“If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”
So starts my favorite pro-life movie, Bella. This quote resonates with me because growing up I have told God a lot of things. I told him that I would never be a pastor. I told him I would never leave New England. I told him that 3 kids was enough for me.
God has a consistent track record of disrupting my plans. He implanted within me a deep desire for pastoral ministry which led me across the country to Southern California to study. Then halfway through seminary he gave our family a passion for orphan care. You would think that after all this I would have learned not to hold onto my own plans too tightly. But it is something I still struggle with. We all do. It is a prevailing human problem. We love our semblance of control. And even when the illusion is shattered again and again, it remains agonizing when our plans are not realized.
We entered into 2020 with the real, tangible hope that we would finalize 2 adoptions this year. We have 2 foster daughters—one is 3 and a half, the other will be 2 this month. Our older daughter was placed with us when she was 2 weeks old. Our younger daughter we picked up from the NICU when she was 6 days old. Of course we expected delays in the progression of their cases because the L.A. County foster care system is overwhelmed and flooded with 30,000 cases—about 40% of the cases in the entire state (which has 57 other counties).
With our older daughter we have faced every possible setback. We dealt with the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a federal law that seeks to preserve Native American tribes by keeping native children with their native families. Her alleged father was part of a tribe. After bonding for 8 months, they found a home for her within her tribe. We were devastated. But long story short, the the tribe issued a paternity test. It came back negative. She could stay with us! This was a miraculous hurdle to overcome. Then the termination of parental rights (TPR) was delayed because her birth mother’s location was unknown. Exercising due diligence to notify her dragged the TPR to the third attempt which finally happened in January of 2019, two and a half years after placement. After another setback because of a clerical error in the paperwork, we finally signed adoptive documents that October and waited for an adoption date. After reviewing her file, the adoptive worker commented that we had been through “every possible delay!”
She was wrong.
Our younger daughter’s case has progressed faster than our older daughter’s and TPR was scheduled to occur on March 17th. This was also the third attempt. In February, we were thrilled to receive a letter notifying us that adoption day for our older daughter would be March 16th. We quickly began making plans. Friends and family were invited. A special dress was purchased. Signs with specific dates on them were crafted. A professional photographer was arranged. Special dinners plans were made.
The night before and the morning of our special day were an emotional time for my wife and I. As we were reminiscing about all we’ve been through, we shed tears of joy and relief. We had been waiting for this day for 3 and a half years! This was one of the biggest days of our lives! It was up there with our wedding day and the birth of each of our children. We spent time preparing our daughter and other children for the formality of the court room. Our daughter was prepared to refer to the judge as “Your Higness” (she had no reference for “Your Honor”). As we were getting our children dressed, while I was literally doing my sons’ hair, we received the phone call.
Two hours before our adoption hearing, we received the call from the courthouse—
Our adoption hearing had been postponed due to COVID-19.
We were absolutely dumbfounded! We didn’t know whether to laugh, scream, or cry. We felt confused, shocked, angry, and numb. The ups and downs of the system had already taken a heavy emotional toll on us. And now this?! It was unbelievable! Unimaginable! We were convinced that we were the fortunate ones who were going to make it. And we almost did. We were so close!
Both of our appointments in court—our older daughter’s adoption hearing and our younger daughter’s TPR—were rescheduled for April 23rd. In the midst of the pandemic we knew better than to hold onto this date too tightly. Of course they were cancelled. We expected this. We were given a new date for our older daughter’s adoption finalization—February 2, 2021. We were not expecting this!
We missed her adoption by 2 hours and now have to wait an entire year?!
Again, this is unbelievably hard! Unimaginably difficult! You can’t make this stuff up.
So how do we process disappointment during these unprecedented times?
Years ago, waiting in line at a convenience store in Concord, NH, I witnessed a young boy cry after being denied a candy bar. I overheard his father comfort his son with these words, “An unfulfilled desire is hardly an unacceptable loss.” This moment has been burned in my mind because of how young the boy was. He must have been 5 or 6. What a profound thing to tell a child! Part of me wonders if it fell on deaf ears. In that quick interaction, I saw my relationship with my Father in heaven.
Unfulfilled Desires Make Us Sick to Our Stomachs
When our plans are frustrated, it hurts. When our plans are unrealized, it can literally make us nauseated—sick to our stomachs. We are emotionally invested in our plans and are truly convinced that they will come to fruition. This is where we were the moment we received the phone call. And then we crashed hard in the despair of disappointment.
