There is this common theme in American Christianity that God has some divine plan for your life, only he won’t tell you what it is, which leaves you constantly fretting over whether or not you are living according to the plan. This neurosis beleaguers many well-intentioned people who genuinely desire to live a noble, spiritual life. But “God’s Plan” is also hearkened by many more folks who use the idea to explain away the unexplainable or justify their own importance.
“My young child died of a rare form of cancer.”
“My husband ran off with a sophomore in college and left me homeless.”
“I will probably be evicted from my apartment despite working three jobs. I can’t afford to live.”
“God has a plan. Just trust him.”
“I have no freakin’ clue why such shitty things happen but I have to say something that sounds good.”
When I used to believe that God had some undisclosed plan for my life, I was left to conclude that a life of abuse was the plan. I went to great lengths to make sense of that notion. Maybe God was refining me and fortifying my character or maybe I was so sinful and depraved that I deserved this hell on earth. I ultimately rejected both of those suppositions.
Many Christians will admit that God does not make bad things happen but this sticks in the craw of other Christians because that implies that Satan (God’s Opponent Extraordinaire) has equal or greater power than God. So these Christians gerrymander their theology to say that God allows bad things to happen, usually for purposes that are too mysterious for us to be able to comprehend.
There’s also a logic problem here. Check out this scenario. A man loses his entire family—a wife and two children—to a drunk driving accident. The surviving husband and father takes years to rebound emotionally and psychologically from this senseless loss. Eventually, he begins volunteer work to help other victims of drunk driving. This helps him heal and make sense of his own pain. It is common for an outsider, or maybe even the man himself, to say that the accident happened for the purpose of helping subsequent victims in the same situation.
This is circular logic. If God had the power and authority to make or allow the drunk driving accident to happen so that the man could eventually help other drunk driving victims, why not just eradicate drunk driving or drunkenness in the first place? Get rid of the root problem instead of managing the symptoms. For that matter, the real root problem would be the inherent malaise, discontentment or vacuum that drives people to chronic drunkenness in the first place, which purportedly is what God is heralded to absolve. This logic train just did two circles around itself.
The idea of God’s Plan can also reinforce a fragile ego’s justification of its own importance. I’ve seen this happen frequently in churchy situations, including by yours truly.
Once, a long time ago, a married couple came to me in tears because the husband had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and they were both scared. They knew I was in seminary and must have presumed I had the wisdom or maturity to comfort them. Some of the deadest words to ever come out of my mouth were to that sweet, anguished couple. Be strong, God has a plan, etc. I was sick inside because it felt as hollow as it must have sounded. But at the time, I quite simply didn’t know what else to say.
Many years later, as a barely surviving single mom of three, I volunteered to lead a small women’s church group that met weekly for spiritual study. I was still internally discombobulated by my second divorce. I believed that God had put me through all of that hell so that I could turn around and “help” other women. I put “help” in quotes because, as it turns out, my motives weren’t clean.
Part of the process for leading this group was, over the course of a few weeks, each woman had to share her life story. In a gallant display of false humility, I signed up to be the very last person to share my story. I allowed all the other women to share their stories first so that I could join in the group sympathy for expressed woes and hardships and offer obligatory encouragement and positive affirmations afterward.
As the weeks wore on and I had yet to tell my story, what became glaringly apparent to me was that I was thinking in the background, These chicks are going to be blown away by how much more difficult my life has been than theirs. They will be so impressed with how spiritual and kind I am considering the crap I’ve dealt with. These ladies really need me, I would say to myself self-deferentially.
While I had entered this small group scenario believing that God had some plan that required this duty of mine, I left realizing that what I really wanted out of it was a sense of purpose, importance, and maybe some sympathy. What’s really telling is that I can barely remember anything about any of the other women in that group—that is how self-absorbed I was. My motives had been self-serving and disingenuous. That hard realization leveled me with true humility.
This blog piece is an excerpt from Chapter 1: Confessions of an American None: A Credo of Sorts.