Why I Don’t Like The Term “God’s Plan” (COMMENTARY)

Donald Haynes | Wesleyan WisdomBy Dr. Donald W. Haynes

Both St. Augustine and John Calvin began their theology with an assumption common to us all—God is omnipotent, all-powerful. If God is all-powerful, then we most logically resort to a fatalistic conclusion that God makes happen whatever happens. God also is omniscient—all-knowing. Most conclude that “to foreknow is to predestinate.” That is, if God knows what is going to happen—like when and of what disease we will become afflicted, or when and under what circumstances we will die—then God must be causing that to happen. It is for this reason that many Christians across the spectrum of denominations refer to “God’s plan.” When John Milton, an English Puritan and a Calvinist, wrote Paradise Lost, his stated purpose was “to justify the ways of God to man.” We still are working at that!

A cousin of mine, who was also a minister, just died with pancreatic cancer at age fifty-eight. A former church member and friend of mine in his middle seventies begins chemo this week for pancreatic cancer that has metastasized. A fellow church member, mid-eighties, has a recurrence of breast cancer. A former colleague on a church staff has ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. A long time friend in her seventh year with the persistently debilitating disease Cerebella Ataxia is in a wheelchair and now can no longer speak clearly. A dear friend’s brother just died from causes related to prolonged alcoholism. One of my four closest friends just called: “Don, I have a malignant tumor in my throat.” In all such situations and other heartaches in our journey we ask of God, “Why?”

Whenever bad things happen to good people some good Christians will absorb their grief under the doctrinal umbrella of what they call “God’s plan.” One grief-stricken sufferer wrote, “Our wishes are not God’s plan and I try to understand.” She also said on the phone, “I am so angry that I can’t cry. I don’t know what to pray.” I am compelled to ask you, dear reader, to look more closely and critically at what looks like a comfortable theology—that God is in total control of every detail of our destinies! It is comforting up to a point; then it becomes disenchanting. We must recognize that the Boko Haram in Nigeria who captured 276 girls to use for their sexual pleasure have some perverted interpretation of a random sura in the Quran that justifies their horrible sin. Jihadist Muslims who murdered the Jewish staff of a French magazine were convinced by their warped tutors that they were acting out the will of God—the “plan” of God for killing infidels. Long ago, the Christians in Salem, Massachusetts thought it God’s plan for them to label women as “witches” and put them to death.

My mother was a devout Methodist and did not think she was a Calvinist! Yet as a child I remember one of her favorite sayings when bad things happened to good people was, “The Lord knows best.” She even said that when my Daddy died from cancer at age forty-nine. I was therefore 12 years old when I “sorta” became a theologian. At Sunday school I was taught that God loved me. I concluded when Daddy contracted cancer that if God loved me, God must love Daddy who had just been converted to Jesus Christ as his personal savior. But there I got stuck! When Mama said, “The Lord knows best,” she was implying that the Lord took Daddy from us in the prime of his life—both in his young age and his new faith.

Almost everyone either owns or knows about Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life that has outsold everything except the Holy Bible and the Quran. Rick Warren is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and founder-pastor of Saddleback Church in California, which is basically Baptist. Methodists are, theologically, not Calvinists who believe in pre-destination, but thousands of Methodist churches used Warren’s book for small groups to study. Millions of people who have never read the Bible have read Rick Warren’s book. Rick is pretty much responsible for chucking the old term “pre-destination” and re-marketing it as “God’s plan.”

Warren wrote, “God decided when you would be born and how long you would live. He planned the days of your life in advance, choosing the exact time of your birth and death.” Of course, he quotes scripture! We all do that to justify our theology! So did the Devil when he was tempting Jesus (Matthew 4:6; Luke 4:10)! Rick pushed his belief further, saying that the conception of every child is planned by God: “God knew that those two individuals possessed exactly the right genetic makeup to create the custom ‘you’ that God had in mind. They had the DNA God wanted to make you.” Wow! This means that when you go to the “premie” ward of a hospital and see the children born addicted to crack cocaine at birth because of the mother’s addiction—that is God’s plan. That means that when babies are born with birth defects, that is God’s plan. That means that even abortions must be God’s plan if God determines “the date of our death.” That also means that every person who dies of an accident or victim of a crime or casualty in a war simply had “a time to die.” Does not Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 say, “There is a time for everything, for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die….”?

We just saw the movie “Unbroken,” about the life of Louis Zamberino who was shot down in the Pacific in World War II, spent 47 days on a lifeboat only to be captured by the Japanese and was kept over two years in a concentration camp. Now, did God control which planes on that mission were shot down and which ones returned to base? Of the crew who landed in the ocean, did God control which ones survived the crash and which ones were drowned? In the concentration camp, did God predestine the ones who would survive the brutality? In Germany, did God plan the date of the deaths of the more than 6,000,000 Jews who died at the orders of Adolph Hitler? If it were “their time to die,” does that let Hitler off the hook? What about the killing of Kurdish Christians today by ISIS, or the beheading of prisoners?

