Updated: May 22, 2021
Question: Who should I marry? What career should I choose? Is the ministry right for me?
There's no short cut to avoid having to think. God does not encourage intellectual laziness by guaranteeing that whatever you happen to feel is his stamp of approval on your plans.
What is God’s will? Does he have a plan for my life? “Yes” and “Probably not,” are the two answers to this question, for it all depends on what is meant by a “plan.” In the most general terms, God most certainly has a plan for human beings. He created us with a specific nature that is different from all the other creatures, both higher and lower than we are. Our destiny as a species is God’s human plan, and that plan fits into his larger overall plan since, as St. Paul explains in Romans 8, the human plan and the rest of the creation plan are linked. God made it all and intends to redeem it all. So, in general terms God’s plan for you is simple: to transform you from a selfish shadow into a full human person, fit to love and be loved by God. Thus, the greatest two commandments—to love God with all of ourselves and to love our neighbors as ourselves—direct us toward our destiny as human beings. So, is there a plan? Yes, for sure.
But when people ask about God having a “plan,” they usually mean something specific, directly linked to their lives: does God have a plan for whom I should marry? Does God have a plan for which career path I should take? Does God have a plan for what university I should attend? Does God have a plan for whether I should go shopping at this store or that store today? And then, if he does have a plan for these things, how do I figure out what it is? If these questions resonate with you, you probably find yourself trying to read into current events some interpretation that tells you what God wants you to do.
If God wants you to know some specific revelatory knowledge, then when he indicates that to you, he does so in a big way with supernatural evidence to support that supernatural revelation. Think: Moses, burning bush, water turning to blood, staff turning into snakes. Supernatural evidence of a supernatural cause. Problem is, that doesn’t happen in your ordinary life, does it? No, it doesn’t. So, we find ourselves in real pickle here. If God did have a specific plan or will for my life, how could I know what it is? Does he actually have such a plan? And, does it matter?
Let’s start with that last little question: many people imagine that if God doesn’t have their life planned out, then (a) he must not care very much about them and (b) their lives don’t matter all that much. Thus, if God doesn’t have a plan for you, you might worry that he doesn’t love you or that your life is insignificant. So, is it true that if God didn’t have a specific plan for your life, then you are living an unloved, meaningless life?
First, on being loved. God loves you. Infinitely. How do we know this? First, he created you, and he loves all that he created. Second, he gave his own Son to die on your behalf. There is literally nothing that God could do that would demonstrate in a greater way that he loves you. If that sacrifice doesn’t do it for you, then nothing can. So, you are loved. Fact.
Your life's significance isn't defined by following a divine treasure map with an X at the end of it.
Second, on living a significant life. Your life’s significance isn’t defined by following a divine treasure map with an X at the end of it. Your life’s significance comes down to two fundamental things: loving God and loving your neighbor. That’s it. If you don’t love God and your neighbor, your life’s value plunges. And you will become increasingly miserable as you turn inward. Human beings were meant for loving community. If we withdraw from or assault that community, we damn ourselves by cutting ourselves off from the only possible source of happiness. How do we know this? Because God told us in unmistakable terms the actual map of human significance: the two greatest commandments. Running after supposed signs and trying to interpret one’s life as suggesting that God has some sort of additional particular road map for you adds nothing to God’s love for you or to your value to him.
Now let’s turn to the main issue: is there a specific divine will or plan for our lives? Well, there are two related issues that we have to confront in answering this question. First, is there a specific plan at all? Second, if there were, how could we ever know it? So, let’s dive into the second question first: how could we know that God had a specific plan?
We know from our religious history that if God wants to communicate with us, he does so by a massive demonstration of evidence.
Well, we know from our religious history that if God wants to communicate with us, he does so by a massive demonstration of evidence. In the revelation of the Law, Moses had his three signs, Pharaoh had his ten plagues, and the Israelites had all of that plus the Red Sea and Mount Sinai! But when people think that God is communicating his plans to them these days, what they usually say is, “God told me X” or “God led me to do A.” If asked how they know it is God, they just stare at you. They felt it inside their head. Obviously, it’s God.
