Plan or Choice?

Today’s question comes from Yvette.  She wrote: “Do you believe that we are in control of our destiny, or is it all in the hands of God? And if we are in charge of our destiny, then why do we say ‘God has other plans.’  Or if it is in God’s hands, why does he forsake us to live with pain and loss?”

As many of you have probably already figured out by now, I like to use very concrete examples to talk about abstract ideas.  It helps me wrap my head around some issues that would otherwise be tough to grasp.  With that said, here’s how I would chew on the matter you raised.

When it comes to the issues of “our destiny” and “God’s plan”, I often compare it to the dynamic between a parent and a child.

Most parents have a very simple, very basic “plan” for the lives of their child.  They want their child to be healthy, happy, and fulfilled.

Some parents live into that “plan” by being controlling and trying to force their child to do those things they think will make the child happy and fulfilled.  They might, for instance, steer them toward a specific career or a specific relationship.

A healthier model for parenting, however, is for the parent to step back and give the child room to make her/his choices.  Sometimes the child’s choice will result in pain and loss; sometimes, the child’s choice will result in happiness and fulfillment.

It absolutely kills the parent to see her/his child hurt when the child makes unwise decisions.  Nevertheless, the parent loves the child enough to let the child make her/his choices.

Similarly, using the theological concept of “free will”, I believe each child of God has been blessed with the ability to make her/his own choices.

Sometimes, those choices cause the child pain and loss; other times, the choices cause the child happiness and fulfillment.   No matter what the choice, God is there – loving, nurturing, and supporting the child.

Of course as we all know, the child of God can’t control every aspect of her/his destiny.  There are things that happen that are random.  Some of a child of God’s cells might replicate incorrectly, for instance, and cancer results.  One of God’s children might be walking down the street and get hit by a bullet or a drunk driver.  The sense of pain and loss in these moments can be excruciating.

In these moments, some folks feel a need to try to explain the inexplicable.  They use clichés like, “I know it hurts, but it’s all a part of God’s plan” or “I know it’s difficult to understand, but God had a reason for making it happen, and it’s not up to us to question God”.  People don’t say these things to be hurtful; they often say such things because they don’t know what else to say.

In talking with dozens of individuals who have had well-intentioned folks say these things to them, they almost all say the same thing.  It is much more painful for me to believe in a God that would intentionally cause this to happen to me than it is for me to believe in a God that gifts us with free will and allows things to unfold as they do.

In moments of incredible pain and loss, there is one thing my faith allows me to say: God is with you and feels your pain.  God is not the cause of your pain, but the source of your comfort and healing.

So what about you?  What is your perspective on Yvette’s question?

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 54-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA with his black Labrador Retriever named Max. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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4 Responses to Plan or Choice?

  1. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    I understand the parent metaphor, I think, but I’m not sure where that leaves us in understanding what level of intervention God performs in human lives. Is he truly a hands-off parent who lets us do entirely as we please and merely comforts us when our bad choices bring consequences or our bad luck brings suffering? If so, is there any point at all to intercessory prayer?

    Or are there circumstances in which God steps in to guide, protect, or punish us? If so, do those circumstances have anything to do with our own faith or behavior (meaning, do they happen because we believe or do something that causes or aids his intervention), or are they solely acts of grace?

  2. janet mulkey says:

    Hi Pastor: Janet Mulkey here and in answering yvette’s dilemma about GOD’s will, in the wisdom HE has shown me, I believe that everyone likes to blame GOD for everything. In my humble opinion, I do not believe that GOD is responsible for pain and suffering. I DO BELIEVE that JESUS took all the pain and suffering and sin and all that and nailed it to the cross. IF we don’t believe that I do believe we leave ourselves wide open for the adversary (and we know who that is) to lead us off the path of HIS righteousness. OH WELL.I know that JESUS died to save everyone and we all sin, so it is good to have a pastor who is also a good shepherd to his flock.
    My next thing is, I believe you know the path of NEW AGE RELIGION and how the adversary uses everything that “sounds right” to lure the elect away from focusing on what the BIBLE teaches us to stay away from devination, witchcraft, wizardry and the like. There is no way to suggest to people that have these practices in mind that this is really a dangerous path to walk and often times they get so involved with the friendship of the evil one, (and I suppose he is lovable to the weak and the lost,) like Scientology for one, and the like. When and if it “feels” good they don’t realize that they have crossed a line. I have a very good book that teaches how really bad these new age religious fantasies can be. Right now the book is still in storage with the rest of my belongings, but if you are ever interested in reading about it (not a long article) I will remember to give it to you. I thought this was one of the best teachings on the occult that I have ever encountered. It was given to me by an old Sunday school teacher that I followed in the 1st Christian Church in Sierra Vista, Arizona. Anyway. I have used up all this space. I will sign off for now. Thanks so much for your wonderful cheery presence. I believe you are truly a friend to GOD. amen.

  3. capete67 says:

    Hi Bev. Great questions.

    In reading your first question, I realize part of the way the question about God’s involvement in our lives has been framed has been within the context of a transcendent theology (a theology that defines God exclusively as “the other”). Within such a framework, it is assumed God is either directly involved or totally removed. As a person whose theology is rooted in a panentheist perspective (a perspective where God is both within creation AND simultaneously beyond it), the question about God’s role is not either/or. While I believe God is certainly present in each situation, I don’t believe God is managing the outcomes. Free will creates room for us to manage aspects of our lives. Because of my beliefs, I spend the majority of my time in centering prayer rather than intercessory prayer. When I do find myself in places where intercessory language comes naturally, I think of intercessory prayer as a chance to heighten my connection to God rather than an attempt to lobby for a specific outcome.

    In terms of your second question, I believe God is always present with us. When I nurture an awareness of God’s presence in my life, the strength that comes from this awareness leads me to a place where it feels like God is guiding or protecting me. When I do not nurture an awareness of God’s presence in my life, the distance that seems to grow between myself and God makes it feel as if God is punishing me. In either case, I don’t believe God is “acting” any differently. The only thing that makes it feel that way is my spiritual state.

    • Beverly Marshall Saling says:

      Interesting! I think I experience nature similarly to the way you experience God, though I don’t think of nature as an entity with sentience, emotions, or will so much as a “way the universe works”—what a scientist might call a superset of all the natural laws, including those known to us and those unknown.

      So for me nature is what is present in all things, and nature is what determines outcomes (in the sense of setting the rules of causality) but never manages them (in the sense of breaking its rules to make things come out in a desired way). And sometimes I feel like nature is on my side and other times like it’s against me, but it is always my perspective and my ability to be “in sync” with nature that makes the difference, not anything about nature itself.

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