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Prov. 13:12).Plans are extensions of our hearts. They are like maps or blueprints to get us to the things we desire—our hopes and dreams and passions. It is perfectly fine to grieve and mourn over our unfulfilled plans. But in our case, the father’s sound advice rings true—it’s not an unacceptable loss. It just feels like one. We still have our daughter. We still have a pending adoption date. We simply lost our timetable. The pain does not have to last forever. To tweak a popular maxim by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself desires in which nothing in [my plans] can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another [plan].” We have this hope that there is something better to look forward to.
Unfulfilled Desires Make Us See the Bigger Picture
We often assume that our plans are parallel with God’s. But oftentimes, our plans are perpendicular to his, unwittingly clashing with them. And like the collision of a high-speed rail train and a bicycle, when they intersect, God’s plans will be moving forward without ours. His will prevails and ours must merge with his. We are often taken along for the ride unwillingly.
God’s plans are infallible. Job declared, “I know you can do all things and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). Our plans are as feeble and fallible as we are. Our plans are always contingent and suboptimal because we are not God. He is infinite in his power and wisdom and goodness. ‘I am God and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish my purpose'”(Is. 46:9-10).
It’s in these times of unfulfilled desires—when a forceful blow brings us to our knees with nothing but that vacuous nauseated feeling in our gut—that God’s will is so undeniably clear. But his plans are superior to ours. We should desire his plans more than our own. Suffering under God’s will is consistent with the whole Christian message. After all, it was Jesus in his intense suffering who said, “Not my will but yours be done” (Lk. 22:42).
Unfulfilled Desires Make Us Submissive to God
When God’s plans are so clearly and devastatingly not in line with ours, our response matters. James challenges us not to hold onto our plans too tightly. He said, “Come now you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit,’ yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring” (4:13-14). Our plans are often too specific, too careless, and too arrogant. We often approach our plans with an overconfidence that essentially tells God how things are going to be. We presume upon his providence and persist to the point of demanding that he get on our agenda.
Wisdom teaches us that there needs to be a certain humility built into our making of plans—one that recognizes God as having the right to rule over his creatures; one that admits we are not in control, that we do not know what is best. James encourages us to say, “If the Lord wills, we will do this or that” (4:15). “Lordwilling” has become a common expression in Christian circles. Maybe you’ve seen the initials D.V. at the end of an email or letter. They stand for “Deo Volente,”—Lordwilling in Latin. James’ desire is that we would develop a mindset rather than a mantra—a growth in our ability to submit to God’s plan, to trust him implicitly no matter how much it hurts, and to truly believe that his plan is better. After all, “He does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?'”(Dan. 4:35).
Unfulfilled Desires Make Us Silent in God’s Presence
When we received that phone call, we were literally dumbfounded. That hollow feeling in our gut quickly moved upward to our throats and we were momentarily unable to speak, even breathe. I am reminded of the images in Job where people put their hands over their mouth. Job said to his friends, “Look at me and be astonished, and put your hand over your mouth” (21:5). When he went in the public square, Job said, “The princes stopped talking and put their hands over their mouths” (29:9). Sometimes life circumstances are so overwhelming that you can’t say anything and probably shouldn’t say anything because it won’t bring any clarity or relief to the situation.
What’s fascinating is that the next time he uses this phrase, it is regarding himself. In the climax of the story when God powerfully and unforgettably revealed himself, Job replied, “Behold I am insignificant; what can I reply to you? I lay my hand on my mouth” (40:4). God didn’t give a reason for the suffering. He didn’t reveal his master plan. Rather, he simply revealed himself in all of his incomprehensible glory. He had a change of perspective and became more astonished and overwhelmed by God than by his circumstances. In a moment Job became theocentric. He grew to see God in all the beauty of his perfections. It was God’s sovereignty that led Job to implicit trust. At the end of the story, Job’s circumstances didn’t change. He remained in the dust and ashes of his unbearable suffering and he worshipped, but he worshipped with a deeper understanding and a deeper trust that only suffering can bring (1:20-22; 42:5-6). He was crushed and comforted by God’s sovereignty.
In times of frustrated plans and unfulfilled desires, we must maintain that everything God does—however unwelcome, uncomfortable, or seemingly uncharitable—is morally perfect, completely free of all malice or malevolence, and is filled with meaning and purpose. Or as J. Mark Bertrand writes in his book (Re)Thinking Worldview, “Behind the circumstances of everyday life and the morally ambiguous developments we observe, there is a perfectly good and perfectly powerful force at work. There is a divine plan, and it is complex, unfathomable, and beautiful.”
Wise people make plans. But wise people make plans with the understanding that God is worthy of their worship, that he has the right to direct their steps, and that his plans may be different, even better than theirs. We don’t hold tightly to our plans but to our confidence that his perfect plan is unfolding in his time and it will stand, even when our plans fall through (Prov. 16:9; 19:21). We don’t know what tomorrow will bring.