“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” was a slogan I heard over and over again as I grew up. As a young person, this slogan meant that all my plans would be wonderful because God loved me. Now that I am older, I understand that this slogan had more to do with the Christian Gospel’s understanding of salvation than it did with guiding me down the primrose path of life. Yet, it still reverberates in my head when I experience hardship, pain, and loss. For it is often difficult to square a belief in the love of God with a series of life experiences that run counter to the expectations for a wonderful plan.
The seeming contradictions between stated beliefs and life experience often make faith complicated. For me, many of the cherished beliefs I held imploded and what I once thought was an invincible fortress came crashing down as life experience smashed up against them like a battering ram. C.S. Lewis described his own spiritual dismantling after the death of his wife, Joy, this way: “God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”(1) Yet having to dwell in the rubble of what is left of one’s faith doesn’t feel as if it is the work of a God who desires to smash all our false conceptions.
There is a ‘great cloud of witnesses’ who have also experienced the difficult conflict between what was held to be the truth and reality. Knowing this can give comfort for all who experience the collapse of all they hold dear. I am reminded of the biblical narrative of Joseph, as one example. He was told by God through a sequence of dreams that he would be great one day—so great, in fact, that his own brothers would come and bow down out of reverence for him. He had been given a glimpse of his destiny as Jacob’s dearly loved child, and perhaps he believed his path to that destiny would be won with ease. Instead, his path took many unexpected turns. First, his own brothers attempted to murder him, he was enslaved, and he spent a large portion of his life in prison having been falsely accused of various crimes he did not commit. Surely, Joseph must have had days where he wondered if God’s plan for his life was a wonderful one.
Joseph’s trust in a God who loved him and had compassion on him was now being challenged by this confusing turn of events. Sitting in his jail cell, Joseph must have questioned whether or not his dreams were real given his nightmarish existence. How could things go so badly for one who put his trust in a loving God?
After many years, the story of Joseph’s life ends up in glory. Made second in command of all of Egypt, his position ultimately saves his family and the people of Israel from famine and starvation. Despite the contradiction between his experience and what he thought he knew about God, Joseph came to affirm God’s goodness. How did he arrive at this conclusion?
Even though the narrative doesn’t state this explicitly, it is hard to imagine that Joseph didn’t wrestle with God during all that time in prison. Like his father Jacob, Joseph must have wrestled with God in the seemingly contradictory details of his life experience. In the process of this wrestling, God gave him new perspective and a deeper understanding. But that new perspective is not lightly gained, and perhaps many of Joseph’s ideas and expectations had to be shattered and knocked down. Pastor Craig Barnes poignantly describes the emergence of new perspectives as the very process of total conversion:
“The deep fear behind every loss is that we have been abandoned by the God who should have saved us. The transforming moment in Christian conversion comes when we realize that even God has left us. We then discover it was not God, but our image of God that abandoned us…. Only then is change possible.” (1)
Indeed, Joseph reveals his new perspective to his brothers who betrayed him: “As for you, you meant evil against me but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Genesis 50:20). This is no biblical cliché. Joseph witnessed God’s intervention and care. But not in the way he expected. The dreams he had as a young man were for himself; but God’s intention was that Joseph’s power would benefit others including those who sought to harm him.
If we know intuitively that life doesn’t always go as planned, perhaps there is something to be gained as a result of wrestling through life’s contradictions and conundrums. Perhaps we might recognize as Joseph did that life is, in fact, not all about our own plans and expectations. Perhaps as we realize that though our image of God has abandoned us, the real God is at work and will be revealed. It is a perspective not easily gained, but when it is built, it is a more sure foundation.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.