God Proposes, but Man Disposes . . . and God Re-Composes

Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471)

Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471)

In his 15th century devotional classic, The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471) famously wrote:

Man proposes, but God disposes

The general idea is that we humans can make whatever plans we want, but in the end, God is the one who decides what actually happens. Here is the fuller statement from The Imitation of Christ:

For the resolutions of the just depend rather on the grace of God than on their own wisdom; and in Him they always put their trust, whatever they take in hand. For man proposes, but God disposes; neither is the way of man in his own hands.

Perhaps it’s just my natural human perversity, but I’ve never much liked this proverb, pithy as it is.

I’ll grant that the plans we make often turn out very differently than we intended.

I’ll grant that God’s hand is always engaged in human affairs, guiding and directing us toward a path that God would have us take when our own plans fail.

And I’ll grant that those who devote their lives to what is good and right from a spiritual perspective will look to God for guidance, and willingly follow the path God lays out for them as they understand it.

What bothers me about this pithy old proverb is the suggestion that human free will is an illusion; that no matter what plans we may make for our life, God will ultimately decide the path we take and the destination we reach.

I beg to differ.

We humans do have free will. We ultimately decide the path that we will take—even if the destination we reach isn’t exactly what we had originally planned. I do not believe that the greatness of God is shown in exercising the power to control our lives and to have God’s will prevail over ours in the end. Instead, God’s greatness is shown in the respect and honor that God gives to us as human beings by allowing us to make our own choices and follow our own path even if God’s ideal path for us might have been a better idea.

I therefore not so humbly offer an alternate version of the classic proverb:

God proposes, but man disposes . . . and God re-composes.

Because the fact is, we humans dispose of much of what God proposes for our happiness and wellbeing.

Then God has a recycling job to do.

God’s proposal

God does have a purpose and a plan for each one of us. If it were not so, we would not be walking this earth. God does not waste energy creating things that have no use. This especially includes people. So if you’re alive and breathing, God created you for a reason.

What, specifically, God created you for, I can’t tell you. You’ll have to figure it out for yourself. That’s one of the main reasons we’ve been given a lifetime here on earth: to figure out the purpose of our life and get the initial training and practice required to carry it out. This involves not only gaining the basic knowledge and understanding required for our life’s work, but also developing the character required to do it.

Incidentally, I’ve come to believe that though our inborn character and tendencies will make us best at certain types of work that fit with our character, we do have a lot of choice when it comes to what particular job or calling we wish to focus on. In other words, God doesn’t create us for a single job that we’ll inevitably find and fulfill. Rather, God creates us with a whole field of likely possibilities, and through our particular experiences and choices in life we find—or perhaps create—our own niche within that field.

Though the specifics of your field and your niche are for you to discover and create, I can offer some general principles about how God’s proposal for our lives works.

Service is key

First and foremost, God’s proposal for our lives involves our spending a healthy part of our daily life serving others.

We humans are social animals. We are created to live in community with other human beings. Some of us may be more engaged in community, others may be less engaged. Some of us are extroverts, others are introverts. But it is very difficult to have no contact at all with other human beings.

Yes, there are a few lone wolves who go out into the wilderness and live the life of a hermit. But even they came from human community, and usually they do have occasional contact with other human beings, if only to barter some goods they have produced for needed supplies.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of us live embedded in human community. And the glue that holds community together is mutual service.

If you want a basic statement of the purpose for which God created us, here it is: to live in a community of love and service to one another.

Perhaps this may seem prosaic. Isn’t there something grander to life?

But over time you’ll find, I think, that there is no greater fulfillment than doing something for another person because we love them and care about them and want to provide for their needs and make them happy.

In short, God’s proposal for us is that we devote our lives to loving and serving our fellow human beings.

Love is the primary ingredient

No matter how many times it’s said, it’s still true: Love makes the world go ’round.

Love not only powers our lives as human beings, it is our life as human beings.

There are many directions we could go with this. Let’s focus on just one.

Whatever your ultimate calling or career or job in life may be, it will be something you love.

God is not a sadist. God doesn’t create us to do work that we hate and have to suffer through. Yes, I know that many of us here on earth do not love our jobs. Many of us are stuck working jobs that are tedious or boring or even loathsome to us in order to support ourselves and our loved ones.

