Are “the Days of Our Lives” Planned or Set by God?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, February 12, 2010 at 11:04am
INQUIRY: Have all the days of our lives already been planned or set by God? If God has “set” the days for our lives, does our free will change that? E.g, when a baby is aborted, does that change the days God had originally set for that life? When we abuse our own bodies (e.g., via smoking, drinking, over-eating), does that change the days He had set for us? Or has He somehow worked that into His plan?
REPLY: It is very commonly believed that God does indeed have a set plan for each individual’s life. There are two versions of this idea. One is the Calvinist view, which says that God from all eternity has already predetermined (predestined) “whatsoever comes to pass,” including every detail of every person’s life. We have no real choice in the matter. If there is an abortion, or if we harm our health through smoking or over-eating, that is simply part of what God has preordained will take place. That IS his “set plan.”
J. G. Howard, in his book, “Knowing God’s Will—and Doing It!” (Zondervan 1976), says it this way: “Scripture teaches us that God has a predetermined plan for every life. It is that which WILL HAPPEN. It is inevitable, unconditional, immutable, irresistible, comprehensive, and purposeful. It is also, for the most part, unpredictable. It includes everything—even sin and suffering. It involves everything—even human responsibility and human decisions” (p. 12). Even people who are not Calvinists sometimes assume that something like this is true. We commonly hear things like: “Everything happens for a reason.” “There’s a purpose for everything.” After the New Orleans Saints won the 2010 Super Bowl, winning quarterback Drew Brees exulted, “I’m just feeling like it was all meant to be.”
This is simply not true. God has NOT predetermined everything that will happen. He created human beings with free will, and He tells us in His Word what choices He wants us to make. But He does not make our choices for us; that would go against His purpose to create free-will beings in the first place. He does not set or plan our days for us. Via his permissive will He allows us to make our own choices, even those that go against His commands and desires. Because of His omniscience God FOREKNOWS all the choices we will make with our free wills, and He pre-plans His own responses to these choices; but He does not cause us to do anything.
But did not David praise God that, while he was still in his mother’s womb, “Thine eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in Thy book they were all written, the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them” (Psalm 139:16)? Did God not say of Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:5)? Did not Paul testify that God had set him apart, even from his mother’s womb (Gal. 1:15)? Yes, through His foreknowledge and His providential intervention in the lives of these men (see Acts 2:23), God did indeed have a plan for them and a set purpose for their lives. But we should not presume that the same is true for every life; we have no warrant for universalizing these remarks that were made about certain specific individuals whom God prepared for special roles in His redemptive plan.
The second version of this idea that God has a set plan for each person’s life says that God has an IDEAL plan all worked out for each individual, but He leaves it up to us to DISCOVER what that ideal plan is and to IMPLEMENT it ourselves. This applies to major decisions, such as our choice of spouse, or vocation, or college; and some think it applies to every decision we make every day, such as our choice of what to wear, what to eat for breakfast, and what route to take to work. Since God does not tell us what His plan for us is, many conscientious people agonize over whether they have made the right decisions or have missed out on God’s will on a particular thing.
Though this is not as serious an error as Calvinism, it is still an erroneous approach to the question of whether or not we are conforming to God’s “set plan” for our lives. Apart from the relatively few individuals in Bible history whom He selected for special roles in His redemptive plan, God does not actually have an individual, unique, specific “set plan” or “ideal plan” for each person. He has a GENERAL plan for all of us, as revealed in His inspired Word, the Bible. This plan is embodied in the law codes that apply in specific eras in history. His plan is for each of us to be holy, as He is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). Our New Covenant law code tells us how to accomplish this. We call this His preceptive will, and it applies equally to everyone. His general plan for all of us also includes his desire that all would be saved (Matt. 23:37; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9).
Even though God WANTS all of us to do all these things, He does not cause us to do them. He leaves it up to our own initiative to study His Word and discover His commands and His desires for us, which are the same for everyone. He also leaves it up to our free-will choices as to whether we will conform our lives to His will in these matters.
But what about the decisions that are not directly covered by His revealed will, such as whom to marry and what vocation to pursue and what car to buy? Two comments are in order. First, in His preceptive will revealed in Scripture, there are GENERAL PRINCIPLES we are obligated to apply that are relevant to most decisions we will ever have to make. E.g., regarding marriage, God’s Word teaches that we must keep sex within marriage, that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that Christians should marry Christians. Regarding what to cook for supper, God’s Word teaches that one should provide for his family (1 Tim. 5:8) and provide the food that will promote good health and life (and thus not break the sixth commandment).
My second comment is this. Though God has drawn some general boundaries that apply to most matters, as long as we stay within those boundaries, God DOES NOT CARE what specific choices we make. As long as we fulfill His general requirements for our lives, most of the specific decisions DO NOT MATTER. God has no “set will” or “set plan” for the specific person we should marry, for example. As long as we stay under the umbrella of teachings such as those mentioned above, we may marry whomever we choose (and whoever will have us!).
(For a more complete discussion of this, see my book, “God the Ruler,” the chapter on “The Will of God.”)