God's plan isn't about us, but what we can do to love others
“God has a particular plan for your life.”
I heard that over and over in church settings growing up. Wow, that seemed like such a unique and special thing.
Trying to uncover it, however, was like the proverbial search for “a needle in a haystack.” The well-intentioned meaning of these unsolicited “prophets” for my life caused me varying degrees of trauma and downright guilt over a few years of adolescence and into my early college years. I sensed an unnecessary pressure. I struggled mightily both to discover and implement the alleged secretive plan so that I could walk through the door to my faith-related life, which always seemed to relate to some career “calling” or vocation.
In retrospect, I perceive things so very differently. While I respect others who think in such terms, I see a few potential flaws. First, it is overly self-focused. Narcissistic is too strong of a word, but constantly looking in a mirror to figure out God’s so-called unique purpose for one’s life is an insular endeavor that can prevent us from seeing others who need us.
More significantly, I strongly believe God’s “plan” for everyone is identical. In a nutshell, we are to love others impartially.
As a Christian, Jesus’s life-model and teachings present a roadmap for the “narrow…way [that] is hard [and] that leads to life, and…few…find it” (Matthew 7:14). In line with Jesus’s Jewish tradition, we walk properly — living step by step — when we are “holy” because “God [is] holy” (Leviticus 19:2).
What does holiness look like? Practically, God intends, indeed commands us, to be holy by practically loving our “neighbor” as well as “the alien,” meaning anyone who is different (Leviticus 19:18 and 34). Quoting Leviticus, Jesus similarly prioritized loving others (Mark 12:31). The author of the New Testament Epistle of I John tells us that “God is love” and that “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (I John 4:16 and 7).
Whether Christian, Jewish, a follower of another authentic faith tradition, or simply someone endeavoring to be a good person, we all have the same vocation. Our common calling is to love each other.
The Apostle Paul adds other superlative qualities that are all under the sacred umbrella of love: “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12), as well as “joy, peace …generosity … and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). If we simply pick one or a few of these character traits and work hard to truly live them each day, then we will be living in a loving manner.
Some things that often pass for “religion” in word and deed these days are inconsistent with these love-oriented characteristics. For example, any actions or words rooted in hatred, exclusivity, violence, arrogance or partiality miss the mark and reek of inauthenticity if not hypocrisy. As a Christian, I do not associate any such characteristics with Jesus. As a religious person, I also reject them as irreligious. Finally, simply as a human being, I reject them as inhumane and indecent.
Although we all have the same love-based priority for meaningful living, we are still unique individuals. In contrast to digging for some pre-determined “plan” to discover like a personalized buried key, we can instead introspectively and intentionally reflect upon our gifts, talents, circumstances and opportunities. This means looking into our hearts, minds and experiences rather than constantly in a mirror.
We peer into ourselves so that we can make wise, self-determined, and good choices during our respective gifts of one mortal life each. How will we spend our time and talents? How can we most effectively love, care for and help others in our life circumstances? Our circumstances are certainly not static, so we should periodically re-think how we are living and what changes might be in order.
When my wife and I first married, we lived in what for us at the time was a nice apartment. The bay window was my favorite spot. On a sunny day, we could look out this window and see blue sky and many different people, all God’s children. There was no reflection, we could only look out and see others. I think that is God’s chosen perspective for all people — to look upon others in our diverse life settings and really see and embrace them, considering if we can help them in any way.
Whomever we are, can you imagine a higher calling?
Walt Shelton is a part-time professor at Baylor Law School, where he has taught for 30 years, and an environmental attorney in Austin. He leads faith and life related discussion groups in association with The Church at Highland Park in Austin. His book, 'The Daily Practice of Life: Practical Reflections Toward Meaningful Living' (CrossLink 2020) is available through most major book outlets and waltshelton.com.