How can I plan my life and trust God’s will?

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In Got Questions
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I’m like a scooter driver in downtown Hanoi: I like predictable conditions.

If you visit a city like Hanoi, where scooters typically flood down each and every street—seemingly all the time, seemingly unregulated—someone will tell you the simple key to crossing the street as pedestrian: predictability.

If you’re trying to cross an intersection on foot, you can’t wait for a stop light and a “WALK” sign—no such help is coming. Instead, what you have to do is stand at the curb, look at the oncoming wave of riders, and start walking. Don’t worry, the scooter drivers will see you and adjust to you (most of the time?) as long as you keep your end of the bargain: walk in a straight line at a steady pace. In other words, be predictable. If you’re predictable, they can adapt and keep zipping by without stopping or even slowing, and everyone gets where he or she needs to. The key is predictable conditions.

I like predictable conditions.

I was thinking recently about how unforeseen circumstances (like a shelter-in-place order during a global pandemic) can teach us new things about ourselves, our neighbors, God, and the world we live in. Then I remembered circumstances like these can also teach or re-teach us very old things.

One of these very old things that has been most impressed on me the last few weeks has been the fragility of the plans we make. Our plans are—and have always been—subject to change without notice. Again, this has always been true. I just tend to forget it during long stretches of what feels like enduring calm and unchecked agency. I can plot my course. I can sketch out the steps—first here, then there, and then I’ll arrive. I can see it through.

That approach works great until it doesn’t. Until disaster strikes or a circuit blows or a levee breaks or the doctor calls, and then we’re awash in the humbling awareness that our plans are ever so fragile. Our plans depend on so much more than us—our plans depend on all manner of people and systems to cooperate, and that cooperation is always tenuous and never guaranteed. Thus, our plans are—and have always been—subject to change without notice.

This passage from James 4 comes to mind:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes."

Oof. Apparently, I’m not a master of my own destiny. More a mist than a master, and so I shouldn’t go around boasting about my plans. But what’s the alternative? Are we supposed to make it all up as we go along? Does God want us to abandon the practice of making plans altogether? Not quite. James 4 adds:

Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

Here the invitation from God isn’t to abandon our plans, but to think rightly about ourselves and our plans as we make them: I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, my life is a mist, and my plans are subject to change without notice, so therefore I will hold tightly to Jesus and hold loosely to my plans.

I had plans for this spring. You probably did too. Chances are you have had to cancel or modify those plans in ways you never could’ve imagined when you first made them.

I have plans for this summer. You probably do too. What has become of those plans? We just don’t know yet, do we? Here’s what we can know: I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, my life is a mist, and my plans are subject to change without notice, so therefore I will hold tightly to Jesus and hold loosely to my plans.

There’s no doubt in my mind God wants to use these unprecedented circumstances to teach and re-teach us important things about who he is, who we are, how to love our neighbors, and how to live well in the world. With our plans canceled, modified, postponed, or in doubt, let us attend to God’s presence with us so that we can rejoice in him and trust that he holds the future.

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