Saturday, November 17, 2012

God's Plan: Cold Comfort or Greater Purpose?

Growing up I attended quite a few churches. My father being an appointed pastor accounted for three of them. My personal exploration accounted for the next seven. Spending that much time around churches and church people increases the likelihood of certain experiences. Being told that misfortune is "all part of God's plan" is one such experience.

There's another group of people that encounter this phrase more than most: anyone involved in an adoption. Couples struggling with infertility are often "consoled" this way. First families are told this to ease the pain and uncertainty of placing their children with couples they barely know. Adoptees often hear this to help erase the pain of their loss and difference. There is one significant problem with this.

It doesn't work at all. Though the intent is compassion, these words have none. They don't validate the person in pain. They don't even address presence of pain.

Instead these words serve a purpose entirely contrary to their common intent. They separate the supporter from the experience of the wounded. If pain is all "part of God's plan" the listener has no culpability in the situation. There is no risk for the onlooker because success is assured. If pain is part of the plan it takes on a moral quality. The pain becomes good pain. The pain is good because the person experiencing it is participating in "God's plan". The person has become a holy vessel. Holy vessels, uniformly, have been stripped of their humanity.

If this is true, why on Earth does this phrase get so much use? Because it comforts the supporter, not the vulnerable. The person in hardship experiences good pain. If the pain is good, for the individual and the world, there is no need to alleviate it. The person who would normally be called to take action has been let of the hook. Situations that are intolerable to think of, let alone witness, are acceptable if they are calculated sacrifices made by a faultless entity.

What happens to our attitudes if these sacrifices are not calculated losses outweighed by their benefit? Suddenly a person's pain is excruciating instead of purifying. A child placed for adoption is a desperate attempt to salvage some good from a terrible situation. Adoption is no longer a beautiful miracle. Unplanned pregnancies lose the glow of purpose. Suddenly rape is just rape and incest is shown fully as the horror it is

"It's all part of God's plan" isn't comfort to those who need it. It's a "Get Out Of Jail Free" card for those called upon to be the comfort others need.


  1. I couldn't agree more. This statement has always been incredibly irksome to me, along with "it was just meant to be". These kind of statements do another type of damage to the listener, it gives them the sense of being powerless in their own destinies. Some people just stop at this feeling of loss of control, others take the next step and move onto then placing blame on someone/thing else for their situation, since they clearly had no control over it as these statements imply. Placing blame might seem comforting in the beginning, but long term all it does is foster further anger and pain. There is no healing in any of this.

    Personally, I prefer the mentality that while we don't ave control over everything that happens to us in life, we DO have complete say in how we deal with unfortunate circumstances. This provides an honest balance between the fact that we don't have complete control, but we do have enough to keep moving forward and eventually make it good.

  2. Petite Coccinelle - I agree with your approach to balancing power of choice with reality. We cannot control the circumstances in our lives, and we cannot control how we feel about those circumstances. But we do have the power to shape those circumstances and feelings with our response. The difference between control and input is important to keep in our awareness.

  3. It is a Get out of jail free card, and I, too, am tired of hearing it. I agree, like so many statements, it lets the person who says it off the hook. I get it, thank you for putting it into words!

  4. Really good post. I think it probably translates into "I want to comfort you because I care about you, but also because I am uncomfortable with you discomfort - and even more so, I am uncomfortable with the thought of God allowing bad things to happen... So I'll say this, which will try to tie it all together."

    Recently, someone made a distinction which I really appreciated: Giving thanks FOR all circumstances vs. giving thanks IN all circumstances. The first one is crazy. The second is possible, and probably healthy.

    A much better way to comfort - takes time and the ability to stand with discomfort - is probably, "That really sucks. I'll stand with you. Let's hope, pray, and work for something good to come out of it, in spite of how bad it sucks."

  5. Also, sharing this on Twitter. I really like your post.

  6. Finally a sane post! In light of what recently happened in Newtown, CT, this is especially appropriate as some people are using this phrasing. Ugh. I myself have heard this phrase as I'm a birth mom. While I do believe personally that God CAN use circumstances for our benefit if we let Him and ask Him (I prefer to look for the silver lining in situations), I don't believe that the negative circumstances in which we can find ourselves are part of His plan. I also vehemently agree that it does dissolve personal responsibility out of the picture. I'm a huge fan of taking personal responsibility in any situation, and like Petite Coccinelle said, I also have charge of how I react to situations in which I sometimes find myself.


What do you think? I'm curious.