“Man plans and God laughs.”
— Yiddish proverb
Helen had been divorced for about a year and didn’t plan to get involved in another relationship for awhile. Her marriage had been unhappy and abusive. This short and skinny woman had started eating too much and became overweight for the first time in her life.
She felt lousy about herself inside. She felt unattractive on the outside. She didn’t trust anyone. Her plans were to stick to her own business and get her life in order. She didn’t want to fall in love with anyone.
About 18 months ago, she had worked all day and then spent an hour working out at a gym when a friend called to ask her to have a drink. She told her friend she was tired and that she was in workout clothes, but her friend persuaded her to meet at a bar for a few minutes anyway.
And that’s the night she met Michael.
Helen and her friend were quietly talking when Michael spotted her friend and came over to say hello. She was polite to this older man who was a friend of her friend, but she had no interest in getting to know him. But Michael stuck around at their table and talked until they left.
Michael started calling Helen, but she made it clear she she didn’t plan to have a relationship — with him or anybody else. She agreed to go out with him, but it was just for fun. She had no interest in anything more.
Three months later — having given up her plans to just have fun and not get attached — Helen realized she was in love with Michael. By a year later, they were married.
Helen told me this story late Friday afternoon and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It was a timely story, because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about human plans and how we often have to be humble enough to change them.
There have been several times in my life when I have been certain about my future plans. I’ve had a clear vision of where I was going and who was going with me. And in several cases, God has laughed at my plans and I’ve fallen flat on my face.
Planning is important, but only because it helps you to think through the issues clearly, not because things are going to go as you envision. So it’s great to plan, but it helps to think of your plans as suggestions — because God might have something entirely different in mind for you.
I used to think God had a blueprint for everybody’s life. I thought that if I listened carefully, I could understand that plan and then carry it out with the precision of a well-planned military invasion.
I see things very differently now. I know God’s in control — in ways that I can’t even imagine — but I’m not going to get some detailed plan with orders to go carry it out. Instead, I’m going to stumble through life trying my best to be what I ought to be and grow as I ought to grow — and my understanding of all that is going to change as I grow.
Because of that, my plans have to be written in pencil — always ready to be erased and changed.
There are a few things which I have very strong gut-level beliefs that I need to be or do. Those won’t change easily. But the rest are just details which can change as I go. I’ll probably never know whether God had a master plan for me when I was young which it was impossible for me to see or if the plan has changed every time I’ve made a decision or a mistake. In practical terms, it doesn’t really matter.
I’m now certain that the worst thing I can do is to stubbornly stick with a plan when it turns out that something has changed. Even if I might have been right to pursue one course of action at a time in the past, that doesn’t mean that path remains the right one forever.
Five years ago, rocker Steve Taylor put out his first album for more than 20 years. The rock music of the album is energetic and driving, but the cryptic closing song casts God as a cosmic comedian.
I suspect Taylor finds himself struggling with the same issues that I’ve wrestled with all my life. He has been a very successful singer in the Christian music market back in the 1980s — where he was an outrageous outsider who appealed to weirdos like me — and then he was a filmmaker who made a couple of studio films and he’s also run his own music label. (He discovered and promoted some popular acts you might have heard of, such as Sixpence None the Richer.)
But Taylor still hasn’t had the breakthrough mainstream success that his art deserved. He has a cult-like following among those who know his work, but I’m sure he hasn’t had the impact which he once dreamed of.
This closing song — called “Comedian” — ends with a singer repeating one line over and over and over: “Man makes plans, God laughs.”
God has seen my feeble plans and laughed at me multiple times over the years, re-arranging the pieces on my chess board with ease. Like a confused and angry child, I’ve sometimes whined and complained. But my stubbornness has only delayed me at times from moving on to somewhere I needed to be instead.
I’ve been on a path lately that I thought was taking me to a particular place, but when I got halfway there, I realized that the bridge is out. I can’t go forward. I can either complain about the unfairness of life — or I can try a new plan.
I’m good at making plans. I’m good at changing plans. Sometimes I change plans for the right reasons. Sometimes I change plans because I’m scared of moving forward with what I know I ought to do. That means I can veer back and forth like crazy as I try to get to the right place.
I’m certain that I’m not where I ought to be right now. I’m not with the people I need to be with. I’m not doing the things I need to be doing. I’m not on the right path.
But knowing all that doesn’t mean I yet know the right path. Maybe I’m doomed to just stumble forward in the darkness — not knowing where I’m going — but having to have faith that my next steps will be the right ones.
I can’t be sure.
The only thing I know for certain is that God is a cosmic comedian. The good-natured Creator of everything loves me and wants the best for me, but he still laughs at my plans — and he laughs about how slow I am to trust him and just walk forward in faith.