August 07, 2016
Guidance and God’s Plan
First and foremost thank you for the work you've done. I'm young and I've barely scratched the surface of Christian apologetics and the enormous body of literature thereof, but your contributions to the field have made a huge difference in my life. I'm thankful God has blessed the Christian community with you and I hope you stay active for many more years to come.
My question is this: Does God Have a Plan?
To clarify, I'm not asking whether or not if God has a plan for humanity. I mean, does God have a plan for each individual person?
Whenever I hear the phrase "God's plan" it usually refers to success in the temporal realm. When I graduated my middle school (it was a Christian one) the principal told us not to worry, for "God has a plan for us." On a popular Christian radio station where I live, the listeners are repeatedly told not to worry, because "God will take care of us; it's all in His plan."
This bothers me for three reasons. One, I'm not even sure this is a theologically sound concept. I'm not sure if there's any Scriptural evidence for the assertion that God has a 'wonderful plan' laid out for our lives. In the Bible, those who follow God's will seem to have very troubling, challenging lives. They usually aren't filled with riches or success. Based on my (admittedly) limited research, there are only a few Biblical quotes supporting the idea that "God has a plan" for us, and they're usually either based on Jeremiah 29:11 or the psalms. I'm not sure how literally we can take the psalms, and Jeremiah 29:11 seems to be addressed to the Nation of Israel; not us.
Second, why should God care about temporal success? I'm not sure why it makes a difference to God whether or not I become a janitor or a CEO, provided that I live a moral life and follow Christ's example. Unless becoming a CEO or becoming a janitor gives me more of a chance to be like Christ, I'm not sure why it matters.
Third, to me, it seems this idea of God "taking care of us" is a false promise that gives people unrealistic expectations of their lives. Christians abroad face persecution, starvation, imprisonment, and other forms of suffering; but if we follow the statement, then this is their plan for their lives. I'm not saying that God isn't justified in permitting suffering, but it seems the statement "don't worry; God will take care of you" or "God has a wonderful plan for your life" seems to contradict what we see in the world.
It may sound like I've already made up my mind, but in truth I'm still wrestling with this question and nobody seems to have a clear answer. Thank you for taking the time to read the question. Even if you don't have the time to respond to it Dr. Craig, thank you for allowing the opportunity to ask it.
Thank you for this very practical question, Nick! Let me suggest a nice Bible study to get you started: search for all the references in Scripture to the phrase “will of God” or “God’s will” (you can do this at www.BibleGateway.com). In each case ask yourself whether the expression refers to a general desire on God’s part or to a more specific intention.
I think you’ll find that in some cases the expression refers to God’s general desire that we live holy, upright lives, e.g., “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (I Thessalonians 4.3); “you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised” (Hebrews 10.36); “he who does the will of God abides for ever” (I John 2.17). In a few cases the expression does indicate an individual plan, e.g., Christ “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1.4); “Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus” (I Corinthians 1.1). In still other cases the expression could be interpreted either way, e.g., “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12.2); “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:27); work “as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart” (Ephesians 6.6).
One might say that Jesus’ role in the plan of salvation and Paul’s vocation to be an apostle are exceptions, that God doesn’t have a plan for my life that includes what my career will be or whom I shall marry or what church I should attend. God’s will is just that as I freely make life’s decisions I do so with righteousness and wisdom.
But there are two reasons why I think this view of God’s will is mistaken. First, God has promised to guide us along life’s path.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. (Proverbs 3.5-6)
A man’s mind plans his way,
but the Lord directs his steps. (Proverbs 16.10)
I find it incredible that whom I marry could be a matter of indifference to God, that He literally does not care whom I marry – or that it is a matter of indifference to Him what career I choose, and that if I pray for guidance He will refuse it. Such decisions and myriads more make life-changing differences, not only for me personally, but for the future course of history, as the reverberations of decisions taken (or not taken) ripple though history, impinging on countless similar decisions made by other people.
I suspect that those who oppose the idea of a specific plan of God for your life are reacting against a sort of divine determinism, according to which God moves us about like toy soldiers on His playing field to do His will. But affirming that God has a vocation for your life or a mate in mind for you in no way implies that we are puppets. We have the freedom to do God’s will or not. Even Paul could say, “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision” through which he received his calling to become an apostle (Acts 26.19). Indeed, the fact that we can miss the will of God for our lives and have to settle for His backup plan underlines the importance of walking in the Spirit, not grieving the Spirit through sin in our lives or quenching the Spirit by failing to respond to His guidance. None of us perfectly lives out God’s plan for his life, but God can still guide you from whatever juncture in life you are at.
Second, a biblically adequate doctrine of divine providence is incompatible with the idea that God has no specific will for your life. As Proverbs 16.10 quoted above indicates, the Scriptures teach an incredibly powerful and comprehensive doctrine of divine sovereignty over the affairs of men. Christians in Jerusalem prayed:
for truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever thy hand and thy plan had predestined to take place (Acts 4.27-28).
This is a breathtaking assertion of divine sovereignty: God’s plan included not just Jesus, but specifically Herod and Pilate, along with all the Jews and Gentiles gathered in Jerusalem at that time! How are we to make sense of this?
Here I commend to you my work on divine middle knowledge. Via God’s middle knowledge we can coherently affirm both human freedom and divine sovereignty. Middle knowledge makes intelligible how God can have a specific plan for your life that you are free to follow or not.
Looking at your misgivings about the notion that God has a plan for your life, I think that your problem is not so much with God’s having a specific will for you but with the idea that His will for your life is just hunky-dory. Here I want to commend to you my talk on “Failure,” in which I argue that God’s will for your life may be filled with suffering and failure. So in response to your three points:
1. God’s will for your life on Earth may not be wonderful at all. Some children starve to death or die of disease. Of course, this opens the Pandora’s Box of the problem of evil, but I’ve addressed that elsewhere. We Christians need to repudiate as strongly as we can the notion that God’s will for people’s lives is happiness in this life.
2. What God cares about is the establishment of His Kingdom (Matthew 6.10). His Kingdom may be established more effectively by your becoming a janitor than a CEO. Just think of the manifold ramifications such a decision could have! So He does care what your vocation is, and you need to be attentive to His calling and leading.
3. God is not going to “take care of you,” if that means shielding you from every ounce of suffering and harm. That is why I have denounced in the strongest terms the false “prosperity Gospel.” That “Gospel” won’t preach in North Korea or Iraq or Syria, and if it won’t preach there, then it isn’t the true Gospel. We should know this, for we follow a crucified Savior, and the servant is not above his master.
That doesn’t mean that God won’t take care of you by preserving you in grace until you die and meet the Lord, for He has promised to do that. It also doesn’t means that God doesn’t have a wonderful plan for your life. As one who has shared the Four Spiritual Laws many times, I can assure you that what Bill Bright meant by those words is the abundant spiritual life that Jesus promised. We can have that even in the midst of suffering and on into eternity.
 I was slightly amused when, due to protests of certain Calvinists, Campus Crusade for Christ started publishing versions of the Four Laws that reworded Law 1 as “God offers you a wonderful plan for your life.” That is to say, if you’re not elect, He doesn’t really have a wonderful plan for your life! I was happy to keep sharing the more Arminian original version!