A few days ago I wrote about how, because God is love and love does not coerce, I believe that God’s hands-on involvement in running the world is much less than many of us would like to think. Today I’d like to take this thought a little further.
I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some variety of message or teaching along the following lines: “God has a predestined plan for your life.” This is usually based on a few isolated texts of scripture, for example Psalm 139:16: “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.”
I used to lap up this kind of teaching. But now I’ve come to see it as Christian determinism, pure and simple. Let me show you why.
The logic is very straightforward: if God is so deterministic that he literally plans every day of our lives down to the last detail, then we are forced to conclude one of two things:
1. Either God also plans every terrible accident, disaster, disease and cause of suffering that befalls humanity…
2. … or God must have some reason for protecting certain people from disaster while allowing others to suffer.
Either way, the outcome is not pretty: either God is a monster who intentionally and deliberately causes suffering, or he is biased and has favourites.
Perhaps you’ll argue that God directs the steps of those who believe in him but not of those who don’t believe in him. Well, if you go that way, you immediately run into a couple of other problems. First, Jesus himself pointed out that God makes the sun shine on both the righteous and the unrighteous, and Paul writes in Romans 2:11 that God has no favourites (that verse alone is enough to blow up many people’s theology!). Second, you’re going to have a hard time explaining why bad stuff happens to good people. So, whatever the Bible may say about the steps of a good man being ordered by the Lord, that argument just doesn’t hold water. (And no, I’m not saying we should dismiss Psalm 37:23 as false; but I certainly don’t think we should build a doctrine of God on it.)
What are we to conclude, then, about how we should understand God’s plan or destiny for our lives?
I can only tell you where I’ve come to. I believe God’s “plan”, such as it is, can be taken individually and corporately. Individually,his plan is to transform us “from glory to glory” so that we are progressively conformed to the likeness of Christ. Corporately, his plan is for us to live in peace and harmony with one another and with him. And I think that’s pretty much it.
I understand where the desire comes from to believe that God has all the minutiae of our lives mapped out in advance. The world can be a confusing and scary place, and it’s reassuring to think that, at some level, all the big decisions are already taken care of for us. I just don’t believe it’s a tenable view, either theologically or experientially.
I believed for many years that God’s will for my life was some kind of tightrope that I had to strive and strain not to step off. I abandoned that view some years ago. How weak and pathetic God must be if his whole plan could be thwarted by me putting my foot a few inches to the right or the left of his predefined path!
Someone will inevitably ask, what about all those scripture verses that seem to suggest that God does have a detailed, day-by-day plan for our lives? I don’t have a cast iron answer to that question, but I do have a couple of thoughts. First, could it be that the writers of those scriptures were themselves reassured by thinking that God had minutely ordered every step of their lives, and they reflected this hope in their writings? And second, I think it’s perfectly possible to take a step back from such scriptures and draw a broader conclusion: while God does not control every detail of our lives, he is sovereign over history and our salvation is secure in him, whatever may befall us. Or I could put it this way: however your life turns out, everything will be all right.
Here’s another thought: I believe that God’s primary promise is not to control or manipulate the events of our lives, but to be with us through all those events, good and bad. If God is a God who engineers events, we really have no need for him to be by our side; we can simply trust in his providence from afar. But that isn’t the kind of God he is: he’s a God who doesn’t protect us from the messiness and pain of reality but joins us in that messiness and pain.
The upshot of all this can be summed up in five words: we make our own destiny. So, for example, I don’t believe God has a pre-ordained spouse for each of us; I believe he wants us to choose our life partner wisely and carefully and to love him or her selflessly. I take a similar approach to decisions about where to live, what job or career to pursue… and pretty much every other life decision we make. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t pray and ask God for his wisdom in these things; but at the end of the day, the decision is ours to make.
Simply put, if we believe God is a freedom-loving God, then we cannot also believe he is a deterministic God. But with freedom comes responsibility, and we often would rather sacrifice our freedom than shoulder the responsibility that comes with it.
The question, as one of my favourite and most cheeky theologians, Robert Farrar Capon, put it, is this: what are you going to do with your freedom?
[ Image: Jesus Solana ]