When life doesn’t follow the “plan”

One of the more significant causes of emotional/psychological suffering is the experience that life isn’t turning out as expected. While we all conjure up something different when we hear “normal”, we do have something that we assume is the normal expectation for how life should unfold. Most of us assume we will go to college, graduate on time, get married, have kids, start a career (or several over the course of our life), develop economic stability and growth, stay healthy, retire, find fulfillment, etc. Unexpected events will happen, we tell ourselves, but the general plan or trajectory should continue.

But then we hit more than a bump in the road. We don’t get married, can’t have kids, lose a job, divorce, get sick (or watch a loved one die before their time). When we suffer we are forced to come face to face with the fact that life does not have guarantees–except that there will be suffering and that suffering is not something we can get beyond, try as we might.

Christians are not immune from having expectation. In fact, we may have even more than those who don’t have the “hope of heaven.” We assume we will have peace and joy and that God will deliver us just as he delivered Daniel, David, Esther, etc. We recite Psalm 23 but gloss over the hard parts (death, enemies). Or, consider, for example, the pattern found in Psalm 107: Sin/Weakness leads to suffering…the people cry out in their trouble…the Lord hears and saves/blesses them with good things…  We like this pattern and expect to get the “happily ever after” that the pattern seems to promise.

Notice that as soon as God isn’t delivering us from our pain, we begin to look for the reasons. Maybe there is a new technique to prayer to try. Maybe there is a sin to confess. Maybe it is due to judgment on our country for its errant ways. We want to blame someone!

The truth is the “plan” isn’t as detailed as we would like it to be. Yes, there is a normal trajectory of life: growth…maturation…passing on to the next generation. But promises for obtaining specific outcomes are not given. We only assume they are assured until we discover one of our assumptions blown up by reality.

The same goes for our assumptions of the “rescue plan.” Either God does not deliver on his promises to care for his children OR his care looks markedly different from what we assumed it would be. And, it appears that God’s plan for rescue is global rather than individual. He did repeatedly rescue Israel during the time of the Judges…but some years and oppression went by each time and some of the chosen people did not survive.

Does this depress you? It can. Especially when we take note of more and more suffering and see less of the “normal” life we once expected. As we age we notice that death is everywhere–as if it wasn’t there so much when we were younger. If it doesn’t depress you, you may find yourself struggling with bitterness. How can God really exist or be good?

Or, you can consider John Calvin’s words (thanks John Freeman for showing them to me) and consider one blessing amidst the disrupted “plan.”

With whatever kind of tribulation we may be afflicted, we should always keep this end in view–to habituate ourselves to a contempt of the present life, that we may thereby be excited to meditation on that which is to come. For the Lord, knowing our strong natural inclination to a brutish love of the world, adopts a most excellent method to reclaim us and rouse us from our insensibility, that we may not be too tenaciously attached to that foolish affection…the whole soul, fascinated by carnal allurements, seeks it felicity on earth. To oppose this evil, the Lord, by continual lessons of misery, teaches His children the vanity of the present life.(as quoted in L. Boettner’s Immortality, p. 31)

If Calvin stopped there we might think he was a stoic–one who hated any pleasure. However, he is not. He says this “contempt” of this life should not lead to hate pleasure or “ingratitude” for good things.

So, consider for a moment what “plan” you expected and your reaction to not getting it. Or, better yet, what “plan” did you expect that you actually got but then found out that said plan didn’t deliver the goods you thought were to come with it?

How might your mood, your attitude, your perspective change if “the plan” was focused on meeting/seeing God each day? What would you stop striving for? What would you set aside as a waste of time? What would you notice that right now escapes your glance?

One final comment. I don’t think that this change in “plan” reduces the pain of suffering or stops our goal-directed activity in this life. We are designed to growth, develop, change, find pleasure, pursue economic stability for self and other. Further, suffering always hurts, no matter what good comes of it. Just because good comes from pain doesn’t mean pain is itself good. Our problem is that we sometimes often forget a deeper design of relationship with God.


