It’s been observed that in the language of the Maori peoples of New Zealand, the way one speaks of the past is to say, “the days in front” and the future is “the days behind.”1http://epress.anu.edu.au/austronesians/inside/mobile_devices/ch08s06.html The Maori see themselves as backing into the future. That seems a curious thing until you realize that the Maori have a point. Our lives are like sitting in that back seat of a station wagon, we can easily see what is behind us, but it requires some effort to see what’s ahead of us, and that we do not see clearly.
In fact, our ability to see even a few hours ahead into the future is extremely limited. None of us knows what the future will bring even by the end of this service. Now, we can make some educated guesses and will likely be right in most of them when it comes to the immediate future. But the reality is that we cannot see into the future. Whether it’s in predicting the course of tropical storms, figuring out who’s going to win the election, or the winning lottery numbers, all we can do is make predictions using probabilities. All we can do is guess.
And that’s unnerving.
And so, faced with that uncertainty, it’s comforting to know that someone is at the wheel of the stationwagon. Someone is driving this thing, someone who knows where we’re going.
And so, we tell ourselves, that while we cannot know where we’re going, wherever it is, is part of God’s plan. God is in charge. And God’s a good driver so we can relax and enjoy the ride and the view out the back window.
Because of our future-blindness, all we can really do is attempt to interpret the past. And so, while we cannot predict with absolute certainty the things that will occur, we can contextualize and analyze the things that have occurred. And it is in the process of doing so that we often come up with the idea of a “plan”.
And we see that sentiment echoed in the scripture passages for today. A passage from Isaiah in which the prophet declares:
I will praise your name, for you have done wonderful things, planned long ago, faithful and sure.
And a passage from the Book of Acts in which Peter is making his Pentecost Day Sermon to the crowds in Jerusalem. In it, he relays what is known as the kerygma, the core preaching of the Christian message: the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As Peter tells it:
In accordance with God’s established plan and foreknowledge, he was betrayed. You, with the help of wicked men, had Jesus killed by nailing him to a cross.
Now, it is important to remember that scripture does not drop out of the sky without any context. And that is certainly the case with the Book of Isaiah and the Book of Acts.
One of the main emphases of the Prophet Isaiah in his writings is the Holiness and Sovereignty of God. The theophany that Isaiah has of God in the Temple in the sixth chapter of that book is of a God sitting on a “high and exalted throne” surrounded by attending angels singing praises to God. The image of God as the great King of the Universe is found throughout the book of Isaiah and there is great emphasis on God’s sovereignty. Therefore, it only makes sense that the things that have occurred were “planned long ago.” It is important to note that the idea of a Divine Plan usually comes from the fact that you already believe in the sovereignty of God. The one necessitates the other.
The Book of Acts is the second part of a two-part work including the Gospel of Luke. This combined work, usually referred to as “Luke-Acts” has a number of prominent themes, among which is a special concern for Christian faith being shared among the Gentiles. By the time Luke-Acts was written sometime in the 80’s AD, the Christian movement had become a predominantly non-Jewish movement, in spite of its initial all-Jewish apostolate. As a result, there were many in the Jewish community who questioned Christianity’s legitimacy as a movement claiming the heritage of the faith of Israel. How could it, when very few of the adherents were actual Israelites?
And for that reason, Luke-Acts has as one of its major purposes, a defense of Gentile Christianity and the does so by arguing that this Gentile faith is all part of God’s plan. From the prevalence of prophetic dreams, to the frequent occurance of angels, to the near-constant work of the Holy Spirit, to locating the action in Jerusalem, to the allusion to Old Testament prophecy and narrative, Luke-Acts makes the case over and over again that Gentile Christianity is God’s doing.
In addition, many Jews had trouble with the idea that the messiah was supposed to be crucified—something that seemed to be almost oxymoronic to them. And so, as Peter makes his speech to the crowds he notes that Jesus was crucified “in accordance with God’s established plan and foreknowledge.” Peter, by way of the author of Luke-Acts, helps to interpret a problematic and difficult past in light of God’s overarching plan.
And so, we can see that appealing to God’s plan helps to assure the listener that it is not a random or chaotic series of events taking place, but elements of a divine plan “long established.” It can be a comfort in a time of confusion and uncertainty.
But for all this, there remain significant problems with the idea of a Plan governing all things.
The Lack of Utility
There’s an old joke about a Calvinist who falls down a flight of stairs. After he gets up and dusts himself off he says, “Thank God that’s over with.” And perhaps you’ve noticed this phenomenon: when two people get together and everything is going well, people will say, “Oh, they’re meant to be together.” And then, if they should break up, people will say, “Oh, I guess it wasn’t meant to be.” Ya think?
