Living by Plan or Living by Promise?
If the last 2 years have taught us anything, it’s that our plans are fickle and fragile. Plans to study abroad, to change jobs, to move cities and even to marry have been crushed by a microscopic virus. But when we stop and reflect, some of us might realise that even without this pandemic, life often isn’t what we expect it to be.
Even without this pandemic, life often isn’t what we expect it to be.
For many of us, life follows a plan that is so taken for granted that it almost seems predestined: graduate from university, work a respectable job, marry the love of your life, and parent a healthy child. But for some of us, life takes an unexpected course: we don’t pass the entrance exam, we can’t land meaningful work, we never find a husband or wife, we’re unable to bear children.
What do we do when our plans come to nothing? Where do we turn when life isn’t what we expected it to be? If not by our plans, how then shall we live? In the lives of Abraham and Sarah, we discover a road less travelled—a better path to walk; not living by our plans but living by God’s promise.
God’s Promises Shine when our Plans Fail
The “standard life plan” is bound to the idea of family. We plan to be married by 25; to be parents by 30 and from there, our lives are shaped by our children—by their first day at school; their graduation, and eventually by their own marriage and children. Many of our most precious plans revolve around the family.
For Abraham, it wasn’t all that different. After all, God’s plan for humanity was to “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it” (Gen 1:28). Right through the opening chapters of Genesis, children are the definitive sign of divine blessing—the “blessed life” was a family life. Just imagine then the unplanned tragedy of Sarah’s childlessness (11:30). For her then, as for infertile women today, this inability destroyed of one of life’s most precious plans. Her life couldn’t be what she expected it to be.
Failed plans are often the prelude to God’s faithful promises.
And yet, failed plans are often the prelude to God’s faithful promises. Into the hell of their unrealised dreams, God promises Sarah and Abraham the gift of not just a child but an entire nation (12:1-3). Sarah would become the mother of, not just one son but of, “offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore” (22:17).
God’s promises shine when our plans fail. When we see our friends find jobs while we remain unemployed; marry while we remain single; bear children while we remain childless, it’s hard not to feel cursed by God. And yet, our failed plans might just be God’s strange blessing—his severe mercy—to help us behold his greater promise.
Ironically, one of the great risks of our life plans always succeeding is that we might never notice God’s promises or at least, we might never realise our need for them. But in the words of Annie Johnson Flint whose life was marked by incalculable loss, “when we have reached the end of our hoarded resources, our Father’s full giving is only begun.” In a bittersweet way, our failed plans might just be a mysterious blessing that helps us more deeply experience God’s greater promise.
God’s Promises are Hard to Believe but Worth our Trust
Of course, it’s not always easy to trust God’s promises—in fact, they almost always defy our perceived reality. Who would ever believe that God could bring life out of a barren womb, let alone an entire nation? Even Sarah laughed in disbelief at God’s promise of a child (Gen 18:12). And yet, Hebrews assures us that somehow, she “considered that the one who had promised was faithful.” (11:11) As hard as it was, she trusted the Lord.
God’s promises might be hard to trust but they are worth our trust. After all, God called Abraham to leave everything he’d ever known; to sacrifice house and home and to crucify his every life plan all for the sake of a seemingly impossible promise (12:1). And, as hard as it was, that’s exactly what Abraham did: “he went out, even though he did not know where he was going” (Heb 11:8). Just like the Apostle Paul, he determined to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). Instead of living by his plans, he chose to live by God’s promise.
When all our plans fall through, we not only grieve a past not lived, we also fear a future not known. Without a job, marriage or children, we wonder, “How will I earn enough money to survive? Who will love me when I’m all alone? Who will care for me when I’m old and frail?” It is precisely in those moments of fear that God’s promises might be hard to trust but they are worth our trust ten times over. Even when Abraham repeatedly chose fear over faith, God proved that his promises cannot be broken (12:10-20; 20:1-18). His promises are so sure that, however impossible they might seem, and however unfaithful we might be, they are worth betting our lives on.
God’s promises might be hard to trust but they are worth our trust ten times over … they are worth betting our lives on.
When we fear that our future plans may never be fulfilled, it is then that we must cling even more tightly to the promises of God. Indeed, God might call us to crucify our most precious life plans—plans for work, for marriage and for children—but it is in our fear that he calls us to live by faith.
God’s Promises are far Better than Our Plans
Interestingly, Abraham never actually enjoyed the blessings of God’s promise. By the end of his life he had some children but nothing close to the promised nation. All he owned of the promised land of Canaan was a small burial plot near Hebron (Gen 23:19-20; 25:1-6). On the outside, Abraham and Sarah died as many of us fear to die—unfulfilled. But in reality, they died as all of us ought to die—in faith. They died with an unshakeable confidence in God’s greater promise not for the earthly blessing of Canaan but for “a better place—a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16). They died trusting that God’s promises are far better than our plans.
Nowhere in the Bible does God promise the earthly blessings of work, marriage or children, and he doesn’t promise to change our life situation either, though he may. What he promises is far better. He promises every spiritual blessing in Christ: unconditional election, adoption as sons, redemption by his blood, forgiveness of sins and the gift of his Spirit (Eph 1:3-14). When we grieve the loss of our earthly plans, God invites us to enjoy the gift of his better heavenly promises.
When we grieve the loss of our earthly plans, God invites us to enjoy the gift of his better heavenly promises.
For many of us, it seems impossible to imagine that God’s promises could ever be better than our best-laid plans. We think that whatever he gives could never satisfy us more than a stable job, a loving marriage or a healthy child. Too often we doubt the goodness of God’s promises simply because they do not align with our earthly hopes and dreams. But in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, God shows us that his promises are infinitely better than the best life we could ever plan. So when life isn’t what we expected it to be, will we insist on living by our plans or will we instead choose to live by God’s promise?
- When our plans for work fall through, will we live by God’s promise that he will provide for our every need (Matt 6:25-34)?
- When our plans for marriage are crushed, will we live by God’s promise that nothing will ever separate us from his love (Rom 8:38-39)?
- When our plans for children come to nothing, will we live by God’s promise that he gives a hundred times more – brothers and sisters, mothers and children – at this time and in the age to come (Mk 10:29-31)?
- And when our plans for a fresh start and a second chance at life slip through our fingers, will we live by God’s promise of a new life and a new identity in Jesus (Col 3:1-4)?
For many of us, pandemic or otherwise, life has not become what we expected it to be. By now, we should be workers, husbands, wives, parents or maybe even grandparents. But life hasn’t gone according to plan—or at least, it hasn’t gone according to our plans.
Why not choose to live by God’s promise? Why not choose to walk the better and wiser path of Proverbs 19:21:
Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails?
This article was originally published by The Gospel Coalition Australia and has been republished with permission of the author.
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Adam Ch’ng is the pastor of Cross & Crown, an FIEC church in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. He is committed to cross-cultural ministry in Australia and South-East Asia, and serves on the committees of TGCA (Vic) and TGCA (Asia). Adam studied Arts/Laws at Monash University and theology at Ridley College. Prior to entering gospel ministry, he worked as a lawyer and ministerial adviser to the Abbott Government.