As a Christian minister, I have been asked more than once (and usually in a context of suffering or anxiety) “What’s God’s plan for me?”, or “How do I uncover what God has planned for me?” The question itself is instructive, not least because it suggests the questioner is feeling assailed by a sense of loss, separation, or confusion. Loss of God’s presence in their life; a feeling of separation from God; a sense of confusion about what they ought to do – the all-too-familiar WWJD syndrome.
The conversation involved in responding to this question is difficult and occasionally even fraught, but hugely necessary. Because the conversation itself can uncover and explore some particularly unhelpful – and even unhealthy – ways in which we conceptualise God, and the expectations which these conceptualisations create. And once we draw the link between conceptualisation and expectation, we also often discover the many ways we are using God as a crutch, or as an excuse to not take responsibility for the decisions we make and the actions we take. And that in turn can lead to an uncovering of how we often fail to take seriously the relationship with God into which we are called; or, at least, the ways in which we construct that relationship to suit our own ends and purposes.
I usually begin my response to this question by exploring with the person by whom the question has been asked some of the implications arising from their assumption that God has a “plan” for their life. And in this regard, I am unfortunately able to draw upon a tragedy that afflicted my own family.
My sister Maria was killed in a motor vehicle accident in August 2011. The accident itself wasn’t anyone’s particular fault; it was simply a terrible confluence of otherwise unrelated circumstances. I ask anyone who wants to know if God has a “plan” for their life whether or not they think God’s “plan” for my sister – a good and decent person who spent her life working with the intellectually disabled and those who were home-bound for various reasons – included her death under such awful circumstances. Do they really think God consciously and with pre-meditated aforethought (to borrow the legal jargon of the court system) “designed” my sister’s life, or the circumstances surrounding that life, in such a way as to end with her body crashing through some unfortunate driver’s windshield?
Of course, the response is (usually) to reject such a proposition. And let me be clear: I raise this example, not because I want to shame or guilt-trip the person asking the question, but to force them to confront the implications of what they are asking. Because the idea that God has a “plan” for our lives carries with it the connotation that our lives are fore-ordained, that they carry within them an inevitable structure that cannot be altered or changed – in which case, free will is simply an illusion, and we are little more than puppets dancing on the cosmic strings which God the puppet-master has attached to us.
In other words, we cannot argue for the idea that God has a “plan” for our lives without also arguing for predestination. And if predestination is real, then life is a joke, and God is a sadist who torments us with the prospect of agency and salvation, all the while keeping hidden from us the reality that our lives run a set course and our existence is essentially meaningless. That is a god I have no interest in worshipping, let alone engaging in relationship.
This, as C S Lewis said, is god the vivisectionist, who slices ‘n’ dices with human reality all for the sake of some divine purpose we can never comprehend, and in which we can never participate. But if we reject the notion that God has a “plan” for us – what then? Are we simply cut loose to do as we please, to choose as it occurs to us, and to suffer the consequences – or enjoy the fruits – of our decisions according to some arbitrary rules and equations of chance and probability? Is God, then, little more than a Creator-Being who got the whole cosmic show on the road and then left us to fend for ourselves?
Of course not; and this is where the next stage of the conversation kicks in. Because if our experience – our suffering as well as our joy – is to have meaning, certain pre-requisite conditions need to arise. The first is sentience – self-awareness. This is an understanding of a “Psychological I”, an “Existential Self” who exists as an agent capable of self-exploration and self-knowing, of the formation of a worldview that is an attempt to place the Self in relation to the Other – the outside world, the exterior reality that impacts upon the internal reality of the Self. Descartes declared cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am. And while he made this statement in relation to his conviction that the only thing we can be “really” sure exists is the Mind which beholds its own Self, nonetheless, he was touching upon an important truth: the Self beholds the Self, and it is this very Self-beholding that is the essence of its own existence. A Self which cannot or does not Self-behold does not exist (at least, not as a Self).
The second pre-condition is the necessity for relationship – that is, the capacity for the Self which beholds its own Self to behold – and recognise – the Other. This recognition involves the Self acknowledging the Other as a Self which exists in its own right, which is a Self just as the Self is also an entity in its own right. Implicit within this recognition is the notion of consequence: because once the Self beholds the Other – and recognises it as a Self-entity – it is required to make decisions with respect to that Other. To engage, to ignore, to attempt to impose its own Selfhood on the Selfhood-of-the-Other, or to resist being imposed upon. In other words, relationship can only occur between two agents who simultaneously recognise themselves as a Self-entity, and who also recognise the Other as a Self-entity. Once this mutual recognition occurs, relationship is possible; and relationship always has consequences.
I realise that this is tricky philosophical ground, if only because of the reality that human language is inadequately equipped to describe the concepts involved. But, in essence, it boils down to this: if I am able to recognise my own Self as an entity in its own right with its own unique identity; and if I am able also to recognise that the Other is also a Self-entity with its own self-recognised identity; then that very act of Self- and Other- recognition establishes a framework through which relationship is possible – the Self and the Other become, in the very act of Self-and-Other-as-Self recognition, distinct agents capable of mutual engagement. And it is this engagement which we call “experience”, and from which consequence necessarily arises.