However, that is not what God has in mind for us, nor is it the way God designed us. When we have found, or created, our true work and calling in life, it will be something we love to do. Mind you, this doesn’t mean it will always be easy and enjoyable. But it will be something that we feel driven, and even passionate about. It will be something we get up in the morning looking forward to doing, whatever challenges and struggles it might involve.

That’s because love is what makes us who we are. If we are not moved by love to do the things we do each day, sooner or later we will stop doing them, and find something to do what we do love.

Of course, we may not be able to engage in our true calling here on earth. Circumstances don’t always allow it. Or it may be something we do outside of our paying job. We may go to work to support ourselves and our family (if we have one), and then spend our free time on our true calling. For one inspiring example of this, see the movie A Man Named Pearl. Here is the trailer:

God’s proposal involves living a life of love: love for doing our daily work, and love for the people who we serve in doing so. Even if we are not able to achieve this here on earth, if it is our hope and desire, we will achieve it in the afterlife.

Learning is required

Lennon and McCartney to the contrary notwithstanding, love is not all you need. Love is both the substance of the universe and the power that drives the universe. But without some definite shape and some definite direction, it’s nothing but a pulsating blob of ineffective energy.

Understanding, truth, and wisdom is what gives it a definite shape and direction so that it can accomplish the work that it desires to do.

That’s why God’s proposal for us as human beings also involves continuing to learn and grow in knowledge, understanding, and wisdom throughout our lifetime here on earth, and forever in the spiritual world.

No matter what we choose to do in life, we can always get better at it. Yes, this involves expanding our heart to love other people more broadly, fully, and deeply. But it also involves continually learning and perfecting our knowledge and understanding of the work we do.

For example, if our calling is music, there is never a time when we can say, “I am now the perfect musician. I have nothing more to learn about music.” There will always be new music to learn, new techniques to learn, new skills to develop, new sounds and harmonies to make.

Yes, we learn in many different ways. Some learn best from books, others learn best from visuals, others learn best by doing. Whatever our preferred style of learning, God proposes that we continue to learn new things every day, forever.

Of course, there’s much more to God’s proposal for us humans. But this is enough for now. To sum it all up, each of us is designed to love and serve our fellow human beings in our own unique way, and to continue learning and growing in our understanding, skill, and wisdom in doing so.

That’s God’s proposal for us.

Man’s disposal

Unfortunately, we humans often have a very different idea of what life is all about.

God’s idea is for us to find joy and fulfillment in loving our fellow human beings.

But for too many of us—especially when we are young and just starting out in life—our idea is that life is about getting enjoyment for ourselves, money for ourselves, cool toys for ourselves, power and influence for ourselves, and so on.

Or if we don’t have these crass motives, but are idealistic and want to make the world a better place, we tend to start out pretty sure that we’re a lot smarter than our parents—that if they’d just let us get our hands on the world, we’d fix up all the stupid things they’ve done to it. In other words, even if we start out with good motives, we often have a cocky, self-assured attitude that makes it difficult for us to pay attention to what actually needs to be done because we’re so busy thinking we already know what should be done.

The reality is that the world is a stubborn place. The evils of society are deeply entrenched. When the parents of those idealistic youth start retiring and dying, their children suddenly realize that they are running the world—and fixing things turns out to be a lot tougher than they thought. Then it’s time to learn the hard way that we’re not as smart as we thought we were—that we have a lot to learn about life.

Because the fact is, we humans have disposed of much of what God proposed for our life.

Why do we dump God?

Why don’t we just accept God’s proposal? It’s a pretty good one, isn’t it? If we did it God’s way, we could all be fairly happy most of the time. So why do we muck things up so badly instead?

The answer really isn’t all that complicated. Ever since the mythical Fall of Mankind recounted in symbolic language in the early chapters of Genesis, we humans have tended to focus more on ourselves and the material world than on God and our fellow human beings.

The way it’s spozed to be

It’s not that it’s wrong to love ourselves and take care of ourselves. Nor is it wrong to enjoy the amenities and pleasures this world has to offer.