Do we see God’s will in Psalm 139:16—“written in the book all the days that were formed for me”? Or, do we read Jesus words at the conclusion of Luke’s quote from Jesus: “Is there anyone among you who, if you child asks for bread will be given a stone, or asks for a fish will be given a scorpion?” Then Jesus said, and on this I base my understanding of God’s will for each of us: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” And Jesus said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” I love James 1:13 &17—“No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God…himself tempts no one… every generous act of giving… is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no shadow of change.”

Really, if God had predestined or planned everything to the most minute detail, including the time and circumstances of our death, why exercise or eat right or even go to a doctor? Think of the diseases, even plagues, in history that were attributed to the will of God only to be found to have been caused by mosquitoes or sewage-saturated water! My grandfather died of appendicitis and had lost three children to tuberculosis or the flu epidemic, one to a farm accident, and one to diphtheria. It is likely that all would have lived longer in the late 20th century than they did in the earlier years. Did God’s will change for the cause and time of death? Did medical science interfere with the will of God? When Dr. James Simpson of Scotland developed chloroform, the clergy opposed its use because they thundered from their pulpits that pain in childbirth is God’s punishment of women for Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden! Two famous evangelists blamed the destruction of the World Trade Towers on God who was punishing America for the sin of homosexual lifestyles! What? Even the Muslim Jihadists were agents of God whose name is Love!

Come, let us reason this out. John Wesley’s ministry in England was in a time that the doctrine of Calvinism dominated the Church of England. Wesley had a fundamental problem with God’s being the author of evil, or the cause of the bad things that happen to good people. But what to do with the foundational belief in the omnipotence of God?

Wesley, in the doctrinal lineage of Jacob Arminius of Holland, concluded after much intellectual struggle and biblical study that God’s omnipotence is God’s power, not God’s character. God’s character is love: “God so loved the world that God gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).” “We know and believe the love that God has for us because God is love…we love because God first loved us (I John 4:16 & 19).”

“Aha,” concluded the Oxford professor John Wesley! This means that God’s love (the essence of God’s character) trumps God’s power. In like manner, parents have total power over infants and small children. They can “tie them to the bedpost” or keep them locked in a closet if they use only their power. But with that capacity of total control, there is the spirit of parental love. The normal behavior of a loving parent is to gradually teach the baby what it means to avoid the hot stove because the baby will be burned, or to hold Mommy’s hand or the toddler may get lost. With maturity comes the parental discipline of teaching that good choices bring good consequences and bad choices make bad consequences. Then comes the scary reality that our child will be affected by the behavior of other people and that both must live in a universe where natural law is impersonal: “The wind blows where it will (John 3:8).” Jesus said, “…for He makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and unjust (Matthew 5:45).” Wesley preached that “predestination is not plain scriptural doctrine; it is inconsistent with the written word that speaks of God’s universal offer of grace, his invitations, promises, and threatenings.” God revealed to Peter that “God shows no partiality between persons (Acts 10:34).”

So what about using the term “God’s plan”? Well, it sounds more like a corporate strategy for the future of the company! It sounds programmed. The word “plan” would be best replaced with the word “relationship.” We are God’s children and God is our heavenly Father. God relates to us much like the most loving parents relate to their children—“love and warning,” “warning and love.”

I believe that even the microbes and cells of most infinitesimal size are not confined to a “plan.” Scientists find freedom of movement in every molecule and atom. This freedom allows some cells to metastasize, to “do their own thing,” and suddenly a normal cell or organ is cancerous. Some diseases are genetic; some are caused by environmental exposure to material like asbestos or lint in mills, or high decibel noise; some are caused by what we eat!

When I was nineteen years old, I became the pastor of a church. One afternoon as I returned from seminary, I was told a child had been killed on a bike, just in front of his mother’s eyes as she sat on the front porch. As I climbed her steps she said to me, “You are the third preacher to come. If you are here, like them, to tell me Buddy’s death is God’s will, get the hell off my porch.” That day, I recalled my father’s death by cancer when he was forty-nine, and committed my theology to that of Jacob Arminius and John Wesley, not John Calvin.

While I respect my fellow Christians who believe that everything happens in accordance with God’s Plan, I demur. If God controls the bad and the good, then we are robots. We do not live our lives as if we have no control. We seek God’s guidance, we believe in God’s impartial, unconditional love. I like Lamentations 3:32-33—“Although God allows grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.”

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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