But what does all of this have to do with the question of whether or not God has a “plan” for my life? Quite simply, that if we reject the idea that God has a “plan” for our lives, and if we also reject the idea that God simply lets us do as we please within an essentially anarchic cosmic free-for-all, then what are we left with if not the possibility of relationship? Put another way, the human Self and the divine Self recognise each other as agents capable of the mutual recognition of Self and Other-as-Self – and in the moment of that recognition, they become capable of mutual engagement, of relationship. And that relationship has consequences – for both God and humanity.
Now, Christians often talk about being in “relationship” with God without recognising – or taking seriously – the full implications of what “being in relationship with God” actually involves. All-too-often, their notion of “being in relationship” is rather like the “Jesus is my boyfriend” phenomenon: an immature, quasi-romantic attachment to God that is much more an emotional dependency on God than it is an actual relationship. But it seems to me that God doesn’t want dependency any more than God wants blind obedience or fearful submission. What God wants is relationship – and this wanting itself necessarily creates implications and consequences.
One consequence is that while we cannot speak of God’s “plan” for our lives, we can speak of God’s “wish” or “desire” or “will” for our lives. And that arises from the relational nature of God in God’s own being, the unique identity which God-as-Self contains and carries. The Christian understanding of God as Triune, as a unity of Persons within the single Godhead, is not some relic of ancient Neo-Platonist cosmogony, nor is it a hangover from a patriarchal, hierarchical past. Rather, the essential Christian expression of God as a unity of love who both invites us into that love and commands us to make it available to others, points to the underlying motivation for God’s engagement with humankind – indeed, of the very purposive nature of creation itself. And that motivation is love: God actively, passionately desires relationship with humanity, bound up as it is with the loving, creative overflow that caused creation itself to come into being. God’s “wish” and “desire” for humanity is for human beings to recognise God’s loving desire and to respond to that desire; to enter into its grace, which affirms the essential dignity of all human beings. God’s “wish” and “desire” is for human beings to not only respond to that grace, but to make it available to others as well; indeed, to make it the entire basis of human relationality. God’s wish and desire is for the world to become the realm and sphere of God’s love, the embodiment of the Kingdom that is already among us and is yet to come.
But the other implication arising from this is that if God “desires” and “wishes” and “wills”, God does not impose or intervene: God leaves humanity free to respond – or not – as it chooses. God’s “will” is not some Nietzschean construct in which a “superman” imposes his preferences forcibly – or even violently – upon everyone else. Nor is God’s “will” some kind of instruction book that tells us what to do, or which relieves us of the responsibility of thinking for ourselves and developing a mature conscience and a reflective faith. Discernment is not a matter of “working out what God wants” and acting accordingly. Rather, it is what the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann in his book An Unsettling God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009) calls being a “dialogical partner” with God. It involves a willingness to be companioned by God, and to allowing God’s prophetic and healing voice to be heard in our lives: God’s condemnation of those aspects of ourselves which degrade our dignity; and God’s affirmation of our value as Self-entities with whom God seeks to be in relationship. And within this framework, God allows us to dissent and argue and even be disobedient; indeed, God makes God’s-self vulnerable to us for the sake of relationship – even to the point of being prepared to be changed by that relationship.
But if God is vulnerable to us, then we are also vulnerable to God. And this is perhaps the aspect of “relationship” that is the least understood – probably because, from the human perspective, it is also the most disturbing. As noted above, we are free; but we are not sovereign. Only God is sovereign. And so human freedom operates within the context of, and is relativised by, God’s sovereignty. Which does not amount to some kind of de facto “plan” for our lives to which we must all ultimately submit, regardless of our freedom. Rather, it means that creation itself is purposive, and the point of creation is to be the sphere and realm through which that purpose is accomplished. We can choose to align our lives with that purpose, or we can choose not to: but God’s sovereignty as expressed through creation is not dependent upon our consent to the purposiveness of creation. God’s sovereignty abides, regardless of the choices we make. This acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty is a powerful counter-current to modernity’s myth of the fully autonomous individual, who is not only fully able to impose their will upon reality, but who is also sufficient ground upon which to stand and have their being. Indeed, it is why many in modernity reject the idea of God itself: because they simply cannot bear to acknowledge any sovereignty other than their own.
Closer to home, our vulnerability to God also means that we are open to change, to transformation. And sometimes that change can be distinctly painful. Christians talk about “God is love” and blandly assume that the presence of God in human life is an unalloyed good, that all it brings is ecstatic joy and happiness. But as the Hebrew Scriptures bear witness, God has a “darkness”: which is not to say that God is capable of evil or of not acting from love. Rather, that God’s utter Otherness means that the encounter between humanity and the qualitative difference that is God sometimes results in outcomes that, from the human point of view, are extremely painful. We have a tendency to forget: God is God. God is not our cool best friend, or kindly next-door neighbour, or indulgent grandparent. We cannot encounter the qualitative Otherness of God and not be transformed – sometimes painfully – by that Otherness. The Hebrew Scriptures bear witness to this in the accounts of the encounter between Jacob/Israel in Genesis, which leaves him both wounded and blessed; and of the God who speaks to Job from the whirlwind, and who, instead of answering Job’s questions, reveals to him the poverty and inadequacy of the retribution theology that lays at the heart of his (mis)understanding of his relationship with God.