It’s a matter of priorities. Here is the order in which we are supposed to prioritize our loves and motives:

  1. Love for God
  2. Love for other people
  3. Love for the material world around us
  4. Love for ourselves

Love for God comes first because God is . . . well . . . God! God is the source of everything loving, wise, good, true, just, and compassionate. When we put God first, it means we are putting the good of everyone first, because God loves everyone. Not that we can personally take care of everyone in the world, but we will wish well to all people, all animals, all plants, and the planet and universe itself because we will see all of these as expressions of God, and worthy of our love.

Love for other people (“the neighbor,” in Bible terms) comes second because of what was mentioned just above: our whole purpose for being here is to be a part of the human community through loving and serving our fellow human beings in our own unique way.

Love for the material world comes next because as long as we are living here on this earth, our life is supported and sustained by the food, water, sunshine, rain, and all the other good things that this material universe has to offer. When we engage in this world and its business endeavors, working and making money, taking care of the environment, and so on, we are helping to create and sustain the conditions for human society to live and thrive. This world also offers many pleasures and enjoyments that keep us feeling alive and refreshed and ready to face the next day of labors.

Love for ourselves comes next because if we don’t take care of ourselves, we’ll be in no position to care for anyone else. When we keep our body as healthy and fit as we can, we make ourselves able to serve others. When we feed our minds with new ideas, we learn new ways to do good things for others and for ourselves. When we relax and enjoy our favorite forms of recreation and relaxation, we keep balance in our lives so that we don’t burn ourselves out and become useless both to ourselves and to others.

All of these basic human loves are good and constructive if we keep them in the right order and priority.

However, when we put the last two ahead of the first two, we bring about all of the evils that afflict humankind.

When self-love reigns

The worst evils of humankind come when we put ourselves ahead of everyone else.

This is not healthy self-love that values ourselves just as we value others. What I’m talking about is loving ourselves exclusively, and not caring about anyone else except as they serve us.

When we are driven primarily by this type of selfishness, we desire all others to serve us, and we believe that their only purpose is to serve us. This is why exclusive self-love is inextricably linked with a desire to have power over other people, and to dominate them.

For those who are driven by exclusive self-love, money is nice, but the real goal is to make slaves of everyone around them. This is the source of the worst tyranny, despotism, and oppression that we humans have engaged in throughout much of recorded history. When a king or emperor wishes to conquer and rule over all the nations on earth for his own glory, that is one of the ultimate expressions of this love of domination due to exclusive love of self.

But it can express itself in much smaller spheres as well. A desire to dominate and control our partner, married or otherwise, is an expression of exclusive self-love. Another name for this is narcissism.

If we think we’re always right, and everyone should listen to us and hang on our every word due to our powerful intellect, that’s another form of exclusive self-love. Many of the theological and academic battles of history have had more to do with this sort of unhealthy pride in one’s own intellect than with any genuine seeking for truth and understanding.

And we’ve probably all experienced the small-time despot who runs a store or a department or a neighborhood or a family as if it were a personal fiefdom, in which the word of the petty tyrant is law, and anyone who doesn’t obey immediately and completely is in for a world of hurt.

Yes, it’s good to love ourselves and take care of ourselves. And there are times when we do need to focus on our own learning or advancement or healing. There’s nothing wrong with that. But when our whole life becomes an altar to ourselves and our own greatness and power, that is the source of the worst human evils, and the greatest disposal of all of God’s good proposals for our happiness and wellbeing.

When love for the material world reigns

Once again, it’s good to enjoy the pleasures and the wonders that this world has to offer. God does not want us to live a miserable, self-denying, sad, and humorless life. God wants us to be happy and enjoy our lives!

However, when money, possessions, and the pleasures of this world become the primary focus of our lives, it introduces a second tier of human evil into the world. Exclusive love for the material world is not as evil as exclusive self-love. But it is still evil, because it values stuff and pleasures over people.

Those whose lives are all about making more and more money just for the pleasure of being wealthy and living luxuriously are engaged in this sort of exclusive love of material things. When we pile up more and more money and possessions with no plans for them other than to live rich, pampered lives and enjoy ourselves—not to mention having bragging rights about how rich we are—then we are caught up in this second tier of human evil.

When we live a hedonistic lifestyle, not caring if we benefit anyone else, but simply relaxing and grabbing whatever pleasures we can here and there, we’re also caught up in an exclusive love of the material world and material pleasures.

