I remember the first time I heard this astonishing statement. I was a high school student and hanging out with friends one Saturday in our local mall. I had been a Christian for several years, a member of our Presbyterian Church and active in our youth group. I was approached by a couple of clean-cut Clemson University students who politely asked if they could take a few minutes of my time and go over this little booklet called ‘The Four Spiritual Laws’. I agreed. They were, of course, not convinced when I told them I was already a Christian. For some reason they were even more suspicious when I mentioned that I was Presbyterian. I listened to their presentation and when they asked if I wanted to become a Christian and pray the prayer with them, I tried to explain that I already had. Always the accommodator, I thought about just doing it so they would then go away. But I just thanked them for their time and they went on their way.
Since this encounter, now almost 40 years ago, I have often thought about this first of the so-called four spiritual laws – God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. I do not doubt that God loves people, with the important caveat that ‘love’ is as God defines it, not what we want or need it to mean. I also do not doubt that God is sovereign; but again, not in the mechanistic predestinarian mode of planning that usually comes to mind and which usually then turns into a titanic battle with a similarly mechanistic understanding of ‘free will’. God is God, and our ways of trying to explain who He is and what He does are doomed to be misleading from the start. We only know and describe God by analogy; we simply to not have the capacity to contain the reality.
But what bothered me then and what bothered me along the way and what continues to bother me today is that the impression given by this approach to evangelism appears to guarantee participation in God’s ‘wonderful plan for your life’ if we agree to sign up for his salvation program outlined by the remaining ‘laws’.
Although I didn’t sign up on the dotted line for this ‘wonderful plan’ at the mall that Saturday, in many respects I already had. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was firmly rooted and established in the Reformed Tradition. And as I began to grow in my theological awareness, I accepted, as all us Reformed folk do, that a loving God is in control and that we are in His hands and we can trust Him with our lives and that He will work everything together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purposes in Christ (per Romans 8). This all gives great comfort, so long as one is not in distressing circumstances.
The impression is given by all this that God is somehow orchestrating everything for his glory, and that even the challenges that we face and endure have been sent/allowed by God to further his ‘wonderful plan’ for our lives.
But I am coming to wonder if this kind of happy Calvinistic and evangelical pietism could happen only in middle class and upwardly mobile North America. A similar observation could be made about the rampant health and prosperity media gospellers and their wannabees scattered across the globe. But that is another post. The major problem with both of these perspectives occurs when they collide with both the Gospels and with reality.
First, the Gospels. Jesus never promises or even intimates that following him will mean or even lead to a ‘wonderful life’ or activate some wonderful plan for my life. Jesus is actually not concerned with ‘quality of life’ issues. He is all about other, more difficult things, such as repentance and reconciliation and salvation. Sure there are promises of God’s provision and answer to prayer, but always in the context of giving one’s life away, dying to self, being crucified with Christ, loving neighbors, etc. The paradigm for us of what this life of discipleship should look like is obviously the lives of the disciples themselves. Not a single one of them managed a comfortable middle class life while they followed Christ. Every single one of them ended up losing their lives as martyrs for Christ, with the exception of John, who himself endured suffering and exile.
So when it comes to what the Gospels, and Acts, and history actually tell us, telling someone that God ‘has a wonderful plan for your life’ is theologically presumptuous at least, and may be out and out misleading. I also realize that if evangelism is some kind of sales pitch, then making the probability of being crucified with Christ one's clinching argument is not likely to result in many signatures on the dotted line. 'Wonderful plan for your life' is a lot happier.
But such a statement also collides with reality. God does not treat believers in a quid pro quo manner. For this we can be grateful. The reality is that bad things happen to people. All the time. For Christians who believe in a sovereign God, this is a problem. Because now they have to explain where these bad things come from. And they all – all – must come from God, if God is sovereign as they define sovereignty. There is, at this point, much verbiage spilled explaining how the bad things that happen to people are not really God’s direct responsibility, but that God has allowed people to reap the consequences of sin or of living in a sin-marred world. This all makes interesting discussion around a theology seminar table, but if you ever have tried this line of explanation on a mom and dad whose daughter was killed at the hands of a drunk driver in a road accident, or whose four year old has just been diagnosed with leukemia, then you begin rather quickly to realize that this is not a very comforting perspective. Rather it is a case of trying to have one’s cake (a ‘Sovereign’ God) and eat it too (who is not really responsible for the bad things we experience in our lives).
