It occurred to me, while working on a sermon about God’s call to Abraham, that many people I’ve talked with share a common experience: when we were younger, we were told — as if it was an assured truth — that God had a perfect plan for our lives. Our task, then, was to become some sort of spiritual detectives who looked for clues and prayed for guidance so we could determine just where God wanted each of us to go, what job God wanted us to do, who (if anyone) God wanted us to marry.
I didn’t realize at the time just how much pressure that puts on a young person — this notion that he or she only gets one shot at following God’s perfect plan. And, I can’t say that I know anyone who claims to have gotten it all right the first time, even the people who assured me it was true.
As I got older, I concluded that either God’s plans were not so specific as I’d been led to believe, or else that I was a lousy detective. Things I had been convinced were God’s plan or God’s will for me didn’t always work out. I’m not so sure any more that God has it all mapped out for us: our perfect location and vocation and relations. More and more, I’ve come to appreciate the great freedom God gives us in choosing our own way.
That is not to say that I think God doesn’t care what we are about, or that God never calls specific people in specific ways, but I am confident that God is more concerned about whether we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God than with where we happen to be walking at the time.
What about you? Did you hear the mantra about God’s perfect plan for your life? Did anyone ever support that claim with scripture? If Jeremiah 29:11 was cited (“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” NRSV), one should note that it doesn’t support the notion. The words were spoken to downhearted exiles from Jerusalem who had been deported to Babylon, and as a means of encouraging those who had given up hope. Although most translations use the word “plans,” the underlying Hebrew word means “thoughts” — “‘I know the thoughts I am thinking on your behalf,’ says the LORD, ‘thoughts for well-being, and not for harm …'” Knowing that God has in mind a good future for God’s people is not the same thing as believing that God has laid out unique blueprints for each individual to follow.
In other words, it is a beautiful and encouraging verse, but it was never intended to support the idea that God has a file folder for each of us with specific plans inside. Human life is too messy for that. It wouldn’t take but one person going wrong to mess up the plans for a lot of other people. No, I have to think that God is less concerned with assigning particular plans for our lives, and more concerned with whether we show Christ’s love in whatever course of life we choose.
And there’s something very freeing about that.