When we are are driven by love for this world and its pleasures, we are not as bent on evil and oppression of others as are those who are driven by a love of dominating others due to exclusive self-love. However, when we are caught up in wealth and material pleasures we also don’t care about others. We consider other people to be stepping stones and cogs in a machine whose purpose is to make more and more money for ourselves and get more and more pleasure for ourselves.

When our priority is material possessions and pleasures, we may not oppress others to the same extent that those who are driven by a selfish desire for power do. But we do use others in order to obtain wealth and pleasure for ourselves. We don’t care if others are living in grinding poverty as long as they help us to make a profit.

Once again, it’s not wrong to make a profit or to get money and pleasure for ourselves. God knows that we need to support ourselves and our families, and God wants us to enjoy the good things in life.

But when all we care about is our own wealth and pleasure, that’s when it goes off the rails, and we dispose of the good, loving, and caring life that God has proposed for us.

God’s Re-Composal

Okay, I know that’s not a real word. But it sounds kind of cool, doesn’t it?

So here’s the question. When God sees that we humans have disposed of God’s proposals, and created a world and a life full of greed, domination, oppression, self-indulgence, narcissism, crime, and all the pain and suffering these human evils create, what does God do about it?

First of all, it’s important to understand that God will not force us to be good. Are you expecting God to literally come and destroy all the evil and bring about peace and love on the earth all in one fell swoop?

Forget about it. It’s not going to happen. People who believe this way are misreading and misunderstanding the Bible—which is really talking about a spiritual renovation of humanity that God is accomplishing from within.

But that renovation, or re-composing, happens only if and when we humans are ready to let God back into our lives, and try it God’s way once again.

Why does God let us get so far off track?

You might think it would be better if God just whacked us on the shins to get us back on the right path every time we strayed away. The problem with this is that we would never willingly walk on the paths God has laid out for us.

Why does God let us try it our way first? Because that’s the only way we can make an informed decision about whether we like God’s way, and prefer God’s way to our own.

We humans get a lot of funny ideas in our heads about what’s good and right, and what will make us happy. And no matter how many times God or Mom and Dad or the preacher and the teacher tell us that we’ll be sorry if we do things that way, we just have to find out for ourselves. There’s nothing like our own experience to teach us what works and what doesn’t!

So God lets us try it our way first. Most of the time, that’s the only way we’ll learn that the way of selfishness, striving for more and more money, and seeking more and more pleasures actually leads us to a sad, broken, and depressing life. And the reason they do is that in getting all these things for ourselves, we discard and push away the only thing that does give us deep and lasting happiness: living in a community, small or large, of other people in an atmosphere of mutual love, understanding, and service.

God lets us try it our way first. Unfortunately, some of us never learn. We go right on seeking and striving for money, power, pleasure, and everything else this world has to offer, and find our only pleasure in the effort to get more and more of it for ourselves.

But many of us, after trying that life out for a while, do finally come to our senses. We discover that the things we thought would make us happy do not make us happy. Yes, we do get fleeting pleasure whenever we pull out a major coup. But that pleasure soon fades, and then we want more . . . and more . . . and more . . . and are never satisfied no matter how much we get.

If we then do come to our senses, we may finally be ready to accept God’s proposal.

This is when God re-composes the garbage disposal we have made of God’s plans and purposes for our lives.

God uses our evil for good

God is the ultimate recycler.

Have you heard of the principle from physics of the conservation of mass and energy? In layman’s terms (and I’m a scientific layman!), this means that nothing is ever truly thrown away. It just changes form and re-enters the cycle of material reality and life.

The universe is that way because it is created in the image of God, who never lets anything go to waste.

Some of us may feel that we have wasted huge chunks of our lives—or that we are still wasting our lives. But no matter what kind of a terrible waste we may have made of our lives, God can make something of it.

Did we spend our lives piling up more and more money? Some of the greatest charities in the world were founded by wealthy people who came to realize that there was more to life than money.

Did we spend our lives dominating and controlling others? We can learn the real meaning of love and respect for others, and help others to get away from being dominated and oppressed by people who are still engaged in those terribly destructive motives and drives.

Did we spend our lives just drinking in the pleasures life has to offer while doing as little real work as possible? Perhaps our job now is to get a job in which we give other people a good time. After all, we must have learned something about great fun and relaxation in all that time of indulging ourselves!