All of which brings us back to the beginning: does God have a “plan” for me? And if the answer to that question is “No – what God has is not a “plan” but a desire, a will for relationship”, what does this actually mean? Where, for example, was God when my sister was being killed in a car accident? What’s the point – or use – of our relationship with God if that relationship can’t prevent awful things from happening to us? Isn’t saying God exists in relationship to us merely hollow comfort – abstract theological nicety – when we are confronted by the horrible reality of losing a loved one, contracting a terrible disease, or being dumped by a cheating partner?
Here’s what I wrote elsewhere in relation to my sister’s death:
…instead of being a pointless example of human brutality bereft of any redeeming features, the Crucifixion is instead the ultimate act of solidarity between God and suffering humanity. And this is not solidarity that is mere sympathy or intellectualized empathy – it is the solidarity of shared, common experience. When we ask “Where was God when my loved one died”, we point to the Cross and say “There, God is right there, suffering as our loved one suffered, suffering as we suffer.” And when we ask: “Why didn’t God do something?”, we point to the Cross and say: “But God did do something, and something far greater than any “magic trick” of miraculous intervention; God entered into the reality of death so that it would not be a totality.” And when, in our anguish, we cry out: “Where is God’s loving goodness?”, we point to the Cross and to the Jesus who cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and say: “There is God’s loving goodness, which was prepared to pour itself out for us, to be victimized by us and suffer on our account, that we need no longer be hostages to our own brokenness.”
Because if the Gospels depict anything, they depict a Jesus who was a person of feeling and emotion, a person who wept and felt anguish, who experienced anger and terror, who was moved by compassion and assailed by doubts and frustrations. Jesus was a person who loved, powerfully and deeply. And that is because Jesus existed as the fully human, fully divine Incarnation of a God who feels and loves and experiences; a God who is neither a remote abstraction nor a terrifying judge; a God who has entered into the depths of our human reality in order to lift us out of the limitations of our creaturely existence.
And this is why the squalor and horror and inconceivable suffering of the Cross is the central image of the Christian faith: because the God for whom Jesus was the visible Incarnation is a God who, knowing what we know and feeling what we feel, offers us the possibility of relationship and the prospect of hope. This is not a God who makes false promises of a life free from pain. This is not a God who offers us theological abstractions or empty if well-meaning platitudes. This is not a God who turns away from us in disgust or who condemns us for our failings. This is a God who lives alongside us in our reality, who lives in that reality – because this is a God who not only brought that reality into being, or who merely “infuses” that reality in some undefined way. This is a God who has entered that reality, lived in that reality, and made it God’s own.
There is nothing abstract about God’s relational solidarity with humanity precisely because God has entered into, lived, suffered under and died from that reality – and then, in the Resurrection, overcome the limitations of that reality in such a way as overcomes its limitations for all of us. And in the face of suffering and heartache and tragedy, and even in the “ordinary”, everyday human sorrows of loneliness and self-loathing, when the prospect of God having a “plan” for us would make everything so much easier to deal with and comprehend – God is with us, offering us neither the assurance of a pre-determined, unthought-through future, nor the false hope of a magical intervention, but something far richer, far more complex, and far more difficult: God offers us relationship.
Which, if we see God as an emotional crutch who makes all our decisions for us, and does all our thinking and feeling and living for us, is hugely problematic – perhaps even traumatic. But Christ came that we might have life, and life in all its abundance. In other words, a fully human existence in which we are neither puppets nor helpless experimental subjects, but free, relational beings co-existing in relational covenant with God. God does not pre-determine our future any more than a “clairvoyant” gazing into a crystal ball: God simply calls us into relationship, into the tricky, messy space of encounter with the Other.
And that, ultimately, leaves us with hope. Which may not be as comforting as certainty – even false certainty. But it’s a damned sight more forgiving, more affirming, more enriching. And on that note, I’ll conclude this post with the same words I used to conclude my own reflection about my sister’s death:
So where does this leave me in terms of my own grief and the reality of my sister’s death? Not one whit less grief-struck or sorrowing or emotionally wrenched by the suddenness and unfairness of her death, of that you may be assured. But what has touched my heart is the reality that hope doesn’t work like that; it doesn’t remove the pain or offer balming consolations. In his poem To His Coy Mistress, the English poet Andrew Marvell said that love was “vaster than Empires and more slow”, and I think that hope is much the same. It enables us to grieve without succumbing to despair; it enables us to experience loss without lapsing into cynicism; it enables us to catch a glimpse of a wider context without surrendering to wish-fulfilment or false promises. The hope that Christian faith offers is simply the hope that God is there with us; perhaps not in the ways we demand or would prefer, but nonetheless in ways that are real and meaningful and – beyond the immediacy of our own experience – ultimately redeeming. We are not alone; God’s solidarity with us is real; suffering and loss and death are not the final words in human experience.
God has never left us
(c) Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.