God's plan does not control, it guides

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Seen on a roadside marquee along Main Street in Scott City this week: "The Devil has a plot but God has a plan."

The message is pithy and memorable. The contrast between darkness (devil) and light (God) is manifestly biblical. The alliteration (plot/plan) also helps with memory retention. That sign got me thinking.

There was a time in my life when I didn't put much truck in a devil. Years ago, when I was a student chaplain in the St. Louis County jail, a young prisoner awaiting trial for murder told me through the bars of his cell, "Pastor, the devil's got ahold of me today!"

The impression left with me was the inmate believed human beings are just pawns. Pawns to be buffeted about by God or the devil, who sit poised like whispering gargoyles on each shoulder. We naively march to the dictates of whichever supernatural force last has our ear. We have no control.

This idea of complete powerlessness is convenient. You can't hold anyone accountable if "the devil made me do it" is the defense. I totally rejected that kind of thinking.

I still do. We have the ability to resist; we are not pawns. It is true that some folks are more gullible than others and more open to suggestion. But natural law resides in all of us, unless we are sociopaths. Discounting mental illness, all people have a basic understanding of right and wrong, so mindless gullibility and claims of powerlessness are not acceptable defenses.

But I have changed my thinking on something else. More than 17 years after encountering that young man (who was sentenced to life in prison), I no longer question the existence of a devil. For me, the adversary spoken of in the book of Job and referenced by Jesus in the New Testament is no longer a metaphor.

It has taken me awhile to get here, but the weight of biblical reference and my own observation confirm that evil is an active, independent force that works to thwart the intentions of God.

So, yes, the devil has a plot. But plots often fail. The good news is that Jesus, the eternal incarnation of all that is good, has won the final battle against evil. Yet a defeated evil remains as smoldering embers, able to singe those who get too close and confuse those whose eyes begin to water from the smoke produced.

Now, a word about the second part of that Scott City marquee message: God has a plan. No one in recent memory has put this more strongly than the ubiquitous Rick Warren, author of the best-selling "The Purpose Driven Life." Paraphrasing Psalm 139, Warren opines that God "planned the days of your life in advance."

Hold on now. Is God's "plan" a train with an inflexible and unchanging route that we must board to reach a singular destination or we'll always be miserable? Or is the "plan" adjustable depending on our choices? The first option suggests our lives are predetermined; the second allows for our free will, a free will affirmed as early as the third chapter of the Bible's first book, Genesis.

I've chosen the second option. God loves us so much that we are permitted to go our own way; the train can come to a "Y" and veer off in another direction and God goes with us, opening other opportunities and blessings.

Isn't it something what reading a marquee can produce?

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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