Plan Like a Christian

Five Principles for a New Year

As a type-A, calendar and to-do list kind of person, I like to remember that those who plan act a little like God.

We resemble, in some small measure, the Maker who built his world from a six-day blueprint. We share a likeness with him who “planned from days of old what now I bring to pass” (2 Kings 19:25). We embody in creaturely form the ways of him who acts beyond whim, against randomness, and always according to a “definite plan” (Acts 2:23). We are made in the image of a planning God, and those who plan act a little like him.

But wait a minute. As a type-A, calendar and to-do list kind of person, I need to remember something else too: sometimes, those who plan act a little too much like God.

Sometimes, we plan as if we were not vapor and mist, flower and grass, here by morning and gone by night. Sometimes, we reduce planning to prayerless reason and pro-con lists, tools of self-reliant minds. Sometimes, we don’t even say under our breath, “If the Lord wills . . .” (James 4:15). We are made in the image of a planning God, and those who plan sometimes take the image and forget the God.

So, as another calendar closes, and a year of blank days falls open before us, how might we reflect our planning God without planning as if we were God?

1. Plan like a mortal.

Whenever we plan, whether for next year or next week, we bring something of tomorrow into today. We run ahead on the trail of time, charting courses and planting flags, considering what we might do now to reach goals then. In the process, however, our imagined tomorrows can feel more real than they really are; we can find our hearts already inhabiting our future plans. But as James reminds us, we “do not know what tomorrow will bring.” We are “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). We are mortal.

Partly because eternity rests in our bones, and partly because lingering folly does too, we often fail to plan like mortals. We are mists who dream like mountains, lilies who plot like oaks. As we mentally walk the trails of tomorrow, deciding where we’ll go and what we’ll do, we forget that such trails may never be. Humility gives way to type-A “arrogance” (James 4:16).

Rightly felt, a sense of our mortality does not discourage planning, but it does chasten and reframe planning. When eternity presses close, we live (and plan) more wisely in time. We also remember what our best plans really are: drawings and rough drafts, penciled sketches at the mercy of God’s eraser. So, even as we think and scheme and dream as if we may have months or years ahead, we stamp every plan with mortal wisdom: “If the Lord wills” — and not otherwise — “we will live and do this or that” (James 4:15).

2. Plan like a child.

Pride can take several shapes in our planning. It can appear in our quickness to say, “I will . . .” rather than “If the Lord wills . . .” It can appear also in a prayerless reliance on our own reason.

I often need help remembering that Christian planning is never a matter of mere common sense. Of course, common sense holds great value (as much of Proverbs testifies), and most of us could stand to have more. But our world is too complex a place for pro-con lists to master. More than that, God’s own priorities are often too counterintuitive for worldly wisdom to trace.

Planners like me would do well to heed the words of John Newton: “It is a great thing indeed to have the spirit of a little child, so as to be habitually afraid of taking a single step without leading” (Letters of John Newton, 184). We are not only mortals — our time short, our days numbered. We are also children — our wisdom small, our foresight fallible. So, as those who know our own ignorance, who sense our utterly limited perspective and our proneness to plausible folly, we plan in the presence of God. We saturate planning with prayer.

We might, for example, root our planning in Paul’s prayer for the Philippians:

It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ. (Philippians 1:9–10)

Rightly done, planning is a way of looking at the competing claims for our time and attention, and approving not only what is good or worthy, but “what is excellent,” what is best. And approving what is best calls for more than common sense. We need nothing less than abounding, discerning love, a gift that comes from the Spirit in response to prayer.

3. Plan like a worshiper.

Praying as we plan may guard us from the pride that James warns so strongly against (James 4:16). But what about the next day, the next week, the next month, when we wake up with plan in hand, calendar filled, to-do list ready? How will we protect ourselves, in an ongoing way, from acting like immortal adults rather than mortal children? We can plan like worshipers.

Worshipers remember that, among all priorities, “one thing is necessary” (Luke 10:42). Among all requests, “one thing have I asked of the Lord” (Psalm 27:4). Among all ambitions, “one thing I do” (Philippians 3:13). Sit at Jesus’s feet. Behold his beauty. Press on toward heaven.

Worshipers not only saturate their planning with prayer; they also plan to saturate their days with prayer (and God’s other means of grace). Pursuing God becomes one of the main parts of their plans. What will Bible reading look like this year? When, where, and how will I commune with God in prayer? In what ways will I deepen my fellowship with brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers in my local church?

“Above all priorities, prioritize worship. At the heart of all plans, plan to pursue God.”

When we daily pursue God according to a prayerful, thoughtful plan, we will have a harder time taking our to-do lists too seriously. God’s providence, not our plans, will seem like our great unshakable guide. We will also find ourselves more attuned to when our priorities should change. As we seek him, the discerning love of God will often lead us to approve some excellence other than the one we had planned.

So, above all priorities, prioritize worship. At the heart of all plans, plan to pursue God.

4. Plan like a dreamer.

Can creatures of dust craft five-year visions? Can mists like us dare to imagine not just tomorrow but a thousand tomorrows? As long as we live like mortals, pray like children, and pursue God like worshipers, yes, we can. And indeed, sometimes love will compel us to do so. God created us “in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10), and some good works are so wonderfully audacious, so beautifully complex, they reach beyond the pages of this year’s calendar.

Consider a remarkable passage near the end of Romans, where Paul outlines his travel plans:

I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while. At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. (Romans 15:24–26)

In a time when traveling from Achaia to Jerusalem to Rome to Spain would have taken months and perhaps years, Paul outlines a surprisingly complicated, long-range plan. Of course, we know from Acts that Paul remained sensitive to God’s redirecting hand (Acts 16:6–10, for example), but he did not for that reason stop planning. With Christlike love burning in his heart, he set his sights across years and seas.

Some good works call for far-seeing vision, bold ambition, and the willingness to embark on a path whose end lies over the horizon. Global missions and church planting are two such good works. We could mention many others: adopting children, evangelizing a city, starting a God-glorifying business, ending abortion, even raising a child in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Often in Scripture we find the wicked laying wicked plans (Esther 8:3; Psalm 21:11; 33:10; 62:4). Will not the righteous lay counter-plans for righteousness? Will we not think on our beds, and dream with open calendars, and dare to fill future days with penciled plans for good?

5. Plan like a sub-planner.

Perhaps the best test of a planner’s heart comes later, outside the moment of planning, when we realize that God’s plans were different from ours. “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21). And sometimes, even often, the purpose of the Lord undoes our plans.

Our God is the great intervener, the great redirector, the one who “frustrates the plans of the peoples” (Psalm 33:10) and who sometimes, for kind and wise reasons, frustrates our own plans as well. Our wisdom in such moments is to receive the frustration of our plans without frustration, to hold our torn to-do lists with humble, trusting hands — and in the more trivial cases, maybe with even a self-deprecating laugh.

Every ruined plan is an opportunity to remember that we are sub-planners, planners with a lowercase p. God gives us the dignity of dreaming — and sometimes too the gift of seeing dreams come true. But above that dignity, he gives the assurance that even when our plans fail, he folds the failures into his own plans for our good (Romans 8:28).

So far as we know, Paul never made it to Spain. And so with us, some of our most seemingly God-glorifying plans will not come to pass. But those crossed-out hopes, those unchecked boxes on our to-do lists, have the potential to push us deeper into our mortal creed: “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:15). They can bid us to say with more sincerity, “Not my plans, but yours, be done.” Best of all, they can teach us to receive God’s interruptions as better than our best-laid plans.