Does God have a specific plan for us, something in particular He wants us to do with our lives? Normally, I would address this question by discussing passages from A Course in Miracles (there are many that answer this question quite explicitly; see, for instance, W-pI.135.18). In this article, however, I want to address it from the standpoint of my own life experience. I have had many experiences that seem to me to reveal the workings of a higher plan, and these experiences, I believe, have taught me a great deal about how the plan actually works. I would like to share one of these experiences, a particularly pivotal one, and then attempt to draw out what this episode says about the plan itself.
An example from my life
In my teens and early twenties I knew where my life was going. I was heading for a career in philosophy. In my mid-teens I had begun asking questions about life and trying to figure out the answers. I wrote my insights down and, after a few years, the beginnings of a philosophical system began to emerge. It addressed traditional philosophical questions and many psychological questions. I loved this sort of thing. I had a passion for truth and felt completely at home creating a system of ideas aimed at finding it. My system attempted to explain the nature of consciousness, including the workings of thought, will, emotion, and memory, from a novel vantage point (one that I still think has great promise). It contained a proof for God's existence which was not a variation on the traditional proofs. I was pleased when Huston Smith, the great scholar of world religions, said he thought the proof worked and recommended a journal that might publish it (though he admitted to not being excited about such proofs).
On my twenty-first birthday something pivotal occurred. I had gone to a local park to think. There, my thoughts turned to my magnum opus, which I planned to write in about ten years, when my system was more developed. This would be a huge book—at least 1,000 pages—in which I would present my system to the world. While at the park an unusual and significant thing happened: it felt as if a title for my magnum opus was just dropped into my mind. You may have experienced something similar, where an idea pops into your head fully formed, feeling as if it has just been downloaded from somewhere else, rather than conceived by you. The title was Behold the Man. This comes from the scene in the Gospel of John where Pilate is presenting Jesus to the crowd. He brings out Jesus, who has just been beaten and scourged and crowned with thorns, and says to the mob, "Behold the man."
I couldn't believe how perfect this title was for my book, for at least two reasons. First, my system was claiming to reveal what human nature is, how it works on the surface and what it is at its depths. Behold the Man seemed to capture this perfectly. It seemed to say "Behold the Nature of Man." Second, my system claimed that, despite our frail, mortal appearance, our fundamental nature is spiritual or divine. This seemed to be perfectly captured by that scene from the life of Jesus. Here he was a divine being, yet in that moment he looked all too human—broken, bloody, on the verge of death. In my eyes, the title seemed to almost gesture over to Jesus as he stood in front of the crowd and say, "Behold the nature of man; though he looks all too human, he is really divine." This title was so sacred to me that for the next several years I refused to tell it to more than one other person.
I got back from the park and met a collection of friends who were taking me out to dinner. I still have a picture of me at the Mexican restaurant that night, looking like an idiot under one of those huge sombreros. When we got back home I received my birthday present. At the instigation of Susan (my then—fiancée), my friends had chipped in to buy me a book I had read about months before but was too lazy or too cheap to buy: A Course in Miracles. As we sat there with me holding the blue books (they were three separate volumes back then), it felt like an important moment, and as it turned out, it was. That moment changed my whole life.
Not long after (perhaps even that night), I realized that something very strange had happened that day. On the same day that I had received that perfect title for my book I had also been given A Course in Miracles. I had been given someone else's 1000-page magnum opus, which presented an intellectual system that, like mine, was philosophical, psychological, and ultimately, spiritual. This system claimed, like mine, to reveal how our minds and emotions work and to reveal what we fundamentally are. Like mine, it presented Jesus as a symbol for the rest of us, human in appearance but divine in truth, whose brutal end was a poignant symbol of the human condition. Finally, its title, just like my title, subtly likened us to Jesus. The title of A Course in Miracles claims that it will teach us to do what Jesus did; that is, work miracles.
I was amazed by the parallels with my book. This could not be chance, I thought. It was almost as if someone had given me the book that I planned to write. I intuitively felt that this simply had to mean something. But what? Without giving it much thought, I concluded it meant that there must be something important about the Course for me and something important about that title of mine—with my emphasis on the second, of course. As it turned out, I had no idea of the real implications of that day.
