Glory to God for All Things

The Unplanned Life

bro-ephraim-mar-saba1The following article was first written and posted in March of 2007. I have added a few additional thoughts to the end.

One of the geniuses of modern life is the plan. It is certainly the case that if you have a company and a product, or whatever passes for those in these days, there is probably a plan to go with them. Occasionally you hear from Christians, “God has a plan for my life.”

Several years ago I was flying from Dallas back to Tennessee and was sitting in the middle of two very interesting young seatmates. On the aisle was a very frightened young coed who gripped the armrest ever tighter with the slightest bump.

It was a summer flight – meaning lots of thunderstorms between Dallas and Tennessee –  and therefore lots of bumps. On my right was a young college student from one of the Christian colleges in the Dallas area.

After a particularly difficult set of bumps, the young man, in an effort to be helpful, turned to the woman seated on my other side and said, “You don’t need to be worried. God has a plan for my life. This plane cannot go down.” Apparently God had also told him what the plan was.

I thought to myself, “I’ve served God for many years and as far as I know, he can take me at any minute.”

Is there a plan for our lives?

The closest thing that I can think of in Scripture for “the plan” is this statement in Ephesians:

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him, according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will, we who first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory. (1:9-12)

 It seems to me that there is a world of difference between the sort of plan St. Paul describes here and the sort of plan envisioned by my young evangelical seatmate. Clearly, God has a plan. St. Paul says so. But the most essential aspect of that plan is that we are destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory – which, of course – one can do as the plane plunges to the earth as well as anywhere.

Our culture is marked by planning. We are all “teleologically” wired in our society – that is we are always thinking that we’re headed somewhere. Some of this is Christian – we believe that Christ will come again and that this age will come to an end. But there has been a “trickle down” effect of such notions into the very fabric of our culture.

Of course, one of the problems with this cultural habit is that it makes it very hard for us to ever be where we are when we are there (we’re always going somewhere else). And so it is hard to waste time (which is an interesting expression in and of itself). It is hard to pray (a thousand things lying just ahead in the future beckon us to leave such quiet moments behind).

But if we actually read St. Paul and think of what we have been told – then we realize that we can be “at the end” in any given moment. To “live for the praise of God’s glory” is always immediately at hand. And it is probably the case that when we are not doing so we are in fact in sin.

There are many questions which I cannot answer about my life. I assume it will be lived where I am (I do not “plan” to be elsewhere). I do not know the future of my parish (I am frequently asked, “Do you have plans to build a larger Church?”). I certainly hope to, but we do not have plans as of yet [though today we are a little further down that road].

But the one plan that matters is the one St. Paul mentioned. I plan to live for the praise of God’s glory – this plan is sufficient. This is not to throw planning out the window. If you’re going to take a trip you’ll likely have to plan what sort of things to take. And many things in our lives require such “planning.” But if in the middle of everything else you have forgotten the only plan that matters, then all the other “plans” will have been for nothing.

“To the praise of His glory,” an excellent plan indeed.

+++

An additional reflection I would add to this original piece, is that the great “plan” for our life is found primarily in the Cross of Christ. Christians are specifically told that “anyone who would be my disciple must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). St. Paul also enjoins us to have “the mind which is yours in Christ Jesus,” and describes that as the mind of humility that empties itself and is crucified (Philippians 2:5-11).  

The path that our life takes is a mystery. Sometimes we see a pattern and sometimes we do not. There is no promise to us that we will know the shape our life will take – other than the promise that if we live in obedience to Christ our life will take a shape that is conformed to the image of Christ – most specifically Christ crucified. God will raise us up.

22 Responses to “The Unplanned Life”

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  1. Darla says:

    Greetings Father, I need to re-read this piece again. How wonderfully freeing it felt when I read it the first time.

    The two Scriptures sections I can think of that I have used in the past, when talking about “the plan” God has for me — or my children — are Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you … “) and Ephesians 2:10 (“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them”). In fact I just spoke of this idea tonight when I was questioned about our decision to homeschool our children. I told the inquirer that our homeschool is designed to give our children a strong foundation in the basics (the 3 Rs) and then after that we, in conjunction with them as they get older, will tailor their education to each one based on “the plan” we believe God has for their life. We have come from a Protestant tradition that teaches you can know the specific call of God on your life and so from a young age work toward that goal.

    So this is a very timely post! How utterly awe-inspiring, freeing and simple to think that “the plan” is basically (for all of us) living to the praise of His glory. Thank you for posting this, Father.