But is it obvious? We talk to ourselves all the time. We converse with ourselves. We are adept at creating internal conversations with disagreements inside our own minds. These voices are us. And let’s suppose for a moment that they did represent someone else. For example, sometimes the voice in your head is what your mother would have said. Sometimes it’s what your spouse would say. Sometimes it could be your guardian angel suggesting something to you. Sometimes it could be his opposite number trying to tempt you to sin. But to you, it simply appears as an idea or an internal feeling or a voice saying something. You cannot possibly tell the source. And here’s the critical issue: IT DOES NOT MATTER. Why? Because no matter what idea pops into your head, you must critically evaluate it. If it is proposed to you to be believed, the critical question is this: is this idea true? If a course of action is proposed to you, the critical question is this: is this action a good one? Whether the idea popped into your head by angelic means or just the usual way ideas pop into our heads doesn’t matter a whit. Wherever they come from, we are responsible to evaluate them critically for truth and goodness and follow them only if they pass the critical tests.
In summary so far, no thought or feeling that pops into your head is genuine divine revelation. It’s not God. It’s you. And it is your job to evaluate it critically using the rational tools that God gave you. There’s no short cut to avoid having to think. God does not encourage intellectual laziness by guaranteeing that whatever you happen to feel is his stamp of divine approval on your plans! Remember: grace never contradicts nature; it only adds to it. Thus, what God gives through faith and revelation adds to what we know through natural reason, and it adds to the completeness of human nature. God does not undermine our intellects by cheating rationally. You are therefore responsible to make wise decisions in your life. No “phone a friend” moments of instant contact with God that short cut our need to pursue wisdom.
We have no right to impose our desires onto God, grab his authority for what we want to do, and then turn around and expect everyone else to uncritically accept what we say or do.
When people say that God led them to do something, don’t believe it. That sort of statement is a massive imposition of their will onto God. We have no right to impose our desires onto God, grab his authority for what we want to do, and then turn around and expect everyone else to uncritically accept what we say or do. Because that’s what falsely invoking God’s name like this really is, a violation of the third commandment that we not use the Lord’s name vainly.
But could God have a specific will for our lives? We placed that prior question on hold while we looked at the tricky business of figuring out how we could know it if he did. The situation gets complicated because we know that in some cases God did or does have a specific will. For example, in John 9:1-5 there was a fellow that Jesus ran into who was born blind. Jesus’ disciples were under the impression that his infirmity was caused by sin, either in the man or his ancestors, and they were debating which was more likely. As usual, they had it all wrong. Jesus explained that no, this situation was designed by the will of God so that Jesus could heal him and demonstrate God’s love and glory. Jesus then healed him.
In specific instances related to God’s supernatural intervention in human history, certain situations are established by God in order to facilitate his will. He definitely has a will. We’ve already seen that. And the mission of redeeming the world to himself requires divine action at various points in human history. But primarily it required the miraculous intervention and set up in the cases of the Exodus and the Incarnation. God is an actor and he can enter into the human story wherever he wishes. The problem is that we cannot tell his movement unless he reveals it to us with clear demonstrations of supernatural activity. Nobody would have known that that particular blind man was born blind for the specific purpose of Jesus’ eventual healing. Jesus had to tell us that.
God is not sending you coded signs about who you should marry or whether you should be a doctor vs. a lawyer or if you should go to one college vs. another. God wants you to love Him and love your neighbor, and he left you with a full set of faculties to determine the actions you should take in life. God gave you your own will and it has pleased him to give you the freedom to set a course in life to determine how you accomplish the mission of Love that he gave you. Far from being a diminishment of our value, allowing individual human beings to freely and creatively participate in his Divine Purpose of Love is an elevation of the importance and value of the individual human person. For love is God’s plan.