I don’t feel comfortable when people talk about God’s perfect plan, probably because I don’t believe in it. I believe in God’s perfection, or at least I think I do. I don’t really know what perfection means. Not fully anyway. As for the plan, I believe God has one in the same way Google has a plan to improve technology or NASA has a plan to explore space. It’s too complex for me to understand, and it’s full of opportunism and closed-door decisions that from the outside look like luck or inevitability, but there’s a very real, laid-out plan powering the few pieces I can see. But a perfect plan? I can’t believe in that, and it feels irreverent to try.
Abraham bargained with God over Sodom. Fifty righteous? Forty-five? Ten? Abraham argued, and God changed his mind. I can’t write that off like God’s disappearing acts with the Israelites, in which he abandons and returns like an abusive husband who spends half his life in prison. Those are slow shifts, and I can blame the Israelites. They deserved it. They changed. They changed again. Or I can blame the narrative perspective, or the lessons attached to the story as it was told, taught, told, written, translated, written, translated, translated, taught, summarized, taught, and then explained to me. But the Sodom argument happens in a single interaction. God came in with one decision, and he left with another.
And then there’s the flood, the telling of which makes God look like an angsty teenager, flipping from it was very good to I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature, and then flopping back to never again, never again. There’s the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed for the Father to change plans. If it is possible, Jesus asked, let this cup pass from me. The cup didn’t pass, or at least I don’t think it did, but I come away from that story seeing a malleable will. God asked God to change. There wasn’t a break within the Trinity, but there was, however brief, a dissenting opinion. At times like that, God’s plan looks more like wet clay than solid rock.
I find it hopeful. The idea of determinism scares me; there’s already too much of that in the world for my liking. The control of genetics, of environment, of dopamine and serotonin and noradrenaline. I’m not looking for a divine buddy, or even for a relationship, but I want something more than helpless obedience. I want agency. And I think God does, too. I see that with the tree of knowledge, and I see it with the Israelites, and I see it whenever Jesus tells people to follow him. Tells, but does not force.
It’s not all Biblical, my problem with the idea of God’s perfect plan. There are other reasons, too. More honest reasons. Part of me sees those non-Biblical reasons as a weakness, and others would agree that it’s just my own feelings and limitations, or my sin nature, or Satan himself tricking me into doubt. But in my mind, a perfect plan doesn’t demand cruelty. And yet the Bible tells me Elisha sent bears to maul kids who made fun of him. “Baldhead,” they said, and he killed them for it. God hardened pharaoh’s heart, and the Israelites massacred Philistines, and God slaughtered Uzzah for trying to protect the Ark of the Covenant, and if this is perfection, I’m selling perfection short. I’m selling God short.
And meanwhile, I read about another bombing. Another genocide, another rape, another abused kid. More cancer, more shootings, more suicide, and inevitably, someone steps forward—sometimes at the funeral, sometimes weeks later, sometimes years later—to smile, hug, and declare it all part of the Great Mystery. God’s perfect plan. Not as if there were no other way, but as if this was the best way. He had to die. He had to die just like that, hanging in the garage at nineteen, or dead in a ditch for a week before anyone found his body. Perfection.
I’m getting angry. I have a lot of anger against a perfect God.
I’m learning to let go. A quiet church helps. So does reading, or talking with strangers, or listening to NPR. They show me new pieces of life, and through them, I think, pieces of God, or at least his shadow.
I was driving home during a conversation between Terry Gross and Tom Wainwright. Tom had spent three years in Mexico studying drug cartels, and he was telling Terry about the effects of drug legalization, of doctors who prescribe heroin to addicts, of governments that create safe spaces for drug use and paraphernalia disposal. It’s not a good policy, he said, but it dried up the black market, and the number of new users dropped. Addiction rates dropped, too.
“I don’t think there’s any good way of controlling the drug problem,” Tom said, “because these are, for the most part, harmful drugs which aren’t going to do people much good. But it seems to me that what I’ve seen is that the least bad way to control them is for governments to get more involved in the business themselves, because the choice that I think we face isn’t really a choice between a world without drugs and a world with drugs.”
If I extend that idea, maybe it takes power away from God. Maybe it’s wrong, or arrogant, or sinful. But it makes it easier for me to value him. It’s easier for me to accept a God who, even if not flawed himself, follows a flawed plan. No, not a flawed plan—not necessarily—but a not-perfect plan. A God who chooses the least bad option, and sometimes not even that. Sometimes just an option.
I don’t say anything when I get one of those hugs, those “Great Mystery” hugs. The intention behind it is usually a good one, I think. But I can’t say I don’t bristle. I do bristle, and it takes time for my anger to fade. Time, a few conversations, and maybe a long drive, and then I find myself drifting back toward the God I see in the Bible, and the God I hope for. Not a God with a perfect plan, but a perfect God with a plan.