What is God’s plan for your life, and how much say do you get in it? Rhett Snell reflects on a topic many of us wrestle with at some point in our faith journey.
We all know that great coffee cup verse, Jeremiah 29:11: “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.”
It’s reasonable to want a future with hope. Yet even that verse raises questions. For example, God spoke these words to Israelites exiled in Babylon. It was a promise to bring Israel out of captivity. But that took a while! Presumably, many of the Israelites died in Babylon, wondering when this hope-filled future would arrive.
The Bible paints the picture of a big, glorious God who is sovereign and all-knowing. So does that mean our circumstances are completely determined by him? Is the plan for our life laid out before we’re born? Or do we have freedom to make our own choices, and in doing that affect, or even mess up, God’s plan for us?
In my role as a pastor, variations of this conundrum come up frequently. Sometimes it comes in the form of people wrestling with their sense of call. They wonder if a career change or a particular path of study is what God wants for them. Often (actually, very often!) it comes in the form of a young person wondering if they’ve found ‘The One’ when it comes to their girlfriend or boyfriend, or whether the idea that God would have one person picked out for them from before creation is even biblical. The church fathers didn’t see fit to weigh in on that question, as far as I can tell.
Occasionally the questions are more serious and heart‑breaking. I’ve been asked by someone born with a disability, “Did God mean for me to be this way?” The intersection of God’s plans and our plans is a weighty thing to consider.
I remember first pondering it towards the end of my first year of pastoral leadership studies at Carey Baptist College. Until that point I’d never questioned my assumption that God made us all, then stepped back and let us get on with it.
In other words, I was comfortable with the idea that God might know my choices ahead of time, but I was also convinced that human beings had free will, and that my plans really were my plans.
The first time any idea contrary to this even made it on to my radar was when I read a chapter on predestination in a systematic theology book I’d been assigned. The author came from a tradition I’d come to know as Calvinism. I would later realise that there are many shades of Calvinism, and it’s a system with lots of different nuances. But, at the time, I only saw that it limited human free will, and I didn’t like that.
The theologian R.C. Sproul sums up well what I was reacting against, in his book Chosen by God: “If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.”1
I was appalled by this line of thinking. Little did I know that the questions this raised for me would be ones that I wrestled with for most of the next ten years. The genie was out of the bottle.
Of course, I was far from the first person to be confronted with the issue of how God’s sovereignty and our freedom relate. From Augustine and the early church fathers, to John Calvin and Jacob Arminius, this is a debate with a long history.
Why the heated disagreement? I think it’s because if you push too far in either direction in trying to unpick this particular knot, you run into serious problems. Lean too far into divine determinism (that everything is predetermined by God) and you end up with a God who looks like a moral monster, ordaining horrible events, all the while demanding worship from a set of robots.
Lean too far in the other direction and, while some of those problems fade into the background, you end up with a God who is powerless. What hope for the person born with a disability if it happened despite the fact that God really didn’t want it to?
Perhaps you can see the problems. And, that’s not even taking the biblical witness into account. We really should do that…
There is no doubt that the Bible presents a God whose sovereignty over events is sometimes confronting. For example, in 2 Kings 19:25, Isaiah gives voice to God’s promise to bring down the king of Assyria.
“Have you not heard that I determined it long ago? I planned from days of old what now I bring to pass, that you should make fortified cities crash into heaps of ruins...”
This is a historical event which impinges on humaN freedom, which God ordained and brought to pass.
Isaiah was familiar with this aspect of God’s character. In Isaiah 46:9b-10, he had said:
…for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, “My purpose shall stand, and I will fulfill my intention...”
This is God as unchallengeable, bringing about his plans, establishing his purposes.
Yet, the Bible presents a different side of that coin, too. 1 Timothy 2:4 tells us that God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” But, this is a desire of God which, as far as we know, goes unsatisfied. Seemingly not all people are saved or come to a knowledge of the truth.
Indeed, Scripture repeatedly pleads with us to choose to serve God and to submit our plans to him. Whether it’s Joshua exhorting the Israelites to “choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15) or Jesus teaching, “Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own” (John 7:17).
Ultimately, there simply isn’t enough space here to give more than the most surface-level survey of what Scripture has to say about our freedom to choose and God’s sovereignty to enact his plan. But, perhaps it’s enough to show that, even within Scripture, there is a tension that is set up between these things.
Occasionally this tension crops up within the same story. For example, as Moses is petitioning Pharaoh to let the Israelite people go, in Exodus 8 and 9, we’re told both that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (8:15) and that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (9:12). So who did it? Was it God’s plan or Pharaoh’s choice?
After about a decade of wrestling with this question, I’ve learned to embrace the tension.
Isn’t it so often the case that the Bible teaches us truths that we have to hold on to in each hand, without necessarily resolving into a neat package?
The early church spent four centuries working out the details of Jesus’ divinity. Was he God in a human shell? A human touched by God? In the end, they settled on a tension. He was fully God and fully man. There is no way to make that work in a mathematical formula, but anything less is not orthodox, biblical truth.
For me, a part of my own journey with this question has been giving up the desire for a neat formula. The Bible presents, I believe, a variety of angles on our plans and God’s plans.
It describes a God who will accomplish all that he sets out to accomplish, and who is not surprised by anything. He works in and through events, and our lives, to achieve his purposes. So much so that Joseph, after experiencing betrayal, injustice and jail time, could say to the brothers who had harmed him, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Genesis 50:20).
Yet God also gives us the ability to choose. He woos and entreats us to obey; he doesn’t coerce us. Our decisions have real consequences.
What does that mean for our own lives, and our own plans? I think that in some ways, giving up the need for a nice, neat system frees us. It means we can live boldly and make choices, knowing we’re not going to stuff up God’s plan. Because God cannot be thwarted, he will achieve his purposes. There’s a freedom in being able to trust God like that.
The best course of action, though, in working out God’s plan for our life, and how to use wisely the life he’s given us, is to seek to know him more—through Scripture, prayer and time spent in his presence. None of these things will give us a formula for life, but they might help us to know the tone and tenor of God’s voice a bit more, so that we can hear where he leads us a bit better.
For myself as a pastor, I am a lot quicker to answer, “I don’t know,” than I used to be, when it comes to God’s sovereignty.
When my friend asked me if God had meant for him to be born with a disability, I had answered quickly, “No!” I wanted to absolve God of that. Now, I’d be much slower. I think I’d say, “I don’t know the details. I know there is brokenness in the world. And I know that God is sovereign. But what I know most of all is that he is good, he is with you, and he can bring good from what was intended for harm.”
Perhaps God is both totally in control and a respecter of freedom. Maybe things will work out exactly as he plans them to, and our choices are real and meaningful. And if we can’t figure out how all of those things can be true at once, possibly it’s because we’re not God.
Story: Rhett Snell
Rhett pastors Epuni Baptist Church in Lower Hutt, Wellington. He’s married to Sarah and together they have four kids. He loves reading, music and complaining about Arsenal.
- R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1986), 16.
Photo: United Collective/lightstock.com
Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
- What is your own understanding of God’s sovereignty?
- Who, or what, has most influenced your thinking on this topic?
- What effect did your beliefs about God’s sovereignty have on your faith during a difficult time you experienced, or when you were struggling with a life-changing decision?