God’s Will and Plan for our Lives
We continue our sermon series, Glad You Asked, where we take on the topics you said in a survey that you wanted to hear more about. questions clustered around the theme of God’s will and plan for our lives.
God’s Will and Plan for our Lives is to Glorify God
Today’s scripture from Ephesians 1:3-14 contains a remarkable line about how God has, “made known to us the mystery of his will.” So, no problem, we know it. The author gives the big picture, explaining that God’s will through Christ is for us to experience God’s unconditional love and acceptance so that we might glorify God. This may sound familiar to those who memorized catechisms where you learned to answer questions about the chief purpose of humanity by saying, “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” We glorify God through being fully alive, having a sense of purpose, serving others.
That’s the big picture of God’s will, but what about everyday decisions? Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done.” Over the last month, I’ve made this my three daily breath prayers. For a few minutes, on the inhale, I pray, “Thy will be done.” I commend this practice for you to follow for a month and see how it shapes your thinking. And on the exhale, the prayer is, “May I do your will.” But how do you discern God’s will on an everyday basis?
Is there a “correct” choice for every decision?
Over the month what I noticed is how I’m inclined to picture it as there is a correct path or decision about what to do as if God is a micromanaging supervisor over my shoulder. (I talked about metaphors for God several weeks ago and I don’t recommend never-pleased, micromanaging supervisor as your go-to metaphor for God). Sometimes I see every decision as having a “right” and “wrong” answer. It’s like a cosmic guessing game where I’m trying to figure out what most glorifies God and I’d better choose the right answer or there will be consequences and I’ll mess it up. I know better but it’s how I’m wired.
I know better because I’ve preached dozens of sermons expressing that God gives us an amazing ability to know what is right. As Jeremiah 31:31-34 says, God has written the law of how to live on our hearts. Most of the time we can look inward for a sense of what is right. We are going to be okay as long as our decisions meet the threefold test. You can ask: Does this action honor and glorify God and, our neighbors, and ourselves, we are going to be okay.
Psalm 139 is a beautiful poem about how well God knows us, counting every hair on our heads (for some of us the number isn’t that high). A number of scriptures speak about God’s plans for us and some take that to mean that God has all the specifics ironed out before you were born with a detailed checklist of whom you should marry, what college you should attend, what house you should buy, what career to pursue, what kind of bread to buy. They see the world as a set of binary choices. Thinking there is a clear right answer that God wants is a good way to go crazy.
God’s plan for you is less about whether you go to this college or that or marry this person or that one—though there are things that may make one a clearly better choice. God’s plan for you has more to do with how you live your life than exactly what you should do in each and every decision. Many times there are lots of good options and God trusts you with the freedom of choice. To choose what seems best to you in your heart. On your money, it says, “In God we trust.” But with your life, we can say, “In you God trusts.” God has given you intelligence, community, great people in your life, scripture to guide you. Go out and live your life. If you fail sometimes, fail boldly in the right direction. Pick yourself up and learn from it and go on.
As our passage, today suggests, God’s plan for us is more about how we live our lives–what values we live–by selecting every specific thing for us. Do you live humbly, gratefully, do you have a servant’s mentality to help others, to make the world more just and kind or do you put yourself at the center of your universe? Are you working to bring God’s kingdom of peace with justice on earth?
As long as you are headed in the direction of trying to do what is honorable to God, others, and yourself, you are going to be okay.
Does God control everything?
Many believe everything that happens is God’s will. Whatever happens, is what God wants to happen, it’s part of the plan. It makes God the puppet master controlling situation.
I found a sermon where the earnest preacher talked about the Sermon on the Mount and how God knows even when a sparrow falls. He believes everything that happens is what God wills. He talked of playing Scrabble with his wife. He said that the letters he draws out of the bag are the letters that God selected him to have. And he doesn’t even “pull rank” as a preacher on her and pray for victory. He just prays that whoever needs to be encouraged will win and whoever needs humbled will lose and God puts the letters in his hand every time. So, every time I draw five I’s, an O, and a U, I wonder why being a Browns fan isn’t humility enough. I’m not sure I believe that God is micromanaging Scrabble games or football games.
Yes, in scripture, we see God working behind the scenes—mostly on people’s hearts as they make decisions that impact other people.
Does everything happen for a reason?
In Romans 8, Paul talks about how all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to God’s purposes. One popular interpretation of that is to say that when something bad happens, it’s just part of the bigger plan. It may look like it’s bad, but it’s actually good and from God. “Everything happens for a reason,” we might say. Right now, it’s a mystery, but later on, we will see that it was a good thing.
Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke University said the belief that everything happens for a reason was part of her core belief system. She had just published a book titled, Blessed, was happy in her marriage, landed her dream job at Duke, and had a beautiful baby boy. She was on a roll. But then she was diagnosed with an advanced and deadly form of cancer.
In a TED talk, she says she always had a belief that good things come back to you. You live in faith, you work hard, you are kind to others, you are generous and like throwing a boomerang, good things come back to you. “As you sow, shall you reap,” is a Bible verse that gets at that. But with cancer and the thought of leaving behind a son who needed her, she struggled to find a reason that God wanted her to go through that, why God did it to her. She went through all the scenarios, was God trying to teach her a lesson, was she being punished? Was she supposed to be a model to inspire others on how to get through a hard time?
She tells about when someone acted dismissive of their situation and her husband kind of lost it. Someone threw out the line, “Everything happens for a reason.” And her husband went off. “I’d sure like to know what it is? What is the reason my wife is dying, to have my child grow up without his mother?
We’d prefer to believe that life is not chaos, and capricious, that there is a formula that explains why people deserve what they get, that is not the way The good news is not so much that God prevents bad things from happening but God is there when they do. God suffers alongside us when we suffer.
Her next book was titled, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I Used to Love. Sometimes the boomerang doesn’t come back in the way we expect. In the same way that God probably doesn’t manipulate Scrabble draws, God probably doesn’t manipulate cancer cells to grow in your body. Nor does God cause bad things to happen. There is a difference between saying God causes bad things to happen and even though something bad happened, God can bring something good out of it.
God doesn’t will everything that happens
Things happen that are against God’s will all the time. If not, why did Jesus teach us to pray, “Thy will be done?” God gave people free will and we frequently use it to do things that are contrary to God’s will. We live in a world where illness, accidents, and catastrophes happen. It’s a mistake to attribute the bad stuff to God, and it’s counterproductive to spend your time feeling guilty and beating yourself up for the bad stuff that happens in your life when you assume that God is doing it to you because you are a bad person. No. God is merciful and loves you everlastingly. That is the big picture that Ephesians describes.
Dr. Bowler says she didn’t find anything like God’s pre-planned reason for her suffering, but she did discover this overwhelming sense of being covered in a blanket of pure love by God, her family, church, and friends and it was enough to get her through.
God brings good out of horrible situations
All things work together for good is about how God sees a bad thing that happens and says, “Hmm. That was bad. Now how can we bring something good out of it.” In the Old Testament, when Joseph had been sold by his brothers into slavery and years during a famine go to Egypt and ask for food from a powerful government leader, the leader turned out to be Joseph who had risen out of slavery. When Joseph reveals himself he says his brothers’ actions were meant for evil, but God meant to bring something good out of it.
That’s our God, working behind the scenes on our hearts that we might be inclined to do good things ourselves, to make the world more user-friendly. It goes back to the big picture idea. Because we know we are loved by God we are free to not have to live up to other’s expectations, and their ideas of what we should do. We have a broad canvas and God’s interested in seeing what we will make of it.