  2. Дејан says:

    You are the only event of my life, O lamp of my soul. When a child scurries to the arms of his mother, events do not exist for him. When a bride races to meet her bridegroom, she does not see the flowers in the meadow, nor does she hear the rumbling of the storm, nor does she smell the fragrance of the cypresses or sense the mood of the wild animals–she sees only the face of her bridegroom; she hears only the music from his lips; she smells only his soul. When love goes to meet love, no events befall it. Time and space make way for love.

    Aimless wanderers and loveless people have events and have history. Love has no history, and history has no love.

    St. Nikolai Velimirovich – Prayers by the Lake – XV

    http://www.sv-luka.org/praylake/pl15.htm

  3. Dejan,

    What a wonderful quote and to the point! St. Nikolai pray for us!

  4. Karen says:

    Dear Father, bless!

    Your post reminded me of the Scripture following in James (and also the parable of the rich farmer who wanted to build bigger barns in Luke 12):

    “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit,’ whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time, and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’ But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:14-17)

    Damaris is right; this is a freeing truth. Some years ago as a single woman in her thirties, I came to the realization that I had put my “life” on hold waiting for the future to come (wanting to be married), such that I had never properly or fully invested myself in making the most of the opportunities and gifts the Lord had given me up to that time. I am still repenting of such a mindset. The line in one of the Lenten hymns, the sorrowful confession that “I have spent my whole life in procrastinations” is a one I strongly relate to. Many years ago, I came across the following:

    I was regretting the past and fearing the future.

    Suddenly, my Lord was speaking:

    “My name is I am.” He paused.

    I waited. He continued,

    “When you live in the past

    with its mistakes and regrets,

    it is hard. I am not there.

    My name is not I was.

    When you live in the future,

    with all it’s problems and fears,

    it’s hard. I am not there.

    My name is not I will be.

    When you live in this moment

    it is not hard. I am here

    my name is I am.”

    Helen Mallicoat

    May God help me to live fully for HIs glory in the present moment.

  5. Margaret says:

    I am so very thankful that you’ve reposted this and added a bit! Also the comments here are a blessing to my life. Glory to God for All Things!

  6. Steve says:

    Father,

    Thank you so much for this post. I often run across this sentiment, especially at this time of year as high school students prepare to graduate and are seeking God’s plan for them. They continually ask, “What is God’s will for me?” This is a very important question, but when it gets tied up in this idea that there is only one path set before them (by God nonetheless) there is a great potential to misunderstand or misread God and the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Most seem unsatisfied with the idea that “the plan” is to pursue righteousness and love rather than the path of the world: marriage, work, and friends. It always seemed strange to me that God would want me to be an engineer or a husband. God has a much bigger plan for me: the transformation of my heart and soul.

    O praise Him for His wonderful work in us!

  7. I also love the line from the movie, “Bella,” when the main character says, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.”

  8. elizabeth says:

    Father Bless!

    I am learning that somehow also that not living in the present is linked to acedia – wanting to be anywhere but where one is. A lot here for pondering and action towards further repentance and towards true life…

    Thank you again for this.

  9. Meskerem says:

    I think that is why Orthodox people say “God Willing…” in day to day life continuing what needs to be done. None of us will know what happens 10 minutes ahead of our life.

    Every time we are Blessed with a new day, living to the praise of His glory is what matters.

    Thank you Father, and Thank you Dejan, what a beautiful quote.

  10. Victor says:

    When we ask God what his “plan” for us is we are often really asking something like “What THING do you want me to do so I can feel secure in your love for me?” We are terrified because we do not yet know in the depths of our heart that His love for us is truly unconditional. If we but immersed ourselves in that end of all things that is always with us, the Eucharist, we would not wonder where we were going because we would always find ourselves there, in each moment and in our every breath. To the praise of His glory indeed!

  11. Katrina says:

    I think the “plans” that Evangelical Protestants are thinking of come from this line of Scripture..

    Jeremiah 29:11 (New International Version)
    11 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.

    I’ve seen this prominently displayed in many Evangelical homes nowadays. And, it completely makes sense when you believe in the “prosperity gospel”.

  12. Handmaid Anna says:

    One of the first books that I read when coming to Orthodoxy was “The Way of the Pilgrim”. Before, I was always confused about God’s plan for my life. How do I know what that is? I was thinking it had to be something worked out for the future to have any sense. This book helped me so much to realize what you are talking about here. There was no plan for the pilgrim other than meeting his immediate needs of food and shelter. He was wanting to spend his time in unceasing prayer and to go through life being gentle and loving to whomever he came in contact with. This seems so simple yet so very hard to do, but a very good plan indeed. Although I miss the mark terribly at least I now understand the plan and I can get help to get better when I fail.

