(Learn to Discern, Principle #12)
“God has a plan for your life!”
How many times have you heard this proclaimed? At church, on retreat, by some street evangelist – it’s a phrase we get used to hearing. But it’s a phrase that’s easily misunderstood.
Sometimes, we think that God having a plan for our lives means that we don’t need to make one. (“If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans!” is another Christian classic.)
Sometimes, we think that if we make plans for our lives, God will automatically have something else in mind – as though He wills the opposite of what we want, simply to be contrarian.
But the truth is that God is not a contrarian. God is a God of love. A God who offers us a multiplicity of goods in the created world. There are simply so many good things for us to choose from when it comes to living our lives. We don’t have to be afraid of choosing something good, and we don’t have to be afraid of choosing something that might not be the very best thing in all the universes of possibilities.
God did not create a world of robots. Yet sometimes, we discern as though we believe he did: “God, what do you want me to do?” we ask. “Just tell me and I’ll do it!”
That’s right. A lot of discernment involves us listening to God, only to have Him encourage us to pay attention to our own lives.
And yet, very rarely do we receive a crystal clear directive. (When we do, it’s worth paying attention. But we shouldn’t expect that to be the norm.) Most of the time, discernment is a process where we learn to listen God, who is encouraging us to know ourselves better, so that we can make a good choice.
Sound strange? It’s not, when you begin to acknowledge what you are: that is, a human and not a robot.
Acknowledging our humanity means accepting that each of us is a human person, a unique individual, created in the image and likeness of God, with the capacity to reason and make free choices. We are created good, even if we are weakened by sin.
What does that mean?
First, we’re not mere animals or machines – we have the dignity of being created in the image and likeness of God, which, amongst other things, means that we participate in His creative work.
Second, He made the universe from nothing, but placed us in it as stewards. We are meant to govern this world well through our creativity – which doesn’t just mean that we’re “artistic,” (although it does encompass that.) It also means that we can make good decisions about the use of things that are made, and make new things.
The mom serving dinner, the architect designing a cathedral, and the mason building a brick wall are all exercising their God-given powers of creative stewardship.
Third, we all have the capacity to reason, even if we don’t always exercise it, like when we are asleep or as infants. We can wonder at the world around us, we can distinguish the different things in it, and we can deliberate about our choices.
Lastly, as humans, our choices often carry the weight of being moral choices: we know right from wrong and therefore can act accordingly. (Animals, for example, don’t have this capacity.)
What’s more, God doesn’t want us to be cookie-cutter versions of a human. We’re all unique, which means that my discernment is going to look a bit different than anyone else’s.
Why is all this so important?
While it’s true that God has a plan for our lives, that plan exists in the context of understanding the kind of creatures we are. God’s plan for our lives involves us. That means that He invites us into the making of the plan.
God created us as individuals to be like Him: creative, knowing, free to choose. His plan for our lives includes our participation as individuals who are creative, knowing, and free to choose.
I once heard someone compare it to a road-trip. We know our destination, but there are a lot of good ways to get there. There are times when it’s God’s turn to drive, and times when it’s ours. There are times when He might suggest a better route because He sees things we don’t, and times when He lets us choose the route. The crucial thing is that He is with us, and we are in conversation with Him about it all.
God’s plan for our life unfolds in the context of our conversational relationship with Him. Like any relationship, sometimes both persons have a lot to say; sometimes only one person does; and sometimes you can just sit in companionable silence.
If we insist on doing all the talking, all the driving, and all the planning, we fail to acknowledge our relationship with God. But if we insist that He do all the talking, all the driving, and all the planning, we fail to acknowledge who we are.
So does God have a plan for our lives? Absolutely. Does that plan actively involve us? Definitely. Does God laugh at our plans? Maybe. But only if He wants us to laugh too, because He is with us on the journey home to Him.