Filed under Biblical Reflection, christian counseling, Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, suffering

10 responses to “When life doesn’t follow the “plan”

  1. Dr. Phil,

    Disney has ruined an entire generation of young women! 🙂 We grew up with the Disney princesses and “happily ever after.” None of us expected the dragons of death, disease, infertility or violence to destroy our own eutopic ending. Evil has always been vanquished by our shining heroes. But that’s not real life… and like you said, the unexpected, life-altering circumstances happen and we are bereft.

    For my husband and I, our dragon has been infertility. We’ve pursued IVF and now we’re pregnant with twins and I know through my own experiences that all kinds of expectations can all come crashing down and end in ruin. You’re right. There are no guarantees and the only hope we can really have is in Jesus. My hope is that when I cross to that final shore, there won’t be another empty promise waiting there for me. I think that is my biggest fear. For once, it would be good if something were solid, dependable and perfect.

  2. This is a very reflective, somber post. Yes, life is full of disappointment, pain and unexpected changes in plans. There are many bumps in the road and no guarantees. We take one day at a time trusting that the Lord knows what lies before us. His ways and thoughts are higher than ours. The Word says His plans are good and not evil. We make our plans and He directs our paths. He knows the direction our lives will take and He promises us His grace, mercy, and strength. Will we still worship Him when our hopes are dashed? Will we still believe that He is good?

    In a recent Bible study, I was reading about the two disciples returning to Emmaus. Things didn’t turn out like they had hoped or expected. They were so focused on dashed hopes and frustrated plans that they didn’t recognize Jesus right beside them. I think this is our greatest danger. Yes, life can be terribly painful, frightening and disappointing. It can even cause us to turn away from the only One who can help us.

    I like these reflective questions. They remind me to make my relationship with the Lord my top priority: How might your mood, your attitude, your perspective change if “the plan” was focused on meeting/seeing God each day? What would you stop striving for? What would you set aside as a waste of time? What would you notice that right now escapes your glance?

    • John Puleo

      Phil, Your reflections make me again realize that we are all leveled – not just before the cross and our need of Christ – but also in our mortality and vulnerability. However, I don’t think that truth should make us either stoic or flippant in this present world. Life is too short to go through it morbidly and not enjoy God’s blessings when they present themselves. On the other hand, this present life is not all there is. Perhaps a balanced perspective can help us contextualize all our experiences, finding hope and sustenance in times sadness and loss, and gratefulness and moderation as we enjoy our pleasures. Also, our common experiences of the good and the bad might hopefully make us a little less self-centered and a little more able to come beside others, both to rejoice with and to grieve with. Such is life. Thank God for it.

  3. Phil, thanks so much for your blog. I can’t tell you how much I have learned and have gained from it. You and it are a true blessing. Thanks!

  4. Brooke

    Came across this while reading a treasure of a book….

    “The future unfolds its pages all too slowly for our eager eyes at
    times, and again we would fain push away from us the inexorable hand
    that bids us read”…. “Prisioner of the Sea”….F.Kingsley 1846

  5. Amy

    Phil, this is a great post.

  6. Rayanna

    Came across your blog and was astounded at how applicable your words are. Right now I am really struggling with accepting that even though God’s plan for my life and my plan for my life are not the same that it is still going to be okay. I always thought I would have lots and lots of kids and here I find myself 29 being told that this is a biological impossibilty. My husband and I will never have our own children outside of Godly interference. Feeling at a loss about what to do next, but trying to trust that the plan will become clear. I’ve promised myself, my husband, and God that I am not going be defeated by this change. I am taking it one day at a time and I think that is all anyone can ask for.

    • Rayanna, thanks for your comments. My wife and I were there some 18 years ago. I can attest that coming to terms with infertility can be difficult. After gaining a bit of perspective (which doesn’t necessarily ease the pain) we wrote an article together on the topic. You can find the link to the full text here: http://www.ccef.org/bible-and-pain-infertility-0

      Blessings on you and your husband.

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