by Tyler Kraft | 15 April 2022 |
A few years ago rap superstar Drake had a hit titled “God’s Plan” that won numerous awards, including a Grammy for best rap song. The song chronicles the ups and downs of Drake’s life and concludes that everything, from riches to critics, is part of God’s plan for Drake.
While you may not be familiar with this song, all of us are familiar with the sentiment. It might be expressed with slightly different wording: if it works out, it was God’s will; God works in mysterious ways; or just have faith, because everything happens for a reason.
Usually Christians say such things as an attempt to find or offer comfort during a difficult season of life. We think that having a reminder that God is in control will lessen the stress, anxiety, or fear that comes with life-threatening diagnoses, divorce papers, job losses, deaths of loved ones, etc. If we remember that God has everything under control, then there is hope that we will make it through as long as we continue to trust Him.
And while that is a perfectly understandable reason why we say such things, it can have the opposite effect.
An overplanning God?
Imagine if your town’s mayor came up with a plan to fix your town’s budget problems, but it required that one resident’s children would get cancer, another resident’s house would burn down, another resident would die in a car accident, another resident would lose their life savings, etc. In fact, if the plan required that some form of tragedy would strike nearly every resident in your town, it wouldn’t take long for everyone to tell the mayor that his plan was rotten.
Yet when we tell someone that it is God’s plan that their mother died of COVID-19, do we expect them to think, “Whew! Since this is part of God’s plan, I am totally fine with it!”? In fact, most rational people think, “If this is God’s plan, it stinks and I don’t think I want to be part of it anymore!” Many end up struggling with their faith when tragedy strikes—if not outright walking away from God, as research shows has happened during this pandemic. And this often happens due to the pervasive belief that “everything is part of God’s plan.”
There are significant problems with the idea that every single good thing we experience is a direct part of God’s master scheme. Far too often we jump to the conclusion that just because something we consider to be good is made available to us, then that is a signal from God that He wants us to partake in it. When we get that dream job offer, or that long-awaited marriage proposal, or that exclusive party invitation, we are prone to see it as a blessing from God. Yet what happens when that dream job comes with a nightmare boss, or that fairytale romance ends in divorce? How can God be trusted if His “obvious” blessings turn into curses?
Determinism and free will
This is at least partially a determinism-vs.-free-will question. Are all of our actions inescapably linked to a series of causes and effects? Or do we have the ability to make our own choices irrespective of everything that led us to that moment of decision? Philosophers, such as John Martin Fischer and Immanuel Kant, and theologians, like John Calvin and Jacobus Arminius, argued about this issue for centuries.
When we say that everything that happens to us is according to God’s plan, we might be trying to comfort and encourage others or ourselves. But what we are really doing is undermining free will. If God opens every door He wants us to walk through and closes every door He does not want us to go through, then we don’t really have the actual freedom to make choices on our own! We’re just along for the ride.
In our desire for comfort and assurance, we are in essence trading a belief in our ability to make meaningful choices, for a belief that God’s sovereignty has made Him a cosmic micromanager. The removal of our agency not only diminishes our human experiences, but fundamentally changes the character of God. More pertinently, it subverts the Great Controversy theme that is so foundational to Adventism.
We Adventists say that there is an unseen spiritual war between God and Satan being waged all around us. More than that, there is a spiritual battle being waged within our own hearts. Thus, our ability to choose which side of the conflict we will be on is paramount to our eternal destiny.
If that choice is removed, then the great controversy in effect becomes pointless. There still might be good vs. evil, but this suggests we are pawns to be moved solely based on God’s whims. Some of us will be predestined to be lost; others of us will be saved, simply because God wills it so.
Giving God a bad reputation
As Seventh-day Adventists, we believe part of our mission is to cut through the Satanic deceptions and human traditions that have twisted and obfuscated the true character of God, so that we can reveal His true nature of love to the world. So when we imply that everything (but especially our pain and suffering) is all part of God’s plan, we warp the character of God that we find in Scripture. God is an imbecile at best, and an omnipotent sadist at worst.
In the Old Testament, Ezekiel 33:11 says,
As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live. Turn! Turn from your wickedness, O people of Israel! Why should you die?
In Matthew 23:37, Jesus exclaims,
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me.
God clearly wants to protect and save us, but He honors our choice to reject Him. That’s not God’s desire—it pains Him—yet God doesn’t force people to accept protection or salvation.
And if God is willing to uphold our decisions when it comes to matters of eternal life and death, it stands to reason that God will comply with our choices in more mundane issues. After all, we were created to be in a relationship with God; to be God’s friends, not robots.
We can have a fulfilling, lifelong marriage (or not) because of the choices we make, not because God is an irresistible matchmaker. We mourn the loss of a loved one because of the choice the other motorist made to drive drunk, not because God decided to test our faith. We are free to accept or reject a job offer based on our own set of criteria, not because of some Divine algorithm.
Which is to say, we can experience times of difficulty and tragedy without feeling the need to blame God.
When we live life in this manner, it appropriately increases our sense of personal responsibility. We can’t simply coast along on the wave of God’s sovereignty. We have to make wise decisions about the things that impact our lives, others’ lives, and the world around us.
More than that, it frees God to once again be our friend. Instead of being an overpowering meddler, God is One whom we would eagerly approach for wisdom when making our choices. This seems to be how God wants to operate, according to James.
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you (James 1:5).
A reliable God
Has our freedom to choose rendered God powerless to help us or provide comfort? Of course not! The good news about God’s sovereignty is that though it doesn’t empower Him to plan every moment of our lives, God can still restore and strengthen us in the aftermath of painful experiences. Romans 8:28 clearly states that,
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Let’s take comfort in knowing that God can redeem our bad circumstances, even when they were brought about by our own choices. Let’s find wisdom from God to help us make the best decisions and limit our bad ones. And most importantly, may we more clearly see who God is so that we can grow deeper in our eternal relationship with Him.
With apologies to Drake, that’s what God’s plan is really about.
Tyler Kraft is the pastor of the Hayward Adventist Church in California. He is a graduate of Pacific Union College and the SDA Seminary, and is currently working on a D.Min. degree from Andrews University. He’s married to Crystal, with whom he enjoys trying new foods, and following Jesus.