Trail marker photo by Eric Schmuttenmaer on Flickr Creative Commons
I knew it was God’s Plan for us to be married. At 14, I’d had a bona fide Sign From God — the details of which are too excruciatingly embarrassing for me to recount even now, nearly 20 years later; picture a latter-day Gideon’s fleece reimagined through the earnestness of adolescence — that J., my 9th-grade boyfriend, was The One. I’d talked it over with J. and he’d agreed: our happily-ever-after was clearly God’s Plan.
My religious upbringing to that point had been a confused Christianesque mishmash, from a childhood as a socially conservative Presbyterian that took a hard right into traditionalist Evangelicalism in my early teens and landed in the small, deeply fundamentalist Christian school where I met J. One of the major lessons I’d picked up somewhere along the way was the idea that God Had a Plan for My Life; and that my job, as a Christian, was to suss out what this plan was and stick to it as closely as possible. Perhaps this was supposed to be an empowering sort of teaching, that God was so intrinsically involved in the lives of each of us as individuals that They had great things in store for each of us in unique ways; but in practice it wasn’t empowering, but paralyzing.
The problem was, you see, that if we didn’t identify God’s Plan for Our Lives and stick to it as closely as possible, then we were living Outside the Will of God. All it took was one false step, just one instance of misinterpreting God’s intention for my life, to deviate from the path; and just like that I could end up on an alternate timeline, unable to make it back into God’s Will from the parallel universe I’d wandered onto. God’s Will was like a tricky Choose Your Own Adventure book in which every storyline but one ends with you being eaten by alligators or run over by a lawn tractor, and if you turn to page 46 instead of page 23 you’re doomed to a lifetime outside of God’s favor.
But at 14, I knew the Plan. I was working from the teacher’s copy of the textbook, with all the answers supplied in advance and helpful extra notes in the margins. The plan was to stay at Faith until I graduated from high school; get a job in town for a year while J., who was a grade behind me, finished school; and then get married and enroll together at Bob Jones University. After we finished our degrees, we would follow God’s call to preach the Gospel to all nations by becoming missionaries to some jungly faraway country, and we’d have a whole hutful of missionary babies.
And then, halfway through the school year, my parents announced that my dad had accepted a promotion that meant we’d be moving 500 miles away. Everything I thought I knew about God’s Plan for My Life shattered. I was angry at my parents, certain that their decision must be outside of God’s will — how else to explain the way this move would pull me off the path God had laid out for me? — but in the weeks leading up to moving day, I began to make peace with it. After all, I reasoned, no one said following God’s plan would be easy; J. and I would just have to work harder to keep our relationship going until I could move back and we could pick up with the whole marriage-BJU-missionary-babies part of the plan.
So on my last day at Faith, I led morning devotions in my homeroom. I shared with my classmates the verse that I was clinging to amidst my fear of moving to a new place, of not knowing how God would work things out for me and J., of straying from God’s will for me:
“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 hope and a future.” -Jeremiah 29:11
Six weeks and 500 miles later, I received a letter from J. saying he was through with our relationship. I cried a while, and then I stopped. I dated other guys. I married Aaron and had babies. I didn’t move back down south or go to BJU or become a missionary.
And somewhere along the way I slowly let go of my certainty that God had one specific plan for my life and that it was my duty to figure it out and follow it. I began to sink into the notion that “free will” means God is really, truly trusting us to make our own choices, and not waiting to yell Gotcha! if we make the wrong one.
More educated people than me can take apart Jeremiah 29:11, about how it’s not some prosperity-gospel promise for all individual Christians ever but rather a prophecy to give the exiled children of Israel hope during a period of captivity in which the promises they clung to seemed to have gone off the rails; and about not only the restored Israel, but also the hope of the someday God-With-Us, of a God Whose advent among humankind was not to harm us (Don’t be afraid!) but to give us hope. I don’t have the theological chops to dig into all of that. I only know what that verse is not: a command for us to make ourselves fearful or useless from trying to not make any wrong moves.
But some days that much freedom is a harder place to live than even the paralysis of the which-plan-is-the-right-Plan? place. Even if I believe God is waiting at the end of every one of my multiverse timelines to cry “That was totally awesome!“ I still have to make a choice — to take a step without the safety of God somehow telegraphing the one and only correct path into my brain; and what that means is, No matter which way I go, it might hurt.
“Right” is so much harder to sort out when there might not be some objective, cosmic Right Way beyond loving my neighbor as myself. Times like now, when the end of my undergrad years is finally in sight (at last!) and I have to decide: what comes next? — I would like there to be One True Plan that I can figure out if I just spend enough time praying hard enough. And believe me, I am praying like mad, constantly:
God, what happens now? What do You want me to do?
but the answer I get back isn’t Go this way next, but
Well, what do you want to do? What makes you feel alive?
and it’s almost as if God does want me to figure out what I was made for — not because it’s a test I could fail, but because God delights in my fearful, wonderful me-ness. And God wants me to delight in it too, not to live in the paralysis that I might make a wrong move.
If God has a plan for me, it is hope — hope that comes from knowing I am God’s child, knowing that who I am in God (and who I am in my own skin) is enough. This is the hope that lets me lean into the hard decisions, make decisions that might hurt, do my best to choose wisely, but know that no matter where I go there will be neighbors that I will try to love, and no matter what I choose God will be there to catch me at the end.