No, God Doesn’t Have a Plan. But That’s OK.

Last week was Spring Break, and I’d promised the kids I’d take them to the local trampoline park. They love the place… though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the National Association of Orthopedic Surgeons is a major shareholder.

Anyway, the morning we were going to go, a Facebook friend posted a 50% off coupon. I had actually opened my laptop to find the trampoline park website, Facebook was open, and the coupon caught my eye first.

I was tickled and felt a jolt of gratitude.

And God had nothing to do with it.

That may seem like an obvious statement to some, but there’s a strain of theology out there that claims God is guiding the large and small details of our lives. That’s what many people mean when they say that God is sovereign, that nothing happens outside of God’s providence and plan.

John Vest recently wrote about this view of theology:

In my experience as a pastor, the most commonly held theological belief among both youth and adults is that everything happens for a reason. For most people, this means that God has a plan and that everything somehow fits in it. We long to believe that our lives and human history are not a series of random coincidences. We want to trust that God is in control and that deep within every situation—good or bad—some kind of meaning can be found.

He ultimately can’t go there, and neither can I.

3654636770_3b1a5d470bSome people find comfort in the idea that someday the curtain may be pulled back and we’ll see how everything fit together, like some cosmic Rube Golberg device. I don’t know. If God really is all-powerful, surely God can work God’s purposes out in ways that don’t involve children getting cancer or thousands perishing in a tsunami.

If God has a plan, I don’t think it’s being petulant or faithless to hold God accountable if that plan doesn’t correspond to who we know or believe God to be.

Instead, I don’t attribute bad things that happen to God’s will. But there’s a problem there too: we end up giving God none of the blame and all of the credit. When something good happens, we thank God. When something terrible happens, we say God grieves with us and can make good come from it. That makes it sound like God has a plan for the good stuff, but washes God’s hands of the bad stuff. This is unsatisfying too.

Instead, I believe life isn’t a matter of plan—God’s or ours—but of improvisation. The basic rule of improv is “yes-and,” to accept what’s offered and build on it. Like this recent StoryCorps piece on NPR. Jeff Wilson accidentally hit Tammie Baird with his car when they were both young adults. The experience had a major impact on them both, as you would imagine. He ended up becoming a surgical technician who does a lot of orthopedic work. She became a stuntwoman, of all things, and has been “hit” by countless cars since that first collision 30 years ago.

Plan, or yes-and?

The former may be comforting to some, but the latter more accurately reflects a world in which drivers just get distracted sometimes. And cells grow uncontrollably. And plates shift under the oceans, creating massive waves.

Plan has the virtue of rationality, but yes-and has the virtue of creativity. It also reflects our lives. We improvise all the time. We work within constraints. We are called upon to be flexible and creative. And if we are created in the image of God, I think improvisation is part of God’s nature too. I certainly see it in scripture all over the place.

So if God doesn’t have a plan, what does God have? A direction. An orientation. God seeks to move, and seeks to move us, in the direction of love and wholeness, no matter what the circumstance. All of this reminds me of Martin Luther King’s arc in the moral universe, bending towards justice.

In fact, if God is love, maybe it’s not accurate to say that God has a direction or an orientation or an arc. Maybe God is those things.

This idea of an improvising God makes people uncomfortable. Isn’t God supposed to be all-powerful? What kind of God isn’t capable of dramatic intervention? Answer: the Christian God. Folks, we just went through this last week. An improvising God, working within circumstance, isn’t a heretical idea. In fact, in the crucifixion, God voluntarily puts on human weakness and shame. Herod and Pilate and the high priest and the rest of that corrupt system come after Jesus and seek to silence his message about the kingdom of God here on earth, not because they’re doing God’s bidding according to The Plan, but because that’s what powers and principalities do.

And yet… Holy Week is full of yes-and.
Yes is “she has anointed me for my burial.”
Yes is “put away your weapon, Peter.”
Yes is standing there when Pilate asks, “What is truth?”
Yes is “Father, forgive them.”

