"I have to thank God, because I went from being the nation's top high school football prospect to becoming a Hall of Fame basketball player!" These were the first few (paraphrased) words of Allen Iverson, a former NBA basketballer who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame (yes, there's such a thing) over the weekend. My first thought was how good it was to see a pro athlete and cultural icon putting God first. But then it prompted another thought: what other paths could I have ended up walking down?
I actually nearly ended up in living in Emerald. Several years ago I was in Emerald to visit a NET Ministries team under my supervision. While there I got talking to someone in the parish about youth ministry. I forget how the conversation went, but somehow it ended up with me receiving an offer to work in the parish as their youth worker starting the following year! Things took a different turn and I ended up working for Vocation Brisbane instead, but I can only imagine how different my life would have been had I went to Emerald rather than stay in Brisbane.
There are several other turning points in my life where I can imagine my life being drastically different had I gone the other direction. Which prompts the question: does God steer and direct our lives?
This is perhaps one of the trickiest questions of the Christian faith, does God have a plan for my life and how far does God go to implement that plan? Our earliest Traditions express that God has created us with free will. Yet, we also say God has a plan for our life. So which is it? Are we actually free or does God really have a plan for our life?
I think "plan" isn't the right word, or at least we don't use it in an adequate way to express the sort of plan God has for us. When we talk about God's plan, I think what we mean is that God has a dream for us. And not dream in a superficial sense (like daydreaming for instance), but a hopeful, love-filled dream. I'm not a parent (yet), but I imagine that as a parent I'll have a dream for my children, for their life, full of joy and fulfillment. And while I may desire for them to fulfill certain occupations, at the end of the day my dream for them is not about what they do, but who they become. Which means that (I hope) I would always try to love and support my kids, regardless of what decisions they make; that they would always be able to call on me for love and support.
When we say God has a "plan" for us, I think we really refer to God's dream of our fulfilled relationship with him. God wants to see his children accept the love and mercy available to us, to live joyful and fulfilled lives. And like a parent, for God it doesn't matter where we are or which paths we take. So, when we end up taking different paths through life, and look back, it's not that God led us down this path, or actually desired for us to take another. It's just the journey with God, a journey that will ultimately lead us to him alongside others (the whole People of God)
This means we have to show respect to our free will and decision making. Yes, God speaks to us, but we also have to consider responsibly our options, rather than looking at them simply through our spiritual practices. When I was finished high school and beginning my work in youth ministry, I would take the smallest occurrences to be a sign or intervention from God. If we don't emphasise our choice and decision making, we risk becoming perpetual discerners, forever waiting for Divine Intervention - or worse still, seeing that sort of intervention where it isn't.
Where I am now in my life, work and relationships is a very different place to where I could be, and I absolutely see God at work in my life. But I also had to make several choices - I also created this life, in relationship with God and with others. Only in actively choosing this path (this marriage, this job, etc.) can I then transform this life to be more than just merely an assortment of roles into a vocation with real impact in the world. That choice, both of this set of circumstances and the choice to accept God's invitation of relationship within these circumstances, is the fulfillment of God's plan in my life. It's the convergence of free will and Divine plan.
This doesn't mean that all our choices can be right. There are choices we make or pathways we follow that do draw us away from relationship with God and relationship with the Church community (communion). Rather, as we discern through life what is God's "call" or "plan" for us means to discern that which draws us deeper into relationship (in communion) with God and the Church community. This is a different understanding to God's plan being a defined path or as interventions along the journey.
I'm also not saying that God is far and above our lives. God is immanent, close to us, that's the relationship opened up to us through Christ. God is in our lives, we are in God's life, but that doesn't mean we control each other. Rather, our choices have the power to draw us deeper into relationship with God. It's not magic, it's logic: live a holy life, draw close to God. Simply, we have to be careful when we say God has a "plan" for our lives. God does have a plan, but it's not a blueprint or a step-by-step playbook.
Following God has led me to here, but in relationship with God, not determined by him. So if I was to give a Hall of Fame speech, I too would begin by thanking God, but not for leading me down this path compared to another. Rather, I'd be thankful to God for the freedom to choose this life of love and fulfillment, for his plan of relationship and his enduring invitation to draw closer to him regardless of the paths I take.