If I had thought more about it, there was a fairly obvious message there. As I said, it was almost as if someone had given me the book that I planned to write. That potentially carried a disturbing implication: my book was already written, and by someone else. Moreover, this was not just anyone else. This book claimed to be written by Jesus. My book merely held Jesus up as the symbol for our true nature; this book was supposedly written by him. If this was true (and I eventually came to believe it was) it changed everything. Why would the student think of writing the book which the master had already written? At that point what could the student do but devote himself to the master's book?
With a little reflection, I would have seen that the seemingly exciting, enigmatic events of that day carried a hard message: rather than devoting my career to my book, I would devote it to someone else's. This was such a deeply unwelcome message that it did not even occur to me. At that point, in fact, there was no power on earth that could have caused me to seriously consider that possibility.
That message, however, kept knocking at my door. After a few years, I received what I felt was genuine guidance that I would teach the Course. I took this in stride, assuming this must mean that I would teach the Course on the side, while my day job would of course be my philosophical system. In the meantime, my best friend had started working for a local Course center; then my wife started working there. Next I was asked to teach there, and then write. After a few years, I began receiving invitations to travel and do workshops elsewhere. I turned around and found I had a career in teaching A Course in Miracles.
Yet throughout this time I still held onto the idea (though my grip was weakening) that my real career was going to be devoted to my own system. To think that I had an original contribution to make to humanity's quest for truth, but that I would forever keep silent about it while I promoted someone else's contribution, was a bitter pill to swallow.
Then, on my 31st birthday, ten full years after I received the Course, I did a Course workshop in Oklahoma City. On the plane trip home I thought the whole thing through. In that time I had come to believe that the Course had importance not just for a few New Agers, but for the entire world. I had also come to realize that, as an intellectual system, it towered above anything I could ever have produced. I also was aware that it would require a great deal of intellectual work to draw out that system and make its wisdom clear to others, which meant that there was a need for someone like me. In sum, I saw with perfect clarity that all those years ago on my 21st birthday, this is what I had been hired to do. It had all been set from the moment I got the Course (and who knows how long before). I was to take the same passion for truth and the same intellectual abilities that I planned to devote to my system and devote them to his. On that day I finally got the message and I finally said "yes," and I have never looked back.
10 observations about the plan
In hindsight, I felt I could see a genuine plan of the Holy Spirit at work in this situation, a plan that from the start had its own idea of where I should be heading, and that managed to gently nudge my life in its direction. The way the plan seemed to work in this situation is exactly like what I have seen in many other situations. Therefore, I would like to use this story as a window onto the workings of the Holy Spirit's plan. What can it tell us about the plan? I have drawn from it the following ten observations.
1. God's plan may trash our plans, but always for something far better.
True, my plans for my life got trashed, but I have grown to realize that His plan is far better. The Course has led me in directions I would never have gone on my own. Not only is the Course vastly superior to my system as an intellectual system, but it is also a path of transformation. My system aimed purely at explanation, not transformation, and frankly a good portion of its value for me was that I was the explainer. Thus, my system had the inherent danger of exalting my ego, whereas the Course is aimed at erasing my ego. It is always more edifying for the student to represent the master than to represent himself.
2. When the plan comes knocking at our door we may not hear it. Even if we do hear it to some degree, we will probably try to minimize the changes it spells for our lives.
As you saw in my story, I had no clue what plan was actually knocking at my door on that fateful day. And even when, years later, I started to faintly hear the knocking, I didn't consider that it might mean a whole different life than the one I had planned. It was like an alarm whose sound I automatically tried to incorporate into my dreams, rather than hearing it as the wake-up call it was.
3. The plan has a mind of its own, a mind over which we have no power. It comes up with novel, creative ideas for our lives that are completely independent of our ideas (though there may at times be some similarity).