And the resurrection? I don’t know what the resurrection is. Except that it’s the ultimate And.


photo credit: COBOL Rube Goldberg by Phil Manker via photopin (license)

16 thoughts on “No, God Doesn’t Have a Plan. But That’s OK.

  1. Rosemary

    Lovely, MaryAnn. I have long felt (and taught) that God doesn’t have a plan, God had a purpose. The purpose is that “and” (nice metaphor) bending toward justice and ultimately toward Love.

  2. Mitch Teemley

    Very interesting take. Somewhere between the evangelical “God is in control” view and Rabbi Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” view.

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Yes–I haven’t read that book in a long time but I think he basically chooses a God of love over a God of power. Which I think is easy to do from a Christian perspective but I’d like to read it again to see how he gets there from a Jewish one.

  3. Paul Carlson

    Love this! Thanks for writing it. It’s hard not to notice the attraction (to take an extreme example) many folks have for “Heaven is for Real” and similar books/movies. In a random world, something needs to make sense. The grab for certainty is understandable, since it is fairly obvious that we are not in control of anything. What it all means for traditional Christian faith is unclear, but I tend to put it in the category of “growing up.” The God of Sure Things and The Big Plan is a child’s God, who can make it snow at Christmas and generally get us what we need when we ask for it. It’s in our liturgies and public prayers. Making the transition to adulthood can be difficult and more than challenging, sometimes frightening. Many individuals have made the journey, but I am not sure our religious institutions have done it or are doing it, or want to. Big question!

  4. craigtbarth

    Interesting! If I understand you correctly, you are not minimizing the omnipotence or the divinity of God. To me, changing someone’s heart is just as miraculous as parting of the Red Sea. If God is One of direction rather than plan, where does free will and sin fit in? (are my Calvinist roots showing 😉 ?)

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Yes good question… I see us as partners or co-creators with God. It is in God’s nature to interact with us in this way, as evidenced by the incarnation.

      But who knows 😉

  5. Stephanie

    Thank you so much. This came at the right time. For the past week I’ve been in a bit of an existential crisis. I’ve never subscribed to the notion that God allows or does not allow good and bad to happen to people. I’ve never liked the idea of that God would heal one person but allow someone else to suffer as part of some “plan”. However, if that is the case then is God just a bystander? Causally observing as we fumble through life? That idea makes me despair. And how do I pray if I don’t believe my prayers will be answered in the way we hope…w/ some sort of magical outcome. I have a difficult time w/ Christians who talk about Jesus as some sort of magician who can magically make things happen for those who pray hard enough or are faithful enough. And if Jesus’ role isn’t to “make things happen” (rather we make things happen ourselves, creating our own opportunities) then what is His role?
    Ugh, the eternal questions…make my brain hurt.

  6. Marthame Sanders

    This is great. My theological views have transformed in this direction over time; and yet, it wasn’t until reading your piece that it connected with my growing passion for improv. What a lovely, supple image of God, who can take any offer and mold it into something with purpose. For me, that’s at the heart of Joseph’s “What you intended for ill, God intended for good” – not that God wanted brothers to sell a sibling into slavery, but that God’s intention (or purpose) from the beginning was for goodness in all things.

    Thank you.

  7. Susan

    Are dramatic intervention and working within circumstance the same thing. It seems so to me. God is certainly able to do miracles, after all He rose from the grave. God did have a plan to come to earth and save us from our sins. He knew he would die and rise again on the third day. He knew that Judas would betray him and Peter would deny him. How could God decide WHO would betray him? Maybe that is just SIN. I don’t believe we are puppets or that God makes some children and adults sick while others are healthy. But I do believe in prayer and it certainly seems that prayers are sometimes answered. Why aren’t they all answered? I don’t know! I have a lot of questions. I don’t think any of us knows …except God. Is there a BIG PLAN or is God just omnipotent and omniscient?


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