[6th in a series on abuses of the Bible in the service of power]
This post requires a careful distinction. We stand at a fork in the road where both ways forward are marked with the same sign: “Trust in God’s Plan.” The choices, however, lead to very different destinations. One leads toward hope, courage, responsibility, and freedom. The other leads toward resignation, purposelessness, shallow thinking, servitude and perhaps festering resentment.
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:11-14 NRSV)
That passage, a favorite of many people seeking encouragement, comes from a vision beyond the impending doom of destruction and exile. Evil times are coming because the people and their rulers would not listen to the word of their God but chose instead to hide themselves in the false security of official religion. They fortified themselves with certitude that Jerusalem could never fall to an enemy, the king descended from the great king David could never be toppled from his throne, and Yahweh’s own Temple would forever guarantee security and prosperity – regardless of what Yahweh God’s own prophet tried to tell them. They had removed from their religion all commitment to faithfulness, justice, and compassion. All that remained was toxic belief that the way things were was the way things were meant to be and would remain forevermore because they were, supposedly, divinely ordained.
Looking at the passage from Jeremiah quoted above, however, we can see that God has “plans” for the people, for their turning and seeking God wholeheartedly, their restoration to being Yahweh God’s covenant people, and their future well-being as God’s faithful people, IF ONLY they will listen and seek wholeheartedly. It does NOT say God has an all-inclusive plan automatically following a script written in advance. That distinction brings us to the fork in the road.
The notion that everything happens according to a great divine plan is unbiblical and unhelpful. It comforts the rich and powerful while narcotizing the poor, cheated, and desperate. “Are you rich? That’s God’s plan for you. So, enjoy! Eat, drink, and be merry!” “Are you poor? That’s God’s plan for you. Accept it, and serve your superiors without complaint!” No! Such oppressive lies are not biblical at all!
Jesus was not a fool. When he taught his followers to pray that God’s will would indeed be done on earth, he was not telling them to pray for the inevitable. There was and still is a struggle going on. The world’s ways of power, prestige, and privilege war against God’s will and do great harm. God’s desire is not simply to establish a perfect world but to win the hearts and minds of humans and of humanity as a whole so that we will accept our responsibility as the creature to whom care of the earth was entrusted. God wants willing love and willingly wrought justice, not mindless obedience or resignation to fate.
As a Presbyterian whose theological ancestors fell prey to a doctrine of predestination that was degraded into fatalism, I have long felt compelled to speak against all forms of determinism. No, everything is not predetermined, and much happens that is not in accordance with God’s will. Let me put simply. It was not God’s will that the child’s mother or father got cancer, suffered, and died. It was not God’s will that the five-year-old girl was kidnapped. It was not God’s will that Hitler and his Nazis set out to kill all the Jews. It was not God’s will that the robber barons of America’s Gilded Age grew filthy rich. It was not God’s will that Japan should bomb Pearl Harbor or that we should bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki nor that we should firebomb Dresden. It is not God’s will that parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated should then see their children get measles. Mental illness is not God’s will; neither is depression or addiction or suicide. Nor is it God’s will that Donald Trump should be president of the United States. We are the ones who vote, choose not to vote, or are blocked from voting by political maneuvers designed to steal an election. All who hold power stand under God’s judgment; none has carte blanche to do as he or she pleases, and we cannot rightly imagine that Trump or any other president may act unjustly or maliciously in accord with God’s plan and so with God’s approval. No!
But God does still have plans for us and for this created world. The poor are not called to resign themselves to inferiority and deprivation. The rich are not entitled to declare their wealth and comfort to be God’s blessings granted to them because God is either rewarding them for something or favoring them above others for some reason. The Bible is not fatalistic. Indeed, it is the very opposite of fatalistic, proclaiming release for the captives, God’s love for the poor and the sick, and God’s opposition to power structures that keep the rich increasing their wealth and the poor sinking further into their poverty. A person cannot amass wealth through cunning greed and then call that wealth God’s blessing.
Yes, God has plans for us but NOT some grand plan that reduces us to mere chess pawns or mindless slaves like ants under the sway of their queen. We are not puppets. We make choices, bear responsibility, and need the changes that come from truly seeking God’s will and way.
Fatalism is an enemy of faith and hope. Resignation to injustices and sufferings is not submission to God’s will. So-called destiny does not justify or excuse brutality, slaughter, or theft by illegal or legal means. It was never God’s will that Europeans should sweep across this continent, destroying its native peoples. Manifest Destiny was a lie.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors; lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. . . . Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD . . . .
Take my hand precious Lord lead me on