This characteristic of the plan is probably the most threatening, yet it can also be deeply consoling. While I was making plans for my life, there was Someone else out there making different plans, plans I never would have made myself. Devote my intellectual career to a channeled book? What kind of crazy idea is that? Yet no matter how crazy it would have seemed to me, there was absolutely nothing I could have done to change this Mind. That can feel very threatening, as if there is some general up in the sky sending us into battle without regard for our personal welfare. Yet we can also experience it as comforting, for it means that there is Someone watching over us in a very specific way, Someone Who is not just a figment of our imagination, but Who has a Mind all His Own, and Who knows what is in our best interests.
4. The plan will give us a role to play in the world's salvation. This gives us the opportunity to live for a meaningful purpose.
In my experience the plan is particularly focused on giving us a role to play in the larger purpose of saving the world. This may sound trite, yet it seems to be exactly what happened in my story. It looks as if I was hired to fill a need. One could reasonably infer that in some way, to some degree, the Course needed me, just as the world apparently needed the Course. To feel that our lives are filling a meaningful purpose in a larger plan is something we all crave. Who wants to feel that his life is serving no purpose? Who wants to feel totally useless? The belief that I am being used for a larger purpose has been an incalculable gift. It fills my life with meaning and keeps me going in the face of all the obstacles.
5. The role the plan gives us is perfectly tailored to our talents, abilities, and interests. It wouldn't fit anyone else like it fits us.
I already pointed out that the plan clearly drew upon the exact same things in me that had given rise to my system: my passion for truth and my skills in assembling a system of ideas. I have been struck for years at just how tailor-made for me this function is. It is as if Someone knew me inside and out, better than I knew myself, and designed a role that fits me like a glove.
6. The plan will use our talents and abilities, but in a way that is different than the way our ego would use them.
This, of course, was a major theme of my story. Not only would it have never occurred to me that I would devote my career to another philosopher's system, it was even further from my mind that this master philosopher would be Jesus, and that he had expressed his system in the form of a channeled book. The whole situation was just a little weird.
7. For this reason the plan may well frustrate our ego's desires. Given this, we may resist it for a long time.
This was almost the central theme of my story. This plan was Someone else's idea and I liked mine better. Thus, even while His played out, I stubbornly clung to mine.
8. The plan will frustrate our ego because its purpose is to lead us beyond our ego, towards the transcendence of our ego.
The plan is almost sneaky. It will not only give us a role to play in the world's salvation, it will design that role in such a way that fulfilling it naturally wears away our ego until it is gone. In my plan for my life, my ego stood at the top of a system of explanation that it had designed. It was king. In the Holy Spirit's plan for my life, my ego stands at the bottom of a system of transformation, one that is totally intent on erasing it. Further, the fact that I teach this system has pushed me into giving myself to its goal of erasing my ego. I am ten times the student I would be if I had never become a teacher. Somehow I suspect the Holy Spirit knew that.
9. The plan is consistent and persistent. If we don't like its ideas, it won't change its mind. And if at first we don't hear it, it will keep knocking.
We often assume that the Holy Spirit's plan is incredibly fluid and spontaneous. It may tell us something one week and tell us something quite different the next. For instance, when I didn't get the message at first, we might assume that the plan would move on, flowing and adapting in the face of my resistance and coming up with an endless string of new, equally tentative ideas. This is a rather comfortable idea, but this was not my experience in this case (nor has it been in my other encounters with the Holy Spirit's plan). The fact that I didn't get it and was resistant didn't change a thing from the standpoint of the plan. It just kept insisting on the same idea until I came around.
10. It is all right if we don't answer when the plan knocks. It will keep offering us more opportunities. They will never stop coming.
I am convinced that it is all right if we don't hear the plan knocking, or hear it but refuse to answer. If the plan were like us it would get angry and eventually give up on us, but thankfully it is not. Being ever-patient and forgiving, it will simply continue to generously lay before us more and more opportunities, for as long as it takes.
Does God have a plan for our lives? In my experience, He does. This plan is on our side. It offers us the chance to live for a meaningful purpose. It has our best interests in mind. Yet it also has the demise of our ego in mind, and it is hard for us to see that this is in our best interests. Therefore, the plan's ideas may be so alien to us that we at first may not notice them, and once we do we may kick and scream for a long time. But that is all right. The plan is patient and we will come around in the end.