The list could go on and on, but you get the idea. None of our negative, destructive, and downright evil choices and life experiences ever go to waste. Assuming that we do eventually come to our senses, we have learned many lessons the hard way. We now know from experience that in the end God’s proposal is much better than ours. And we are in a position to reach out to others who suffer from the same wrong directions in life that we once took.

In God’s economy, there is no waste. If we dispose of God’s proposals, God is continually working to re-compose our lives. Whenever we’ve had enough of trying it our own way, and are ready to try it God’s way, God is ready and waiting to help us put our lives back together.

God will never force us to do it God’s way. But God will also never give up on us, never stop loving us, and never stop reaching out to us. If and when we are ready, God is ready and waiting to take the rubble of our lives and build it into something better than we ever imagined.

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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5 comments on “God Proposes, but Man Disposes . . . and God Re-Composes
  1. Glenn says:

    Hi Lee,

    I think you may have misread à Kempis.

    Proverbs 16:9 (KJV) seems to provide justification for his pithy phrase (‘man proposes, but God disposes’): “A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps.” And in the paragraph just prior to the one from which you quote, he clearly states: “As our intention is, so will be our progress”.

    It is true that this a minor point. However, if someone is going to be employed as a jumping-off point, there’s little reason to ‘trample’ him while doing so. 😉

    • Lee says:

      Hi Glenn,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I’m no expert on à Kempis, so it’s certainly possible that I’m misreading him. How, in particular, do you think I’ve gone off track in my understanding of the meaning of that proverbial statement? And what do you think he means instead?

      About Proverbs 16:9, I would say that directing someone’s steps is more a matter of guidance. The Latin dispono (to arrange, dispose, or control) seems stronger than that, especially when it is followed up by saying, “neither is the way of man in his own hands.” This certainly sounds like even though we think we have some control over our own lives, it is really God who determines and decides everything.

      I do agree with his statement that “as our intention is, so will be our progress.”

  2. Glenn says:

    Hi Lee,

    In the translation I have, the closing phrase isn’t “neither is the way of man in his own hands”, but “and God’s way is not man’s.”

    At any rate, if he is suggesting that, “even though we think we have some control over our own lives, it is really God who determines and decides everything”, this would fail to harmonize with what Swedenborg himself took pains to make clear a few centuries later on one point only, i.e., it fails to mention that it is both heaven and hell which, in reality and beyond the appearance, determines and decides everything.

    Still, why would he tell people he believes haven’t any free will that they should make the effort to do something (“whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ”)?

    I do agree with his statement that “as our intention is, so will be our progress.”

    A good thing for us, and others, to be in agreement with.

  3. Tori says:

    I think I better understand the difference between self-love/self esteem and selfishness, thank you! 🙂

    But I have a question:

    It’s true that some people do in fact sin because they love evil and they chose that path themselves, yes.

    But that’s being evil by your own choosing.

    What about those with mental illnesses or disorders?

    For example, somebody who is insane kills somebody. Would they go to hell? They can’t control it, right?

    What about people with things like narcissism or conduct disorder or OCD (OCD can make you have unwanted thoughts that are usually violent or bad) or anything that makes them think or do certain things that are considered sinful?

    Would they go to hell?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Tori,

      Good question. The answer is that only evil that we have chosen in a state of rationality and freedom as adults becomes a permanent part of our character. If we are pushed to it by forces we can’t control, whether internal or external, though it still causes a certain amount of damage, it doesn’t cause us to go to hell, because we didn’t actually choose it of our own free will. This applies to people with mental illnesses or disorders severe enough to make it impossible for them to make a free choice. But of course, not all mental illnesses are that severe, and many people with mental issues and illnesses do have a zone of free will in which they can make choices. If such people use their mental illness and struggles as an excuse to blame their bad choices and behavior on when they really could have done better, then they will be held responsible for those choices. Life is complex, and everyone has their struggles.

      Here’s an article that, while not exactly on this topic, does throw some light on these issues: “Can Gang Members Go to Heaven? (Is Life Fair?)” I also have in mind to re-edit and post an old two-part sermon of mine on mental illness. Watch this space! 🙂

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