I recently finished reading the Bible – all of it. I even read Leviticus, so you know I’m serious. After all that reading, I’ve begun to understand why I like the Bible. Sure, I enjoy the proverbs and the prophecies, but what I can really bite into are the stories. I love stories, storytellers, and telling stories. There is something about stories that makes them an effective form of communication; they give me something to relate to.
The stories in the Bible that I find particularly entertaining always have a main character who has an exceptional lack of understanding about where they are going next. With the exception of Noah, almost none of the major characters in the Bible have a clue what God’s plan is. Take James and John for example. If I were to ask what their life plan was (before they met Jesus), they would probably have said fishing. Fishing was their plan for tomorrow, next week, and the foreseeable future.
The same idea applies to David, the shepherd, not David the king. At any given point before he was anointed, David would have told me his life plan was to, more or less, watch sheep. David had a plan; God’s plan however was for David to leave the sheep fields, kill a giant, and become a king, all this obviously with a few events scattered in between. There was nothing particularly wrong with David’s plan, but it wasn’t God’s plan. So often, when we tell God that we have a plan, I think that He chuckles. Our plans must be pretty funny to an omniscient God.
In 2013, I had a plan that I told God all about it. I told God that I was going to
move abroad and become a missionary. However, I had four stipulations.1. I would leave in January 2014 (to best suit my schedule for university).2. I would go to a non-English speaking country, so I could learn a new language. 3. I would need a partner to make things more fun and interesting.4. I would not work with kids or teenagers.
I set out to look for a dream position that matched my set of four. But I kept coming up with about 25% success. One out of four wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for. Finally, my friend, Courtney, mentioned she was hoping to travel. She had already found a position and was hoping to start in January 2014. This was my best option yet. She was going to New Zealand to work as a boarding dean at a high school. I was still uninterested in working with kids... teenagers seemed too much like wild cards. All the same, two out of four stipulations were met, which was better than any previous openings.
Eventually, I agreed to go. Courtney and I started to work on getting visas and other applications. We were soon hired and ready to go. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, our January 2014 departure date fell through and our plan moved forward to July. At this point though, I wanted to finalize something. I had been uncertain for over a year, so I bought the plane ticket, having met only one out of four stipulations, or so I thought.
One day in April, about 3 months before I would leave, my brother Ryan, who was also dating Courtney at the time, walked into our living room and told me that Courtney had just received a job offer. It was a perfect opportunity; the thing was that this job would start in May. Naively, I brushed it off as unfortunate. She couldn’t accept the job since we were both about to move to New Zealand. This is where the conversation became somewhat awkward and Ryan simply said, “Yeah... she’s not going anymore.”
I flew to New Zealand in July. I had moved about as far away from home as was physically possible, to a place where I did not know a single person. It was July, I had moved from a beautiful American summer to a dreary New Zealand winter. Fortunately, my formerly glorious plan was an epic failure and life did not lead me where I had expected.
In Jeremiah, Hananiah tells the captive Israelites that he has a plan. God was going to release them from Babylonian captivity in just two years. Everyone was probably rather excited because two years wasn’t that bad when it comes to the average biblical interpretations captivity. Everything is great until Jeremiah steps in and asks Hananiah where he got this plan. Jeremiah goes to the Israelites and tells them Hananiah is wrong and then delivers his famous verse, 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 a hope and a future.” To the Israelites, this might sound like good news, until Jeremiah couples it with a new, more realistic, timeline. The Israelites hearing this verse we so often quote, had to also come to an understanding that God’s plan to prosper and not to harm, would not take place for 70 years. That meant the people who heard this verse had to come to an understanding that they and their children would likely die as captives. God’s plan sounded a whole lot less fun than Hananiah’s.
When I moved to New Zealand I wouldn’t say that I was upset to be there, but I wasn’t excited either. My plan had failed, epically. Fortunately, it didn’t take me 70 years to see why I was sent. In 2013, when I was making my epic plan, I had no idea that I would end up moving to New Zealand, alone, in July, to work with kids. At that time, there was no way I would have accepted that position. Courtney’s plans for New Zealand also failed, but she ended up way better off with a real job and a marriage proposal from my brother, both of which were much smarter and more responsible than traveling to New Zealand with me.
So often, when we tell God that we have a plan, I think that He chuckles, but if He told us His plan, I think that we would laugh in His face. Reflecting on all of this made me think back on the Bible stories that I enjoyed so much. Sure, the characters almost never know what is going to happen next, but how they would react if they were told ahead of time.
What would Peter say if I told him that he was going to walk on water? How would Hosea react if I told him that part of God’s great and awesome plan was for him to marry a prostitute? Sarah was actually bold enough to laugh at God when He told her that she was going to have a child. God’s plan doesn’t always make sense to us. Sometimes it’s laughable, and at other times it’s just confusing.
Let’s imagine Joseph at the bottom of a pit, listening to his brothers debate whether to kill or sell him into slavery. As he sits there, bloodied and naked because he was stripped of his coat of many colors, I say “Hey Joseph, you know how God has a plan? Well, from here it’s going to get a lot worse. First, you are going to be sold into slavery. Just as that starts to get good there is going to be this whole sexual harassment thing that doesn’t really go in your favor. After all that, you are going to go to prison for a while, but here is where it gets good. You are going to interpret a couple of dreams about cattle and wheat and then you will get placed as the second in command of Egypt and essentially save the world from famine.”
Imagine the evil glare that Joseph would send my way if I told him that story while he sits in the bottom of the pit! At this point in his life, God’s plan sounds so ridiculous, so laughable, that it’s incomprehensible. Life, however, rarely leads us where we expect. Amazingly, with His plan, God can make all these bad things work for good.
Here are three more names: Amon, Josiah, and Jeconiah. If you recognize these names, congratulations because I had to look them up. My guess is even if you do recognize them, you don’t actually know much or anything about them. In this group there are kings, exiles, and captives. Some of them listened to the bitter words, “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 a hope and a future.” These guys probably had a difficult time understanding God’s plan. Living in captivity wasn’t a part of their plan, but God made it work. You see, these guys are three of many listed in Matthew’s genealogy that leads from Abraham, to King David and subsequently to Jesus. Amon, Josiah, and Jeconiah didn’t get to see God’s big picture. God’s timeline was so much bigger than any one of them.
To any one observer, God’s plan can seem absolutely ridiculous, but fortunately, life rarely leads us where we expect.