Why “God Has A Plan” Is Exactly The Wrong Thing To Say To Someone Who Is Grieving

A friend who recently got some bad news told me afterward, "I think if one more person tells me God has a plan I may throw something."

With the collective trauma and death of the last few years, it’s a phrase that’s been tossed around a lot more recently, and quite frankly, it needs to stop yesterday.

The "surface" reading of "God has a plan" or "God works in mysterious ways" is supposed to be that there is a point to whatever suffering that one is going through. Or perhaps "I’m just wishing you well and trying to help you feel better."

Maybe that’s usually the primary meaning. It might even be the only consciously intended meaning.

But it’s far from being the only one.

Not only are those who are grieving very aware of those other meanings, the implications of that phrase actually paint the Christian God in a very bad light… and may snatch away the comfort of faith from someone at the moment they need it the most.

God Thinks Your Pain Is Necessary (But Won’t Tell You Why)

The first problem – before we get into the theological weeds – is that saying "God has a plan" or "there’s always a reason" is regarded as the beginning and end of the comforting process. The statement implies that the Divine NOT interfering with whatever situation the person in pain is experiencing is required.

Ironically, this is perhaps the most Biblically-supported interpretation. After all, the entirety of the "Good News" is based around the idea that Yeshua (that’s "Jesus," by the way) suffered and died for our sins. Which means that someone – Judas, Pilate, the Pharisees, Saducees, and/or the centurions – had to do those things to Yeshua in order to fulfill Yahweh’s plan.

That means Dante’s later poetic interpretation of Hell – and showing Judas in the lowest pit – depicts a massive injustice. (Although not the Bible, though elements of both Dante and Milton have become cultural elements of modern Christianity.)

Still, though, it’s an awfully jerky thing to say to someone in pain.

And, like I said, that’s before you get into the real theological weeds.

The Ineffable Plan

The whole idea of there being a "plan" is part of the problem. Because whenever you talk about a "plan" that, by definition, is not understandable to those subject to the plan, you can end up with some really ugly conclusions.

The kindest interpretation of the Divine having an ineffable – that is, unknowable – plan is an existentialist reading similar to mine after watching Everything Everywhere All At Once.

Sure, there may be a "plan" – or "meaning" – but the difference is subtle and vital. In this existentialist/absurdist kind of response, for all intents and purposes there is no "in-universe" justification for bad things happening. There is literally no way to convey the "why" of a system (how humans experience the universe) to those still restricted by the limits of their experience in that system.

Appealing to an ineffable plan provides a philosophical comfort to existential crisis, but it does not provide any degree of relief to those experiencing grief or pain because of the events in that universe. The only kind response in such a situation is to acknowledge the other person’s grief and sit with them as they experience that grief.

This also reflects the kindest possible reading of the Book of Job – that JHVH is in the role of a pet owner, being questioned by a pet who needs to wear a "cone of shame" after surgery. The pet is incapable of understanding the need for the cone, and struggles against it. So JHVH’s speech at the end of Job could be a sad musing on Job’s literal inability to understand what is going on.

But this analogy falls down pretty quickly when you realize that modern Christian theology also asserts that Divine is all-loving and omnipotent. Because while that analogy works pretty well for that specific case, it fails utterly when faced with the degree of pain and evil in the world, the responsibilities of pet owners, and the attributes used to describe the Divine.

Which brings us to the more common reading of the end of Job, where JHVH comes off as an insufferable and arguably evil prick who simply pulls rank on a mere human.

God does not declare Job innocent or guilty. God changes the subject and begins to talk about the wonders of the world that God had created. God formed the earth, set its structure, put bounds to keep the sea under control, created all the heavenly bodies, and even controls the weather. All through this speech, God reminds Job–using what sounds like sarcastic asides–that mere humans could never accomplish all of this.

This is also the more common way that "God has a plan" or "there’s always a reason" ends up making people feel worse instead of better.

And that’s the fault of prosperity theology.

Look What You Made God Do To You

I’ve talked about how prosperity theology is non-Biblical and evil a few times now. As a quick refresher, the basic version is that the more faithful you are (and the more you give to preachers), the better off you are physically, mentally, and financially.

Which is bad enough, but it also suggests the opposite: bad things happen to those who deserve it.

That concept – even if it is not explicitly part of preached theology – has permeated American culture so thoroughly that many people assume that if you are poor, or something bad happens to you, that you somehow deserved it.

For what it’s worth, not only is the "prosperity" portion explicitly debunked in Job, the negative association is not based on the Bible. There are many times that the "all-loving" JHVH laid curses upon the unborn descendants of those who annoyed Him. [1]

But that idea that how you are doing in "real life" reflects the quality of your "spiritual life" persists across even the secular portions of American culture.

Just Express Some Empathy, Dammit.

All of which combines — both explicitly and implicity — to end up blaming the grieving person under the pretense of comforting them.

Whether the person saying "God has a plan" realizes it or not, the best interpretation of what they’re saying is that someone should be thankful for whatever tragedy has happened, and at worst, comes across as abusive victim blaming.

And if you find yourself unable to think of anything else to say, perhaps you should try WikiHow.

Featured Image by Michael Knoll from Pixabay

[1] I think those stories are useful as metaphor for the generational effects of institutional bigotry and structural discrimination, but literally, they just paint JHVH as a narcissist.

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