The best laid plans

Nobody, but nobody, should start any kind of building project without a plan. If you’re building a house, you want a floor plan and a blueprint. With these, everyone involved in the project has a common frame of reference: they know what the goal is and can figure out what they need to do to get there.

There’s nothing wrong with advance planning. Without it, your toilet could end up in the dining room.

That would be, well, awkward.

But of course, some people are better at planning than others; it’s in their DNA. Earlier in our marriage, my wife used to ask me on Saturday mornings, “So, what’s your plan for the day?” I’d look at her blankly. Plan? I thought to myself. It’s Saturday. Who makes plans on Saturday? So sometimes I’d answer like a befuddled teenager: “I dunno.” Other times I’d make something up, not wanting to come across as a slacker.

Not surprisingly, she doesn’t ask me that question as often anymore.

Again, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with making or talking about our plans. But as with every other human behavior, it can become a spiritual issue. One question is whether God is left out of the process. And another is whether we talk about our plans in a way that puts us above others. We’ll tackle the first question in this post, the second in the next, and after that, tie all of this into the letter of James.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry,” or words to that effect. It comes from a poem entitled, “To A Mouse,” written in the 18th century by Scottish poet Robert Burns. (The original quote is “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men gang aft agley.”)

The poem is a farmer’s contemplative apology to a mouse whose nest he has inadvertently destroyed with his plow. The farmer bears no ill will toward the terrified creature, and even identifies with his plight. The poor mouse, knowing that winter was near, had worked hard to make a cozy and secure home in the farmer’s field. But how could a mouse predict or even understand the disaster that would soon lay waste to that home?

The farmer takes pity on the mouse as he watches it scurry away in terror. But there’s one respect in which he considers the mouse’s situation to be better than his own. For all his powerlessness to predict or escape the plow, the mouse lives only in the calamity of the present.

The farmer, however, can look back with regret on a dreary past, or fear an uncertain future. It’s a bit like what neurologist Robert Sapolsky once wrote about zebras. Like humans, they exhibit a fight-or-flight stress response when threatened, as when confronted by a lion. But unlike humans, they never worry about what might eat them tomorrow.

. . .

Planning can be a good thing. Indeed, it’s often necessary — and I say that as someone whose natural bent is more go-with-the-flow. But much of our planning can be tinged with anxiety or arrogance. Anxiety: fearing that bad things will happen, we try to anticipate and stave off anything that might go wrong. I know from experience, for example, that when I go to speak somewhere there can be a variety of technical snafus; I’ve learned that I need to communicate clearly about such things with the host in advance, arrive early, and be prepared for contingencies. To me, that’s just prudence. Continuing to worry about what other disaster I haven’t anticipated would be another matter. There are only so many things that are within my power to control.

And therein lies the second temptation: arrogance. We can become enamored of our own competence, proud of our supposed wisdom and foresight. It’s one thing to have a confident I’ve got this kind of attitude. It’s another when it becomes I’ve got this — Look at me! or I’ve got this — and you don’t!

Spiritually, it’s not a matter of having to deny our competence. That’s false modesty. We know what we know, and that’s good. But we can never know everything, and are too often blissfully blind to what we don’t know. There is always more to learn, always new ways to grow. In a sense, the question is whether the attitude of I’ve got this rests on a more fundamental attitude of faith: Lord, you’ve got this, and because of that, I can trust that we’ve got this.

So make your plans for the future. Just remember to whom your future belongs.

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