…at least, not the way you think.
Often, when someone experiences a personal setback, the “encouragement” given to them by well-meaning Christians is: “Don’t worry, God has a plan for your life,” or, “It’s all part of God’s special plan for you.”
God certainly has a deep desire for you to be reconciled to him, but usually when people talk about “God’s plan for my life” they mean that there are very specific, very human milestones that God has laid out for them to reach and achieve during their time on this Earth. And I don’t think that idea is Biblically grounded.
Let’s have a look at a few verses of Proverbs 16 (from the NLT):
1 We can make our own plans,
but the Lord gives the right answer.
2 People may be pure in their own eyes,
but the Lord examines their motives.
3 Commit your actions to the Lord,
and your plans will succeed.
Notice how the “plans” are always ours. This isn’t just a single passage, it’s a common theme throughout the wisdom literature. Likewise, in verse 9 of the same chapter: “We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.”
“God’s plan is for me to be successful and happy.”
No, it’s not. God’s will for your life is that you seek him and live in his image, but that doesn’t necessarily mean riches and domestic tranquility. See, the problem with this idea of God’s “plan” is that it implicitly condemns all the people for whom life is an endless slog of hardship and suffering. What happened to God’s “plan” for their lives? If a person grows up poor and without family, lives a life characterized by pain and deprivation, but rejoices in his relationship with Jesus, the Bible tells us that he’s better off than the rich dude who has a lavish lifestyle, good medical insurance and yet rejects God. But somehow, when we talk of God’s “plan” for our lives, it never seems to involve hardship and suffering. We make the same mistake that Job’s friends made: “You’re suffering? Must be because you’ve strayed from God’s plan for your life.” But his friends were wrong: sometimes, life is just hard, and we don’t know why. In the broader sense, perhaps we suffer because we all have strayed from God’s plan for humanity, and thus we live in a fallen and broken world. But trying to extend that to cause and effect in an individual life is a fool’s errand.
Just like the fallen and broken world we live in, the real issue is human free will. When we talk about God’s “plan” for our lives, it generally means one of two things:
1. God has a specific path mapped out for your life that will be followed to the absolute letter.
2. God has an end goal that you are destined to reach, and there’s a plan for how you get there, but if you fall off the path then he’ll just map an alternate route and get you back on track.
Ultimately, neither of these interpretations is easy to reconcile with free will. With the first option it’s obvious: we don’t have any real choices, all our decisions are predetermined and we’re actually just a passenger in our own lives. With the second option, our choices are ultimately meaningless, since whatever we decide to do, we’ll get to the same place in the end.
“But wait,” says my hypothetical conversational partner, “what about the prophets? Surely God had a specific plan for their lives?”
No, God had a specific calling for their lives. And I’m not playing semantic games, there’s a big difference. A calling is a specific task that God wants you to do, and I firmly believe that people are called to do things. Sometimes, those can be big things: Jonah was called to go and preach to the city of Nineveh; Ezra was called to lead Jewish exiles back to Jerusalem. Sometimes, they can seem smaller: go make dinner for your sick neighbour; help serve coffee after church on Sunday. But all of these are specific things that God lays on our hearts for us to do.
Should you study medicine or engineering? Up to you, there’s no “right” answer there as far as God is concerned. There are godly ways to use either of those professional skill sets, and there are also selfish and ungodly ways. That’s the point of verse 2 in Proverbs 16 – God is interested in how and why you do things, not so much what you actually do. Of course, there are career paths in which it’s difficult to be godly – I’m not sure I can imagine a “right” way to deal heroin, for instance, but you get the idea.
Likewise, I don’t believe that God has a specific person in mind for you to marry. I don’t think that there is a “perfect” match for you out there waiting for you to meet them. I do think that, with love and patience and humility on both sides, two people can become the perfect match for each other (or as close to perfect as we’ll see in this lifetime). But that’s not to say that each of those people couldn’t be just as happy with someone else, if they’d applied themselves in another direction.
And I think that’s part of why we cling to this idea of “God’s plan for our lives” – it means that we don’t have to worry about the choices in our lives. If we think that God’s watching over and guiding every little choice that we make, then we can avoid taking responsibility for those choices. But that’s not how it works: we can ask God for guidance, but our wills are ultimately free, and that means that we have to accept the consequences of our own decisions.
That’s really the biblical message: God wants you to make good choices and to live a good (i.e., godly) life, to draw close to him and ultimately be reconciled with him. And there is plenty of guidance in the Bible (sometimes through counter-example) for what constitutes a good choice in life. But ultimately, our choices are fully our own, and we make our own plans.
So if you really want to know what God wants from your life, here it is from Micah 6:8 (NLT):
…the Lord has told you what is good,
and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right, to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.
Footnote: I should mention one specific passage that often gets thrown out as an encouragement that “God has a special and specific plan for you!”, particularly in Prosperity Gospel circles. I’m referring to Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”
Jeremiah 29 is a specific prophecy to a nation that is about to go into captivity. Jeremiah has just told the Israelites that if they resist the Babylonians they will die, but if they submit they will endure. This verse is an encouragement that God will still be with them and is working through this chapter of history. I don’t think that it is reasonable to build a personal New Covenant theology on this passage.