When Should We Talk about “God’s Plan”?

A “crisis” is any situation, expected or otherwise, which disrupts the normal flow of life and family. Whether a death, divorce, job loss, move, or mental health emergency, everyone eventually experiences a crisis, and everyone responds differently. Unfortunately, for those providing support, someone else’s crisis can be highly uncomfortable, and there are a number of cliches which escape our lips to occupy the uncomfortable space. From what I’ve studied and seen in nearly a decade of ministry, saying nothing at all and just being present is almost always the best option, but if you feel like you have to say something, I have a suggestion:

What not to say:
“God has a plan.”/“It’s all part of God’s plan.”

Why it’s bad:
For so many people, the most frustrating thing about a crisis is the feeling of helplessness it can bring. When the worst happens, being able to take some measure of control can be a tremendous comfort, so this expression (which shifts the blame and responsibility entirely over to God) can do a lot more to discourage than to help.

Additionally, there’s a lot about “God’s plan” that gets taken out of context. In the Bible, mentions of God’s plan usually involve entire nations and peoples, while individuals (mainly prophets and rulers) are rare exceptions. As one minister I know is fond of saying, “The God of the Bible doesn’t micromanage.” Even the most famous verse about God’s plans —Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you…”— was spoken not to an individual, but to the entire Jewish population living in Babylon. Taking the language of God’s grand plan for humanity and misappropriating it to explain away individual suffering requires a very selective reading of the Bible, and it can really disempower a person in a crisis. There are certainly times where it’s appropriate to talk about God’s plan, but this isn’t one of them.

Better options:
“I don’t know why this happened, but I know God is with us in this pain.”
“I don’t know why this happened, but I believe God was the first to cry.”

Why it’s better:
Rather than painting God as the architect of the crisis or the only possible source of aid, these renderings show God as a companion in suffering. Fully aware of our pain and present in the midst of it, God is moved as well yet seeks to comfort. These expressions leave the person in crisis space to move forward and take control of the situation (if it is appropriate to do so), and they don’t explain away or rationalize anything the person is feeling. If the person needs to feel anger or disappointment toward God —both of which can be healthy during grief—, these sentiments make it clear God is present to receive those feelings and big enough to handle them. Most importantly though, there is no mention of God’s plan, so that topic and all the related debates can be saved for another time.

On a personal note, I’ll never forget the first time I heard someone mention God’s crying. Several years ago, another minister and I went to comfort the family of a young woman who had committed suicide. No one had foreseen this death, and none of us were prepared (ourselves included). In particular, the young woman’s father was mad at himself and disappointed with God, and he openly asked, “Where was God when she took her life? Where was He?!” Concerned the father’s anger might further upset others in the room, the other minister responded gently, “Crying. God was crying.”

Notice how the statement “God was crying” is not a defense of God. It’s not a complicated treatise on the nature of good and evil. Instead, it’s a subtle pivot toward God’s involvement in our grief and a reminder of God’s love (both for the deceased person and those mourning her). Was this young woman’s unthinkable death part of God’s plan? I find it hard to believe so —I deeply hope not—, but I ultimately don’t have an answer. What I do know is that our suffering always moves God, and in a time of crisis, that is where I choose to focus my attention.

Conversations about God’s plan can always wait for another day.
God’s presence, however, is always needed.

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