I grew up in a Southern Baptist church tradition that tended to emphasize the importance of discerning and then doing God’s will for the individual believer’s life. “God’s will,” in other words, was one blueprint—inflexible and individualized for each person. If you followed it, you would be blessed; if you failed to follow it—and we used the language of “missing it”—too bad for you. You were “out of” God’s will.
Do you know what I’m talking about?
Roger Olson does. He grew up in a different-yet-similar Pentecostal tradition that taught the same thing. As he points out, our theme verse (of course), ripped out of the context in which it referred to Israel in a particular time and place, was Jeremiah 29:11: “‘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 can totally relate to the fear that he expresses here:
When I was growing up in church, a church that held “testimony time” every Sunday evening (and my dad was the pastor so I had to be there whenever the doors were open for worship, Bible study or prayer meeting!) a sweet little older lady often spoke of how cursed her life had been because she didn’t follow God’s will for her life. That struck terror in my heart. I was taught by my spiritual mentors that that is the result of “missing God’s will.” I formed the impression, as do many young Christians, that God has a blueprint plan for my life and that it’s my job to find out what it is and follow it—to construct my life according to it. Where to go to college was one big issue for me. Whom to marry—another major issue. What profession to pursue. What job to seek and which job offer to take. All these have been major decisions of my life. And let me assure you that God has led me, but not according to an inflexible blueprint such that any deviation from it brought only misery and a cursed life.
What is the better and truer alternative to this kind of individualized blueprint? As Olson says, citing the work of a theologian named Friesen, “God has a general will for every believer’s life and, when God does want a believer to do something, he tells them, they don’t have to struggle to find it out, and even if they disobey God always has a ‘Plan B.'”
God always has a “Plan B.” Exactly!
This discussion relates to my sermon on marriage yesterday. In the sermon, which I’ll post later this week, I severely criticized the idea of a “soulmate”—that out of about 3.5 billion possible candidates there exists one ideal mate just for you, so we all better make sure we’ve found that one person before we get married. As I said, this is a theme in nearly every romantic comedy. This idea tends to make us extremely picky on the front-end of marriage, but, worse, it also makes us second-guess ourselves when we struggle in our marriage: “I married the wrong person. This person obviously isn’t my ‘one true love.’ She’s not my soulmate. If she were, why would marriage be so difficult?”
As I argued (and many nodding heads in the congregation confirmed), marriage is difficult no matter whom you marry. Our spouse, after all, is the only human being who gets to see us at our absolute worst. How can that be easy? We human beings are all such terrible sinners. Therefore, there is no “soulmate” out there with whom marriage won’t be, at times, incredibly difficult.
Fortunately for us, we leave room for God’s all-sufficient grace. Which is another way of saying, there’s always a “Plan B.” By that, I don’t mean, let’s get divorced and start over with God’s new plan for us. Although even divorce—which in the vast majority of cases (I believe strongly) is a tragic mistake—can be redeemed by God. No, I mean two things: First, that once we’re tempted to imagine that we married the “wrong” person and our marriage isn’t working out as we planned, there’s the good news of God’s grace: God shows us Plan B within this existing marriage. Second, even if we did marry “wrong” person—by which I mean a less suitable partner than we might have otherwise chosen—there’s the good news of God’s grace: even this “Plan B spouse” can work out.
I suppose someone might accuse me of being naïve and overly optimistic. I don’t care. It’s only because I believe so strongly in God’s grace and his power to redeem our mistakes.
Besides, as I indicated yesterday, I’m a Plan B husband at best, and God is redeeming me!