In the epic film Lawrence of Arabia, there is a scene in the movie where the British officer T.E. Lawrence is leading the Arab army in a surprise attack against the Turkish guns at Aqaba. In order to do this, they must cross a dangerous and deadly desert and must cross the most dangerous section of it—the Anvil—at night, because it is deadly during the day. As they emerge, they discover that one man has been left behind—fallen off his camel somewhere back on the Anvil. Lawrence turns his mount around and heads back out to find him before the sun kills him. His Arab allies shout to him that there is no point—no one can survive the Anvil. It is written. Hours later, Lawrence emerges from the desert in the middle of the day carrying the ailing form of the missing man. As the man is lowered down and given water, Lawrence says to his men “Nothing is written.”
Some time later they encounter another tribe whom they enlist to help them with the attack against Aqaba. Suddenly, there is a disturbance. One of Lawrence’s group has murdered a man from the new group. The fragile alliance is about to fall apart, since the new group will be enraged if the man is not brought to justice, and the original group will be infuriated if the other tribe brings one of their own to justice. Lawrence declares that he will carry out the sentence—as he is a member of neither tribe. When they bring forward the guilty party—it is the man who he had rescued from death in the desert. Pained and devastated, Lawrence executes the man. When the leader of the new tribe asks why Lawrence was so upset, he is told “The man he killed is that same man that he saved from the Anvil.” “Ah,” responds the first man. “It was written.”
See, one of the problems with the idea of God’s Plan right off the bat is that it only describes things that have already taken place. Which, when you think about it, really doesn’t serve the purpose of having a plan. What good is a plan when you can only know about it after it’s happened? I mean, that works well in heist movies like Ocean’s Eleven when you know they have a plan but only find out about it as or after they’re doing it. But it wouldn’t make sense for the guys in the heist to have the same familiarity with the plan.
Now, to be fair there are those who claim to know God’s plan in advance. They make huge pronouncements usually about the end of the world. And they’re always wrong. And so, if the Divine Plan were made known to someone, that someone has yet to show up and be an accurate predictor. Not even the prophets claimed to have that ability.
So, even if there were some Divine Plan, it’s not one that is made known to us, and therefore has little use for us. All we can do is watch it unfold and reflect on it after the fact. It doesn’t seem to invite us to participate.
Which leads us into the next problem: our role. If the Divine Plan is equated with what actually happens, then it doesn’t seem that our choices matter in the slightest. In fact, have you ever heard anyone say, “Well, God planned for X but old Bill here, he just had to go and do Y”? No. If Bill goes and does something stupid, people will just shake their heads and say, “Well, I guess it’s all part of God’s plan.”
And so, it doesn’t seem that we have very much to do with God’s Plan, whatever it is. Now, to be fair, that’s kind of the point. Earlier, I noted that Isaiah strongly emphasized God’s sovereignty and as a consequence of that emphasis, the idea of God’s plan comes through. It is that same emphasis, by the way, that results in the Calvinist theology of predestination.
It was John Calvin’s realization that he could not account for why certain people seemed to respond to the Gospel and others didn’t. His only conclusion was that their responses for either good or ill were predetermined by God. Now, that flows out of a strong emphasis on the soveriengty of God. The consequence of that is that apparent choices are revealed to be part of a larger plan. Why should there be any emphasis on my making choices?
Now, perhaps God’s Plan only applies to the big things like earthquakes and football championships. Maybe my choice of soft drinks is in fact all my own. But where is the dividing line? How do I know when I’m making my own choices versus when I am simply acting out the choices planned for me? It becomes very hard to discern how an individual should act if it should turn out that some or all of our decisionmaking is not really ours at all.
But those just wind up being interesting philosophical puzzles in the end. The biggest problem with the statement that something is “all part of God’s plan” is what it says about God.
The Mysterious God
Since God’s plan is inscrutable to us, there is a layer of mystery that surrounds the entire thing. Now, I am not opposed to mystery, in fact, I think that it is an essential part of faith. And a healthy theology admits that there are things we cannot know about God. This is always to be preferred to a theology that basically reduces God to an old, white haired guy who basically shares all your political opinions.
But the result of this is that we maintain that God has a plan and that the things that have happened are part of that plan, then when we encounter something that we cannot understand, our only answer is “it’s a mystery.” Why did that accident happen? Why did my loved one have to die? Where is there such suffering? The answer that God’s ways are mysterious seems like a cop out. And, it presents a God who would rather remain unknown to us, which is precisely the opposite of the Gospel. The Gospel of the God walking through the Garden of Eden, revealing the Divine self to Moses and the Prophets, becoming incarnate in the person of Jesus. This does not sound like a God who is trying to remain aloof and inscrutable. This sounds like a God who is trying to be made known. The answer “It’s a mystery” sounds like the kind of thing a public official says when they say something is “classified.”
The Cruel God
But by far, the greatest problem with the idea of the Divine Plan is what it says about God’s character.
