God isn’t a vending machine, and He doesn’t use cookie cutters

When you hear the phrase “God has a plan for you,” does that inherently bring you comfort? And how does that feeling come? The Church banks a lot on it, putting the Plan of Salvation and the Plan of Happiness as a central and guiding principle. The missionary manual Preach my Gospel teaches from the outset God’s whole purpose– his work and his glory– is to enable each of us to enjoy all his blessings. He has provided a perfect plan to accomplish His purpose. We understood and accepted this plan before we came to earth. In the scriptures, God’s plan is called a merciful plan, the plan of happiness, the plan of redemption, and the plan of salvation. and Primary children sing the well-known song I will follow God’s plan for me.

To me, what is so comforting about this notion is that I know that God knows me and cares about me individually. He takes notice of me. There won’t be obstacles in life that are impossible for me to overcome. It removes a sense of arbitrariness in life: that my life is a big accident in a big impersonal universe.

But there does seem to be some darker implications of a grand master plan: this plan, as often taught, doesn’t have a personal aspect to it: it seems to be a one-size-fits-all plan that we supposedly gave a rubber stand approval to before coming to earth. In a very Kafka-esque fashion, you can perhaps feel like you have slipped through the cracks, or that God account for your individual circumstances, or that the cards are stacked against you.

But here, I would like to distinguish between two conceptions of the plan that I think are fundamentally different. I do believe that the Plan of Salvation, even though painted in broad strokes, is important. I like this metaphor given by Dallin H. Oaks of a map:

Questions like, Where did we come from? Why are we here? and Where are we going? are answered in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Prophets have called it the plan of salvation and “the great plan of happiness”. Through inspiration we can understand this road map of eternity and use it to guide our path in mortality.

In this sense, the Plan of Salvation is the terrain. We need to have a knowledge of how to navigate through life, what the major obstacles are, where the roads are, and an idea of our destination. Having a map in this case is comforting, because it gives you a sense of direction, a way to get firm footing, and to plot a course. The terrain is the same for everyone. That constancy gives you the traction you need that a constantly shifting plan would not allow: God doesn’t just “wing it.”

But, and this is the key thing, everyone’s journey will be different. Some individuals may start out at different places on the map, and reaching the destination will look different for them. Others may choose to take a different route. Maybe there’s a tree blocking a path one day. I feel like there is plenty of room for differences in our journeys, but God will be with us every step of the way. And God knows how best to help us in our individual circumstances. I like this idea of a personalized plan too. I really like how Adam Miller takes this concept of the plan as a map and takes it a step further:

I don’t know. And what I do know is mostly local, half-framed, and hard to say. You ask some tough questions that lack easy answers. But I don’t think that this kind of not-knowing is, in itself, a failure. I think it’s just life. And, as Mormons, we can’t hide from this not-knowing, because, more than anything else, Mormonism is a way of living rather than dodging life. Part of not dodging life is owning this ignorance.

But it’s also true that even if I knew what to say and how to say it, you’d still have to work out the answers for yourself. You must bear wholeheartedly the fact that the work of living your life can’t be done by anyone else. This is basic Mormonism. You are an agent loose in the world and, as Paul puts it, you must “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).

You’ll be surprised at how true this is. From the near side of trying, it may look like things have been pretty well mapped out for you. Just stick to the plan. Memorize your Articles of Faith, get your merit badges signed off, complete your Personal Progress, get good grades, go on a mission, go to the temple, have a family, etc. There may be a few details here and there to handle, but nothing major. You’ve got a map, you just have to follow it.

But once you get to work, you’ll be unnerved by the distance between the neat map in your hand and the rough terrain at your feet. Fighting to coordinate the two, you’ll be tempted to throw the whole thing over or, by way of compromise, to sit down and gossip about how great the map is. This latter kind of admiration is often mistaken for a religious life. Perhaps it is religious, but it is no life. Even sound maps are just maps. They are no substitute for real roads.

The gap between theory and practice is often biggest with the simplest things. You’ve promised to pray, but you’ll spend a lifetime learning how to pray. You’ve promised to study the scriptures, but you’ll spend a lifetime learning how to read them. And you’ve promised to give God everything—your time, your talents, your money—but you’ll spend a lifetime learning how to consecrate even a part. You cannot forfeit responsibility for this how. You cannot wait for someone else to do them for you. If you do not work things out for yourself, they will never be done. You must learn how to body your religion out into the world with your own fingers and toes, eyes and ears, flesh and bones. This can only be done from the inside out.

You are a pioneer. Life has never before been lived in your body. Everything must be done again, as if for the first time. You are an aboriginal Adam, a primal Eve. You are a Mormon.

If we are too focused on trying to reduce God to a series of clear-cut and all-applicable rules, we risk reducing God to a deified accountant or a perfected bureaucrat trying to fit us in to his celestial Gantt chart. We think, if God is perfect, he is therefore predictable; after all, There is a law irrevokably decreed in heaven before the foundations of the world, upon which all blessings are predicated– And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to the law upon which it is predicated. Any deviations from these clear-cut and all-encompassing laws are not allowed. Any suffering on our part is due to not abiding by God’s law.

But by so doing, we risk thinking that we know exactly how God will act, when God has clearly said My ways are not your ways, neither my thoughts your thoughts. God is not a vending machine that spits out blessings when we put in the quarters of obedience. We make ourselves an idol of dead faith when we do so. We lose a God who is able to attend to the individual, who doesn’t let one sparrow fall to the ground without taking note. The God from the scriptures is:

A God who weeps. (And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains? Moses 7:28)

A God who asks that we question Him and seek out justice, and in return, and He hears our pleas. (And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?…Oh, let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for ten’s sake. Genesis 18:17-32)

A God who doesn’t ask us to justify the existence of pain or evil in this world and who is wroth with those who ask the oppressed and suffering to accept their condition as God’s will. (The Lord said unto Eliphaz, My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath. Job 42:7)

This is a God who is intimately familiar with and involved in the lives of us, His children. I close with the powerful words of Elder Holland that beautifully meshes these two sides of the God’s plan: In whatever country you live, however young or inadequate you feel or however aged or limited you see yourself as being, I testify that you are individually loved of God, you are central to the meaning of His work, and you are cherished and prayed for by the presiding officers of His Church. The personal value, the sacred splendor of every one of you, is the very reason there is a plan of salvation and exaltation. Contrary to the common parlance of the day, this is about you.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. In the public domain.

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