Christians often hear that God has a plan for our lives, and rightfully so. Psalm 139 tells us, “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” Ephesians 2:10 tells us, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” But what does this mean for us practically speaking? While it seems quite obvious that this reality should offer us comfort in the bad times and move us to gratitude in the good, Christians begin to step on shakier ground when they begin to evaluate whether they are indeed conforming to God’s plan for their lives. But does the latter logically proceed from the former?
You can see this situation in a variety of popular evangelical behavior. For example, many Christian singles believe that God has foreordained a specific person–a kind of Christianized soulmate–for them to marry. There’s a certain truth to this–marriage, being such a key part of human life and serving our neighbors, is surely a concern of God. Those of us who are married should therefore give thanks for what God has ordained and provided for us; those who still seek to be married should have hope that the Lord will one day provide. Or take, for example, our careers. Many Christians have tried to seek out the one job that is God’s will for how we ought to serve our neighbors and provide for our family. Again, this is a key part of our lives that, one would think, would be the concern of a God who loves us. Once again, God’s plan means that those in established careers can take the opportunity to give thanks, and those searching for a way to be productive can have legitimate hope that God is in charge and has something prepared for them.
However, this realization of God’s sovereign plan is also frequently misused when Christians look to it for guidance. For example, it seems that many singles stop asking whether potential mates would make good spouses and instead start asking which of these people is “the one.” When troubles arise in a marriage, some spouses begin asking whether they actually married “the one” or whether they somehow deviated from God’s plan. When job satisfaction wanes, we begin asking whether we have wasted our lives by somehow missing what God was directing us to do–as though he didn’t quite speak loud enough for us to hear. Students picking their majors or recent graduates searching for their first job are often afraid that they might pick the wrong if they aren’t careful. After all, the plethora of choices available in the modern world can seem paralyzing if we approach it with the certainty that one and only one of them is the one God wants.
But why are such attitudes in error? If there is a divine plan, shouldn’t we seek to conform to it? We certainly should try to conform inasmuch as we know what the plan is. The reality, however, is that we are usually ignorant. What we really know about God’s will, we know from Scripture; that is where He has promised to speak to us, and we can be certain of finding Him there. Scripture, however, doesn’t name names with respect to God’s plan for each of our lives. It provides no script for us to follow. Because of this, those desperate to follow God’s plan often try to find such a script by searching where God has not promised to be. This comes in a variety of forms, but perhaps the most common is to look for God’s will in our feelings. When we really want something and it makes a lot of sense to us, we think that this must be God’s will for our life. However, this technique and others usually do not find a plan–they invent one; and tellingly, these plans quite often lead to bitter disappointment. What is more, searching for God’s will outside of Scripture often invents plans that override what He does specifically tell us–for “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jer 17:9). Indeed we should seek to live out God’s plan, but paradoxically we cannot live out God’s plan by means of following His plan–He has not made that option available to us.
So how then does this divine plan work out practically? If it’s so inaccessible that it cannot tell us what to do, how is it accessible enough to provide comfort or to incline us towards gratitude? The answer is that God works out this plan in His normal manner: He works through means. He feeds us, but He uses the farmer and grocer to accomplish this. He forgives and instructs us, but He uses His pastors and Scripture to accomplish this. In the same way, He gives us things like spouses and jobs, but He uses our actions, good judgment, and decisions to accomplish this. In hindsight, therefore, the answer to whether our spouse or job is “the one” is always “yes”1. What has happened to us is God’s plan. We cannot stymie Him through our own mistakes. For this reason, we give him thanks when we do receive good things and are comforted when we do not. In advance, however, there is never an answer to whether a person or job is “the one.” Our willing participation in His plan is in doing what has been given us to do–making good, Godly judgments informed by Scripture and then carrying out those judgments. As the author of Ecclesiastes tells us, “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do” (9:7). And so we trust in God’s providence, not because He has given us precise instructions in advance that we can follow, but because He has told us generally how to live and promised that all will work together to good for those who love Him (Romans 8:28).
So by all means, love God and your neighbor in all the ways that God has instructed you through Scripture. Even when we refuse to do these things (and we all often do), remember that we still participate in His plan just as Pharaoh did; we merely do so in sinful opposition to Him instead of in loving submission. We should therefore not evaluate our actions or situations by comparing them to an imperceptible plan but by comparing them to Scripture. Instead, we seek to follow Him where He genuinely leads, and trust that He is watching over and guiding us as we navigate those details that He has not seen fit to fill in.
1: Just to clarify, this does not mean we can never leave our job. We must not leave a faithful spouse because a lifelong commitment is precisely what marriage is. This is not, however, what employment is (if there’s ever any doubt, just read out the pre-employment paperwork you have to sign). Therefore, choosing a career is, itself, a vocation that God gives to us from time to time. But, while we normally only have the vocation of selecting a spouse once, we may have the vocation of choosing a job many times. Wanting to change jobs, however, does not mean that we previously made the wrong choice with respect to God’s plan.