  13. Kevin - Isaac says:

    For those raised in the evangelical world, as I was, the teaching of “God’s plan” or “perfect will” for your life can be a particularly binding and burdensome spiritual yoke to labor under. I grew up believing that I had two paths in life; God’s “perfect will” or “second best” and if I didn’t pay attention and discover the correct path, my life would be less than glorifying to God. I think the idea is that if you are walking in God’s “perfect will” every event and person in your life will converge in some perceptibly successful manner and you will become the Christian equivalent of a superhero (not trying to poke fun here) sallying forth in advance of the Kingdom of God. Needless to say the ultimate result is either despair at one’s apparent failure or pride at one’s imagined success. In either case one becomes driven, obsessed even, with the charade of living God’s perfect will/plan.

    Romans 8:28 “All things work together for good…” is another oft quoted scripture that is used significantly, the misuse of which can cause despair when things don’t appear to be working together in the way we think they should in our lives.

    In fairness I should note that I’ve also encountered many evangelical teachers who don’t necessarily espouse this viewpoint, i.e. taking into account the life of Job and even Christ Himself. In that sense I believe Katrina is absolutely correct in tying this thinking to the “prosperity gospel” which essentially denies the validity of suffering in the life of a Christian, and tempts us to think that something is actually wrong if we suffer.

    Enough said. But I should add that the thing that struck me (and joyfully continues to do so) after becoming Orthodox was the incredible balance, theologically and practically, of the Orthodox Church on this and other issues.

    Father Stephen, I would be interested in your thoughts on Romans 8:28 as this is a scripture I am still wondering about from an Orthodox perspective.

  14. Kevin-Isaac,

    I wonder a lot about Ro. 8:28 myself, though I have some thoughts and take great comfort in it. It requires, I think, an Orthodox eschatological perspective – understanding that the End of all things has already come about in the Person of Christ – who is the Alpha and the Omega. All things work together for good because all things find their end in Christ – every detail. Like the story of Joseph (OT), whose enslavement was surely a sin, nevertheless works for good, because God is good. It did not “need” to happen for the good to happen – I would even say that the good was “already there,” which is manifest in the dreams of the young Joseph concerning himself and his brothers. God brought about the good despite the sins of his brothers. Something along those lines…

  15. Beanie says:

    Out of curiosity, which version of the Bible do you quote from?

  16. In English I usually use the KJV or the New KJV, and sometimes the RSV. On some occasions I simply translate from the original myself.

  17. isaac8 says:

    The individualistic take on those verses about God’s plans can, as Kevin pointed out, lead to a heavy spiritual burden and a near paralysis at times when it comes to trying to “discern” the exact will of God in a particular matter. In fact, it sometimes borders on augury and then God becomes something of a future teller to take the risk out of decisions. This is not to say that we have not experienced some pretty uncanny degrees of perfect timing in our lives in terms of many points of anxiety coming together and being resolved at the “last hour,” but we only have to look at the lives of the many saints to know that we may not be spared any possible hardship, including death on a plane.

  18. coffeezombie says:

    @isaac8 I have experienced that very thing when I was a Baptist. In fact, it determined where I went to college. Long story short, I was so busy trying to “discern God’s will” about whether to go to a Bible school in Argentina (which the leadership of the church strongly encouraged for everyone) or whether to go to a school in the States, that if my mother had not applied to a local university for me, I probably would not have gone anywhere!

    There are a number of examples of similar incidents I could recount involving myself and others.

  19. anymouse says:

    Completely off-topic, it may seem…

    I used to have a lot of problems with the bumps while flying. In fact, I found flying dreadful and would try to find any way out of it. Can I take the train? Is it possible to take a sea vessel to Vladivostok, Tokyo, Beijing, Dover, Hamburg, Johannesburg or New Delhi, and a train from there??? Indeed I have asked this question…

    I used to find myself in the plane, gripping the armrest, gripping the person next to me, having the stewardess consider giving me valium as I sweated through the hours. The fall of 2006 was a particularly harrowing time, for I was preparing to graduate from professional school, and had to travel the four corners of these United States to find a job, and quickly. Driving wouldn’t do for most. I travelled to Alaska in December with its closed airports and through the windstorm which tipped over a plane in Seattle. During one trip in a tiny plane, praying and praying, it suddenly came to me, what flying means.

    I was further up in the heavens. My prayers were closer to God. I would spend the time praying, and I was unable to do anything about my plans, I was out of control, it was the bus driver of this airplane in control, and the whims of Mother Nature, in fact, the hand of God. The fear of flying brought me closer to God. I thanked God for doing this for me, and suddenly felt more relaxed. I realized that it was in these moments that the plane crashing wouldn’t matter. I fell asleep.

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