One of our regular readers, Francois, asked a question a few weeks ago that deserved a careful response from Father John Bartunek, who was on retreat. He has returned and has offered the following:
Q: I don’t know if it is possible but there is a topic I would like to suggest for the RC blog. Oftentimes, Father Michael and Brother Matthew refer to God’s plan for them or for us (e.g. from Br Matthew latest post «I think this is God’s plan to keep me humble – something far beyond a theology grade. Christ decided to press this point home by having my meditation the day after pre-programmed as the New Testament vision this exact point». Actually many North American Christians refer to that plan. Personally, I am uncomfortable with the idea that God has a plan specifically designed for me and me alone. I say personally but my understanding of God’s plan comes from a French priest and theologian, François Varone in his book Ce Dieu absent qui fait problème (That problematic absent God). Varone who teaches theology to priests in Europe states that God has a global plan for mankind but does not decide if Br. Matthew will fail his test or if Jenny will break her leg today. According to Varone, God is the architect who designed the plan for his kingdom and we are the craftsmen who build it. However, in doing so, we are given opportunities to make choices. In other words, God provides us human beings with a global plan (the same for everybody) and with different tool boxes (the gifts of the Spirit). It’s up to us, individually and collectively, to make the rights choices in using our respective tools, in order to follow THE global plan…Francois
A: God definitely has a global plan. The Catechism even uses the word “plan” in its very first paragraph: “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life…” I am always deeply encouraged when I read that sentence, along with the rest of that paragraph and the ones that follow (you can find them all here).
A Personal God
But God also has a very personal relationship with each one of us, a personal calling. This too can be referred to as a “plan” (though the term “pre-programmed” that you mention in your question has, I agree, unfortunate connotations). Jesus’ very personal relationships with Peter and Paul are prime examples of this. You also find it evident in the lives of the saints, who sometimes receive alarmingly specific assignments and tasks from God. St Paul even goes so far to say that the good works we are called to do are “prepared in advance” for us by the Lord: “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them” (Ephesians 2:10). I also like the way the Catechism refers, indirectly, to this shockingly personalized action of God in our lives: “Although man can forget God or reject him, He never ceases to call every man to seek him, so as to find life and happiness” (Catechism, 30). That ongoing effort of God to draw each of us closer to him is, in a very real way, God’s personal “plan” for our lives, though it is a dynamic plan more than a “pre-programming,” a relationship more than a formula. When Jesus pointed out that every hair on our head is numbered by God (Matthew 10:30), and that every detail of creation is under his fatherly care, even the light step of a sparrow (Matthew 10:29), he was eagerly trying to convince us of his personal knowledge and love for each one of us. This comes out clearly also in Psalm 139.
From what you say in your question, I am certain you would agree with everything mentioned so far. But it is those truths, that God has a global plan and also constantly issues a highly personal call to each of his children, that will help answer the issues you raised.
A Providential God
The difficulty you bring up has to do with how God balances his global plan, his personal call, and our human freedom. If every detail of our lives were already determined by “God’s plan,” that would eliminate human freedom. We would just be God’s robots instead of God’s children. How God balances these different elements is what we call his Providence. Through Providence, he achieves his ends without violating our freedom. We simply can’t understand how he does that. Our limited human intelligence can never explain it exhaustively, and so we sometimes end up presenting partial explanations as if they were complete.
The eighteenth-century Deists tried to explain it in terms very similar to the ones you mention in your question. To them, God was like a clock-maker: he made the universe and equipped us to play our part within it, then stood back and let it tick. There is a certain truth to this, insofar as God allows us to exercise our freedom, to freely and creatively cooperate with his plan of salvation or to rebel against it (see the Catechism paragraphs 302-314). But that doesn’t alter the shocking fact that God is constantly thinking about each one of us, and that he “never ceases to call every man” to know him and follow him better.
In other words, God is always at our side, always eager and ready to reveal himself, to guide us, to invite us, to speak to us, even through the most mundane and normal occurrences and coincidences. That doesn’t mean that he “pre-programs” all of them – he allows the laws of nature and human freedom to operate as he designed them. But his omnipotence, omniscience and love are such that he can work personally in our lives through them. (Sometimes, he does choose to supersede his laws of nature; we call those instances miracles.) When a mundane coincidence or occurrence touches someone’s heart or enlightens someone’s mind, therefore, considering it to be part of God’s “plan” can certainly reflect a healthy, faith-filled point of view. If it leads to a passive, fatalistic Christianity, however, it would be falling into the other extreme (related to a heresy called “Quietism”).
Scripture and the history of the saints are alarmingly personal stories. God has a global plan, yes, but each of his children is unique, with a unique calling within that plan, and a unique, personal relationship with him. This can make us uncomfortable, especially if we have a bit of Jansenism in our spiritual subconscious, a bit too much self-reliance and a sense that we need to earn God’s love instead of simply accepting it and responding to it. As the Catechism puts it: our “God, however, is the ‘living God’ who gives life and intervenes in history” (2112). This opens up the question of “God’s will” for our lives and how specific it gets. You can find a reflection on that topic here.
I would like to conclude this reflection with another remarkable paragraph from the Catechism, one that expresses beautifully this intensely personal activity of God in our lives:
“The witness of Scripture is unanimous that the solicitude of divine providence is concrete and immediate; God cares for all, from the least things to the great events of the world and its history. The sacred books powerfully affirm God’s absolute sovereignty over the course of events: ‘Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases’ (Psalm 115:3). And so it is with Christ, ‘who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens’ (Revelation 3:7). As the book of Proverbs states: ‘Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will be established’ (Proverbs 19:21)… Jesus asks for childlike abandonment to the providence of our heavenly Father who takes care of his children’s smallest needs… [Catechism: 303, 305]
Yours sincerely in Christ, Fr John Bartunek, LC