Western theology, both Protestant and Catholic, has repeatedly gotten into trouble by trying to explain too much. The problem is, the Scriptures often do not give us enough information. What we do know is that, somehow, God is in control, and somehow we make free choices which carry real consequences for which we may be held accountable. We are given no help in the Bible about how these two perspectives relate. Both just are. And that’s a mystery.
But back to the ‘wonderful plan for your life’. Jesus never slashed prices on a few headline items just to get people into his store. Jesus never recruited followers with promises of 70 virgins in the afterlife if you blow yourself up in his name. Jesus never promised that you and I would get rich, or get this car, or have this house if we had enough faith. In fact, on at least one occasion, people grumbled because what he was saying was too hard a thing for them to swallow, namely that He was the bread of life. Jesus himself complained to one crowd that they were there just to get something from him. Thousands came to hear what he had to say, but in the end, there were maybe 100 or so ended up in Jerusalem at the end of his last week. And when he was crucified, all that was left were a couple of old men and a small group of weeping women as they put his body in the tomb and drew a line under his astonishing life and tragic death. This was not a ‘successful’ life. But then, it wasn’t meant to be.
Just like our lives as disciples. Biblically speaking, we are not about success, nor are our Christian lives intended to be. Instead, they are about salvation.
Just like our churches. Biblically speaking, we are not about success, nor are our churches intended to be. Instead, they are the context where we are meant to live out our salvation.
We are fallen. Our relationships are fallen. Our world is fallen. It should, therefore, not be any surprise that challenging, difficult, bad, even tragic things happen to us. It’s not like, as was promised in the little booklet, we are now ‘saved’ and must now figure out why things like this happen to ‘saved’ people. Instead we are needing to be saved, we are in the process of being saved, and God is saving us.
Our own rebellion affects our lives and the lives of those around us. And the rebellion of those around us affects us. And the consequences of the sins of all who are living and have lived wash over us like storm surges, threatening to wash away our foundations, to crumple our lives, to swamp the little dinghy of our hearts. Peter stepped out of the boat into the storm tossed sea at Christ’s call to join him walking on water. He did. And, he didn’t make it very far. Instead he had to be pulled up by Christ’s strong grip and saved. I think Peter is us.
This is one of the reasons I became Orthodox. I speak only for myself. But I found the reformed and evangelical constructs of my theology unable to handle the increasing challenges of my reality. My theology made God too small and more manageable. I can’t explain why this theological perspective that works for so many millions of people gradually began not working for me. I pass judgment on no one, as we all are doing what we can with who we are and what we experience and what we know. I just found that there wasn’t much room for my messy reality in the theological circles that defined my Christian life for nearly four decades. When I stand before the iconostasis in prayer for Divine Liturgy, I find that God relieves me of the task of figuring Him out and making Him ‘work’ according to my needs and perspectives. Instead He calls me simply to Himself, to find forgiveness, home and safety in Him.
Whether or not God has a wonderful plan for one’s life turns out to be not the issue. It’s actually a classic American sales pitch, and one with a lot of small print at the bottom. And it can deform one’s spiritual perspective unhelpfully by directing one’s gaze inwardly or on one’s circumstances. It can give the impression that the Christian life is about me. It can give the impression that salvation is an easy transaction, a change in status, and that once that’s done with, we're saved and can go on to other things.
But God is not a benefits plan we sign up for. Instead God is a person. Christianity is a relationship. It’s a discipleship. A following after. It’s not about fitting God into my plan for my life; instead it’s about me aligning my life with God’s. God refuses to fit into our categories, theological or otherwise. Which is why, in my experience, there has always been more mercy in Christ than in human organizations and institutions. The more like Christ, the more mercy is shown. The less like Christ, the less mercy is shown. Just saying.
Disclaimer: The above is just my opinion about some theology. It is not my intention to express an opinion about a group or church. I do mean to share my own experiences and provoke discussion about theology.