When people suffer a horible experience—the death of a loved one, a life-threatening disease, an injustice, a rape—the desire to understand and to put into context is extremely strong. And the desire to be helpful for the friends and loved ones of the afflicted is likewise strong. And that’s why people say things like “It’s all part of God’s plan” because they hope to reassure the affected person with the idea that God is still in charge and that someone is still driving the stationwagon.
But what is the implication of such a statement when you think about it? God planned for my loved one to die? God wanted me to get this disease? God planned for me to suffer this injustice? God wanted me to be assualted?
What kind of a jerk is this God, anyway? While people intend the sentiment to be a comfort, all it does is reinforce the idea that God might actually be out to get you. How do you know that God’s plan doesn’t require you to experience some tremendous misfortune? How do you know that God’s divine plan doesn’t require you to suffer for reasons you cannot—and will not ever—fathom? What’s to say that God, for whatever mysterious reasons, has planned that your life is to be one of abject misery? What kind of God is this? Is this a God worthy of worship? Or a God worthy only of fear, like an Ancient Near Eastern despot, capricious and fickle, sacrificing the lives of the ordinary people because it amuses the King to do so? One wonders at the omnipotence and omniscience of a God who could not come up with some other way to effect the Divine purpose without such needless suffering.
THE GOD WE KNOW
But the simple truth is this: this is not the God we know. The God we know is the one revealed to us in Jesus Christ—and this is not a God aloof and disconnected or cruel and indifferent. The God we encounter in Jesus is a God of love and a God of solidarity. And a God who seeks our freedom.
That last point is the crucial one.
You cannot love someone if they are not free. If they do not have a choice in the matter. In order to truly love someone, you have to set them free. In order to be in relationship with someone, it has to be free. And God seeks relationship with us, God loves us, therefore, God must set us free.
And the consequence of our free will is that we will make choices that have terrible consequences. We will do the wrong things, we will cause pain and injury to each other. The injustices, the violence, the suffering, so much of it is the result of choices we make. The man killed in Lawrence of Arabia did not live because it was written, he did so because Lawrence chose to try to save him. Nor did he die because it was written that he do so, it was the result of choices that he had made to murder another person.
And I believe that God’s love is not confined to us, but to the whole world. And thus, the whole creation is free. From the uncertainty that guides subatomic particles, to the dynamism of plate tectonics, to the power of wind and wave—we see freedom in the creation all around us. It is a freedom not only reflective of God’s love but also a freedom necessary for life. Without continental plates sliding around, without ocean currents and wind patterns, life would not be sustainable on this planet. It seems, then, that our very being is tied up with freedom, but also with the uncertainty and risk that that brings.
The God we know seeks our freedom—a beautiful, wondrous freedom, but a freedom wrought with peril, challenge, and pain.
But there is one other thing about the God we know: this God is not removed from the suffering of the world, but is found in it. The power of the cross lies not in any magical properties, but in what it represents. The power of the cross comes in knowing that even in the midst of that profound brokenness, God is with us. God, through Christ, declares solidarity with us in all our brokenness and in that knowledge is our hope and our comfort.
Life is not easy. It is full of challenge, of sorrow, and pain. It is full of mystery and things we will struggle to understand. Throughout it all, we will be tempted to ascribe everything to a plan or to fate in order to make us feel better about knowing that someone is in control.
But God does not seek to be in control, God seeks for us to be free. And so, God has never promised us that everything would work out. God has never assured us that we would not suffer. God has never said that a life of faith was not without its risks; in fact, Jesus told us that a life of faith may cost us everything. But God has promised to be with us in all the times of our lives. In the times of joy and of sorrow, in celebration and in mourning.
The great plan of God is to declare solidarity with us and to stand by us all the days of our lives—the days in front and the days behind—until the end of the age.
Isaiah 25:1–5 • LORD, you are my God. I will exalt you; I will praise your name, for you have done wonderful things, planned long ago, faithful and sure. You have turned the city into rubble, the fortified town into a ruin, the fortress of foreigners into a city no more, never to be rebuilt. Therefore, strong people will glorify you; the towns of tyrant nations will fear you. You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in distress, a hiding place from the storm, a shade from the heat. When the breath of tyrants is like a winter storm or like heat in the desert, you subdue the roar of foreigners. Like heat shaded by a cloud, the tyrants’ song falls silent.
Acts 2:22–24 • “Fellow Israelites, listen to these words! Jesus the Nazarene was a man whose credentials God proved to you through miracles, wonders, and signs, which God performed through him among you. You yourselves know this. In accordance with God’s established plan and foreknowledge, he was betrayed. You, with the help of wicked men, had Jesus killed by nailing him to a cross. God raised him up! God freed him from death’s dreadful grip, since it was impossible for death to hang on to him.”