One of the more central thoughts in Christian teaching we learned growing up is that “God has a plan for us.” As easy as that phrase is for a child’s understanding, it can be a quite nuanced and difficult phrase to accept and integrate into one’s life as an adult. The challenges of adult life can make it hard to understand why bad things happen to us. Does God intend for bad things to happen, and for us to suffer? In recent years, I have found thinking of God’s plan in terms of a GPS has helped me to put things into a better perspective.
Our GPS has become a critical and popular tool for being able to navigate our vehicles to unfamiliar places. We input the destination we want to reach. We see a path drawn on the map, a listing of all the intersections and the direction changes we need to make. If we deviate from the planned route, our GPS recalculates to show us a new path. We see the time it will take for us to reach our destination, a time that changes as delays or deviations happen.
Many of these same concepts can apply to our spiritual GPS as well.
The first step in navigating any journey successfully is accurately knowing your destination. As much as we choose other destinations for ourselves along the journey, the path God plots for us has a longer-term destination in mind: heaven! It can certainly be difficult to see or appreciate such far off destination. Especially when I was younger — having completed my college studies, moved out on my own and being focused on my first full-time job in the computer field — I struggled at times with seeing how my day to day life had any connection to heaven as the ultimate Christian goal.
Armed with a sense of the destination, the next step is to know the path to get there. This is where many people can experience frustration from the lack of the same kind of turn-by-turn directions as a real GPS. I recall having this sense in my career 9 years ago. I was the manager of a small technology team, and while I was moderately successful at it, I missed being able to directly contribute to writing software. I felt very little opportunity to move forward without leaving the company, which I didn’t want to do given my long service. Fortunately, with a little more time, there were changes and growth in the team that led to having the opportunity I wanted.
We have to do our best to interpret God’s path from the signs around us and our internal feelings. Blessed with the free will to choose, we create our own path, integrating our belief of God’s Will with the destinations we choose for ourselves — college, job, spouse, family, to name a few. Our natural sensibilities would want the journey to be a straight line along the shortest path. However, it is entirely possible that our route deliberately meanders, giving us opportunities along the way — to learn, to grow, to help others.
Sometimes, though, unexpected things can happen that cause our life’s GPS to start “recalculating” the route. It could come from a change in life’s circumstances, like getting a new job, moving to a new home or having a child. It could come from the actions of others, such as a difficult relationship with a spouse or family member. Or, in the case of the current COVID-19 pandemic, it could be from the loss of work or access to normal activities. While this is happening, there could understandably be added fear, anxiety or panic while the path forward is unknown or unclear, and even paralyze us in knowing what choices to make for ourselves.
You could reasonably say that the followers of Jesus were dealing with their own “recalculating” GPSes after his death. The apostles were locked in the upper room, not knowing what to do next. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus, expressing their bewilderment over all the events that had taken place. They struggled with faith, as we can as well when the path goes dark. Our fear makes it difficult to be sure about our path. At such times, both in life as in driving, the best choice is to be patient, go a little slower, be observant of our surroundings and do the next right thing. In time, our GPS becomes clear, and we have a renewed appreciation for our path and our mission, just as the apostles had new confidence and clarity after Jesus appeared to them and sent them the Holy Spirit.
One of my most memorable experiences of “recalculating” came during my college studies. At the time, I was planning to be a high school math teacher, but at the start of my second year, I was finding the education classes tedious and unsatisfying. After a brief period of uncertainty on whether to switch and what to do instead, I realized that my computer hobby could legitimately be more than just a hobby and was able to shift and focus on that.
An even better example, though, was when my wife lost her job just after Thanksgiving in 2011. It was a job that she enjoyed, and she couldn’t understand the reason for why it happened and why she was not getting responses to other job applications. During that time, her grandfather was dying of heart failure. She and her grandfather were very close and being out of work gave her greater opportunity to spent time with him and be a part of his end of life care. Shortly after he passed in January, she received a call back for a new job opportunity and was ultimately hired. As much as her future and her path were unclear during this time, she was able to stay focused on the moment, to live intentionally, and to find meaning in her days until things became clear.
Will following the “ideal path” make us happy? I do believe it gives us a strong foundation and our best chance for happiness, although there are so many more things that go into happiness and mental health. Can bad things still happen to us even along the ideal path? Of course. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us, doesn’t still desire the destination for us, and doesn’t want us to grow through the challenge. And the more we can help each other along the journey, through carrying each other’s crosses, bolstering each other’s faith, and sharing God’s love, the easier the trip will be.