I suspect this is true for the majority of Christians. On the one hand, we want to work the will of God, to please God and be on his good side. And at the same time, we have thoughts of what would be our own dream come true, fun little daydreams of a possible world in which our ambitions and aspirations come true. These dreams are not necessarily opposed to God – they are just somehow more personal, more based on my own preference. A person who is thinking about conversion to Jesus may especially dream of some Christian role that she believes would bring happiness and she even hopes this is what God intends for her life.
Is anything wrong with daydreams or with fond hopes for the future? Is it ok to pray that God go along with these daydreams? For that matter, what about charting out specific plans for my life? Does that somehow get in God’s way or could it even mean that I don’t want him to take charge of my life?
St. Paul had these issues three times. What did he do?
Call this Case One. At the opening of Acts 16, Paul and Silas are planning their itinerary. They decided to go to western Turkey (called Asia back then) and the Bible says the Holy Spirit “prevented” them from doing it. So then they figure maybe they should go to northern Turkey (Bithynia), but the Spirit won’t let them do that, either. Eventually, they get a vision in a dream telling them to preach in Macedonia, so that’s what they do right away.
Call this Case Two. In Acts 20, Paul has finished collecting money to aid the church in Judea. Now he wants to get to Jerusalem with the money and he’s in a big hurry. Paul says in verse 23 “in one city after another the holy Spirit has been warning me that imprisonment and hardships await me” in Jerusalem. So God isn’t exactly stopping Paul, but he’s not exactly encouraging the trip, either. It gets even more intense in Acts 21:
We had been there [Caesaria] several days when a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. He came up to us, took Paul’s belt, bound his own feet and hands with it, and said, “Thus says the holy Spirit: This is the way the Jews will bind the owner of this belt in Jerusalem, and they will hand him over to the Gentiles.” When we heard this, we and the local residents begged him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul replied, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? I am prepared not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” Since he would not be dissuaded we let the matter rest, saying, “The Lord’s will be done.”
Long story short, Paul gets to Jerusalem and sure enough, he gets thrown in jail and he is imprisoned for several years thereafter. Eventually, he ends up a prisoner in Rome.
Call this Case Three. In Romans 15:22-24, Paul says he has often wanted to come to Rome, but something always gets in the way. He writes with a “hope” (that’s what he calls it) that maybe he will get to go to Spain and on the way there he can stop in Rome. This hope comes halfway true, but not the way he wanted. Paul does get as far as Rome, but only as the prisoner described in Case Two above. Nobody knows if he made it to Spain.
What we can learn from Paul
Case Two lets us know it’s ok to make our own decisions about our Christian ministry. Maybe other Christians will urge us one way or the other like they did Paul, but it is permitted – we have the example of the apostle – it is permitted that we make our own decision about what to plan and what to do. Obviously, a proper decision should not violate love or morality, but given that, it is permitted that we make our own decision.
The general principle is that my human intellect and will are dignified by God to the extent that I may shape my own life. Dogs don’t get this – not even monkeys or dolphins. But as a human I am sort of handed the keys to the car and told to take a drive. Heady stuff!
Case One, however, says we ought not be a stubborn mule about things. If a decision seems providentially prevented, then by all means I should wait to see if God will somehow give a nudge in some other direction he prefers. Chances are, I will not receive a vision from God telling me exactly what to do next … yet, haven’t there been times in your life when it just seems like you are supposed to go a particular way? Be open to the possibility this feeling is of God, even if it’s not anything you would have planned yourself.
The general principle is I should not become so attached the plans I make that God can’t get a word in. It’s always possible God has a different idea, and if he does, his idea is definitely the better one.
Case Three says Paul had hopes that he held onto, even if they sometimes seemed to be only disappointments. Godly hopes like going to Spain (the edge of his world) – and, who knows, maybe it will happen. Here’s what I notice about Paul. There’s no indication in the Romans 15 passage that Paul is flipped out about everything not going his own way. He even says “I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain… now, however, I am going to Jerusalem.” He has made a priority choice for Jerusalem over Spain and he abides by the consequences.
The general principle is when one thing gets in the way of another, or when some project or hope gets delayed, the thing to do is to accept the delay with patience, even as you continue to harbor the hope.
Here’s a way to look at all this
I can offer my plans and even my dreams to God as a kind of prayer. With an attitude committed to God’s will as the prime force in my life, I can enjoy making plans and dreams, communicating these to God, sharing them with him. Maybe he will enable my plans and hopes to be realized.
Maybe I dream that some effort of mine accomplishes real good in God’s Kingdom. Or I can hope that my conversion will sort of snowball into more people coming to Jesus. I can use my imagination even in a daydream to picture a better me overcoming limitations, launching into some new sea with Jesus to bring glory to God. I can imagine me as a saint and how I would play my part in that. If Paul is a guide (and he is), there is nothing wrong with these things. I can ask God to take into account my dreams as he charts my life.
But I must not become attached to these plans and daydreams. They are in God’s hands. They are a prayer to God and he will decide. They are not demands – they are prayers. In fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I remember how fouled up things were when I tried to run my life by myself. The only sure way to this sainthood that I dream of is after I plan and dream, to give the wheel to God and devote myself to obedient faith in him.
There’s a real tough side to what I’m trying to say
Some plans can only be accomplished after much work and with much risk, which means if they don’t work out, you may suffer a terrible loss. If you do decide to undertake a plan to serve God as a doctor, then bless your heart, you have 10 years of school to deal with. You may plan a beautiful family to serve and honor God, and then your spouse goes haywire and leaves you with the kids. Or you launch a business – with all your heart, you promise any gain in that business to God and his church – and the business fails and you have nothing.
The thing that’s tough is that you can plan a thing for God, invest yourself in that plan, and yet end up with great pain and loss. Ask Peter who was crucified. Ask Paul who begged Jesus to take the “thorn in his flesh” away, the thorn put there by Satan, and Jesus said “no”. Ask the Carmelite nun Saint Teresia Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)who gave up everything in her plans for God, yet died at Auschwitz.
Nevertheless, great loss and what might even be called failure from a certain point of view do not change what I have written here. Knowing that God may allow my plans not to be fulfilled, nevertheless I work for him. I play my part in the pattern of my life in plans and dreams, trusting that if I suffer loss in these plans, God will sustain me in that loss and draw me even closer.
The proper response to God when plans go wrong
The prophet Habakkuk was told by God that Judah would be destroyed by the Chaldeans and nothing can forestall God’s decision in the matter. Habakkuk’s beautiful response trusts God even when every plan of Habakkuk’s has been laid waste:
Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit appears on the vine, though the yield of the olive fails and the terraces produce no nourishment, though the flocks disappear from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD and exult in my saving God. Habakkuk 3:17,18
Plans and dreams to serve God are fine, so long as the plans themselves do not become the substance of my life.
What God permits to disrupt my plans should not be despised as though God made some kind of mistake.
We pray Fiat voluntas tua – thy will be done.