Job apologizes and recognizes he can never really understand the way of the universe.
Ironically, we end up seeing that God does have a plan for Job, and quite an interesting one at that. We also see that Job’s total loss of family, finances, and even his own physical health was not God’s doing, but Satan’s. So was it God’s plan or Satan’s? It’s not really clear, but it looks to me like God let Satan make his own plans. If that’s the case, can’t we believe God lets us make our own plans too - even when they backfire or go woefully astray?
There’s another example that people love to quote: Jeremiah 29:11 - “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” If you’ve spent any time in church cultures at all, you’ve probably heard that one a dozen times. We forget that those verses apply to God’s people going into exile from their war-torn, pillaged country; and we also forget that Jeremiah is the one who wept for months upon months for his city, grieving to the extreme in the book of Lamentations. He may have known "God has a plan," but it didn't stop him from breaking down big-time.
It’s not really clear, but in the book of Job it looks to me like God let Satan make his own plans. If that’s the case, can’t we believe God lets us make our own plans too - even when they backfire or go woefully astray? (Click to share on Twitter)
God does have a plan: his plan is for the redemption and restoration of the universe, to make a people called by his name to shine his light and radiate his love to the rest of the world. And that’s the kind of plan we need. It’s a meta-story. It’s one that we can anchor our identities in, one that helps us see that there is a grand narrative of redemption far beyond our limited vantage points. And even in the midst of great pain and grief, we are still part of that story.
I think when we use “God has a plan” so tritely, we actually diminish the fact that there really is a much bigger plan. It becomes white noise in our lives. Why did that traffic make me late for work today? “God has a plan.” Why did I not get that promotion? “God has a plan.” Why was the store all out of soy milk when I wanted to make brownies? “God has a plan.” Why do I have lactose intolerance anyway? “God has a plan.”
God’s plan is a whole lot more than just the minute details of my daily life. I don’t want to spark a theological debate here, but as I implied above I think God lets us make a lot of our own plans, and I don’t view him as a cosmic puppet master. Terence Fretheim has written a whole lot about how just the act of creating human beings with a will other than his own was an act of God “limiting himself” that is, not making himself any less, but making space for others to make real choices that impact the world. The Calvinists out there won’t like that language, but I think it’s very profound.
Once again, God does have a plan, and I get to be directly involved in it. I get to be part of God’s restoring of everything. I get to be one of the ones “in on the secret” that God lowered himself to the point of becoming human just to reunite himself with humanity, and I get to share that “secret” with the world. I get the honor of having my eyes opened to a story that far transcends my own limited perspective - just like Job. I get the honor of facing the greatest tragedies with that story in my mind while simultaneously being allowed to embrace all my grief - just like Jeremiah.
I find that version of “God has a plan” to be much more compelling than telling me my dog died because “God has a plan.”