When I was a teen, had you asked me my favorite Bible verse, I would have rattled it off for you immediately. Jeremiah 29:11-13. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will come to me and you will pray to me and you will find me. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.’” (That’s a paraphrase based on what I remember.)
As I’ve grown older, my understanding of that verse has seriously changed. For one thing, I’ve learned the danger of pulling a Bible verse out of its context and attempting to apply it to my life as if it was written to me as an individual in the modern world. In the case of this verse, I have to remember that this is from a piece of prophesy to the Israelites, and the “yous” in it are all plural. It’s about a plan for a nation, a people, who at the time were in exile and suffering, letting them know that even though they, themselves, might not live to see it, one day their people would be back in their land, back into the relationship with God that they craved. It’s not a promise about my individual prosperity, but a promise that even in the darkest times, we can trust that God wants good things for and a right relationship with God’s people, and is always at work to bring them, as a group, back where they were created to be. You can read more about understanding this verse in context in this piece, The Most Misused Verse in the Bible, over at Relevant.
In addition, I’ve really changed the way I think about God’s will for my life, thanks in large part to reading books by Brian McLaren and also Understanding God’s Will by Kyle Lake (seriously, this book, and his book Re-Understanding Prayer, are wonderful, and I’ll always be disappointed that he died tragically young and we can’t read more from him). Yesterday, I read a blog post by another of my favorite authors, Donald Miller (I love him even though I disagree with him at times, like when he gets too essentialist about gender roles), on the topic of God’s plans for us. Miller points out that for every person in the Bible who got a burning bush or a visit from an Angel or a crazy freaky prophetic dream, there are tons of other Bible characters who never received this kind of divine plan for their lives. And odds are, each of us is one of those other characters, and if we aren’t, we’ll know it, because things like burning bushes and getting swallowed by whales are sort of hard to miss (aka, if you’re wondering if God has a super specific plan for you, God probably doesn’t, because God’s not exactly shy about making such things clear). Miller writes:
I contend with [the idea that God has a specific plan for each and every one of us] for a number of reasons, but the main reason is that I don’t think God is a control freak.
Imagine visiting a friends house for dinner for the first time. You sit down at the table and the father, who sits at the head of the table, tells each of the kids, and the wife for that matter, what and when to eat. Then he tells them what to wear to bed, when they will be getting up, where they will be going to college and who they will be married to. Later, you tell your friend you thought their dad might be a bit controlling. You secretly believe their family to be dysfunctional. But your friend is offended. They think it’s perfectly normal to want to please their father in everything they do. And they are right, it is appropriate to want to please ones father. The only problem is, their father is NUTS!
God, on the other hand, isn’t nuts.
If God is fathering us, He is helping us discover what is good, right, pure, and worthy to pursue. He teaches us morality and ethics, but also gave us a heart filled with desire and longing. It’s as though God sets before us a big sheet of butcher paper and hands us a box of crayons and tells us to dream.”
Brian McLaren had a similar analogy in one of his books (I wish I could remember which one, but I think it might have been The Secret Message of Jesus). God is our Heavenly Parent, and God’s goal is for each of us to grow in spiritual maturity so we can make godly choices and be partners in God’s mission of renewal and restoration of all things. That is the entire point of free will and life on this earth. If God wanted to just beam us orders at every minute, God could make it happen, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the way God operates. If we imagine God as a parent, we can imagine calling up our own father or mother and asking them, “Please tell me what I should major in in college!” A good parent would say, “Well, I can’t tell you what choice to make, that’s something you have to decide for yourself!” And then we’d beg, “But I just want you to TELL me what to do!” And the parent would say, “Well, let’s talk about what you like to do. Let’s talk about what your skills are, what you’re good at. Let’s talk about what makes you feel useful and valued. Let’s talk about what brings you joy. Maybe that can give us some ideas of things you might want to pursue, but ultimately this choice is up to you.” It would give our parent great joy that we were concerned about their counsel, but their ultimate joy would be to see us putting the things they taught us into action by making our own wise choices.
I understand that it’s easier to believe in a God who treats us like automatons made to blindly follow orders– it frees us from taking responsibility for our actions and from the pain of making the wrong choice or the difficulty of deciding. But depending on and requiring God to tell us exactly what to do all the time is paralyzing and it stunts our spiritual growth.
How awesome and inspiring and liberating is it that God wants to set us free to grow and reach maturity as we make our way in God’s beloved world? We get to take what God has taught and is teaching us, and the desires God placed in our hearts, and the skills we’ve cultivated based on talents God gave us, and we get to make a masterpiece out of our lives. And as we create that masterpiece, we reveal to all the world that we are created in the image of a Creator, that we are partners in the re-creation of the world.