On Monday I posted the first part of some thoughts coming out of watching The Adjustment Bureau recently. These were mainly focused on the way the film captures the prevailing mindset that religion is out to spoil our fun, and needs to be cast off to allow us to fulfil our potential, our real destiny. In this second post I want to have a think about how it captures the way that as Christians we often view the subject of guidance.
How not to understand guidance…
Ultimately I reckon the film is a brilliant illustration of how not to understand Christian guidance. As mentioned previously, in the film the Adjustment Bureau members are seemingly divinely-ordained to intervene and adjust your life, so that it fits in with the higher ‘plan’. In the film each of the AB members carry around little notebooks containing ‘the plan’ for each individual’s life, and built into the notebook is a live route of where they are on that plan (kind of like Harry Potter’s magical Marauder’s Map!). As we see with Matt Damon’s character, David, humans are capable of making choices that take us off that plan, but then it’s the responsibility of the AB to make ‘adjustments’ to bring us back on track.
As I was growing up this was certainly my default understanding of how I imagined my decisions fitted in with God’s plan for me; as a Christian I sought to battle to do God’s will, but at every major decision point I faced a nerve-wracking cross-roads effectively believing that if I chose the wrong option then I’d fall off God’s-Great-‘Plan A’-For-My-Life. Guidance then became about having to second-guess God’s plan in every significant detail (although practically I was left asking the question, ‘where on earth do you draw the arbitrary line between significant and insignificant detail?’). Going through life like this could feel pretty assurance-destroying; what if, by now, I’m on plan B, or even plan C? And what happens when I get to plan Z; how many back-up plans does God have!? After all I’m pretty sure I make enough wrong decisions in my mind everyday to ensure that most days I’ll have gone through the alphabet a few times before lunch.
I wonder if the attraction of this perspective is because as Christians we want to have our cake and eat it. We like the idea that we have control and a free will, and this ‘plan A/B’ perspective naturally gives us that. But we also want to believe God is at work, guiding us through life. Like the AB, we like to think he’s behind the scenes making all the necessary adjustments to ensure that, ‘at the end of the day’, we’ll end up where he wants us to be.
Now the standard youth-group rhetoric goes that it has to be this way otherwise ‘we’ll all be robots’ (how many times have you used that line without really thinking about it?). But I’ve got a few problems with that view: firstly why would God let us make wrong choice after wrong choice? Even if he were to always successfully put us back on track, is having our free will really worth all those painful ‘fallings’; what kind of God lets us wander off time and time again when he knows it’s not what he really wants for us? And also, how do we actually know God’s always going to be able to re-adjust the circumstances to make sure the masterplan comes to completion? There’s always the niggling doubt that I may have really blown it this time. When our experience seems to be void of any sense of ‘benefit’ and when we can’t see any good in our situation, does that mean this time he’s failed to put us back on track?
As a student I really valued having someone sit down and explain to me that this view I’d defaulted to was actually more like a distortion of a biblical perspective on guidance. Yes, God certainly does have a plan, and it probably deserves to be called plan A, given that it’s an absolute corker of a plan that involves saving his people for eternity and praising his glorious grace. But in the Bible God’s revealed plans are not just ideas or wishful thinking, as if they were still laid out on the desk either awaiting final planning approval or the necessary means (often apparently us!) to carry them out. No, given who God is, his revealed plans are what actually happens. And because that’s the case then there’s not a chance that I can walk off this plan A and into any plan B, or C, and I certainly can’t walk off the plan altogether. God’s sovereignty is something far greater than I imagined.
Now, please note: I intentionally used the phrase ‘God’s revealed plans’. By that I specifically mean every plan and promise of God that he has revealed through Scripture. Of course, God hasn’t revealed every detail of my life: the Bible doesn’t tell me who or if I’ll marry; it doesn’t tell me what particular job I should do; it doesn’t tell me the specific location where I should live. But, in his revealed plans, I believe God has told us all we need to know.
Now, I dunno, but I guess that might sound really uncomfortable to you: ‘What?! Life would be so much better if I knew exactly what God wanted me to do at every decision point!’ But actually I think it’s really refreshing. I don’t have to spend my whole life as if I were in that scene from The Goonies, where the gang of kids are trying to guess which stepping stone is safe and which is going to collapse underneath them, sending them spinning into the abyss below. There’s no real risk. There’s every assurance. Instead my responsibility is simply to make choices that I believe to be wise and godly, driven by my love for Jesus, confident that God is working his revealed purposes out. He’s far more interested in my love for Him, where my heart is at, my godliness, than in whether I choose to marry Mandy or Mindy (for the record, I went for Zoe).
Obviously in some decisions the options will be black and white, morally right or wrong, and I’m certainly not then excused from making sinful decisions. But God’s purposes for his forgiven people are more than aware of the extent of our fallenness. This means that I don’t need to fear that a particular sin has taken me off course (though I should still repent of it). If I’m his, then all his promises will always be true for me.
Of course in most decisions I’ll simply be faced with the choice of seeking to do what I think is wisest. Sometimes this will be obvious, sometimes it won’t be so clear-cut. And it doesn’t stop me for praying for wisdom, or asking for advice from trusted friends. Naturally I want to make the wisest choice. But either way, I don’t need to stress as if, with that one decision, I could be sent off-piste on God’s giant slalom course, missing out on the best route he has for me.
Instead I can trust that because he is in control then he is working all things out in accordance with his will. And therefore what he’s revealed to me about his plans, e.g. his gospel promise to save & transform me and bring me to his new heavens and new earth, is absolutely rock-solid. And it is all I need to know. Whether I end up working as a teacher or a tube-driver, whether you do opt for Mindy, Mandy or nobody, if you’re trusting in Jesus then you can never fall off God’s great sovereign plan to make you more like Jesus and bring me into his new creation. Don’t worry about whether the Adjustment Bureau will be able to put you back on track. Instead get on with making wise decisions, radically living for the God who has your best interests heart, knowing that his revealed plan is secure.
If you’d like to do some more thinking on this, or want a more thorough explanation of this position on guidance, then do get hold of Kevin DeYoung‘s short but brilliant and very readable book Just Do Something.
What do you think? Agree? Livid with rage? Get involved! I’d love to hear your thoughts…