Many are the plans of man, and those plans fail in just as many ways. Sometimes, our plans fail simply because we fail to make them. But even when we do make plans, as we have all learned in the last week, they can (and will) fall through, break down, or even backfire.
The wise know the preciousness of good planning, and they know the greater wisdom of God will often change or even cancel our plans. They know he still has his flawless, sovereign plans for good on our most unproductive days.
Proverbs, more than any other book in the Bible, lays out principles for godly planning. Wisdom elevates the priority of planning, and establishes principles for good planning, without placing our hope in planning. For now, let’s focus on just two principles, each of which may seem especially counterintuitive to planners today: Do not plan by yourself, and do not plan for yourself.
Do Not Plan by Yourself
When we look closely at what Proverbs says about planning, the most dominant and common note may be surprising to most of us:
Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed. (Proverbs 15:22)
Maybe we have missed the most important ingredient in our planning because we have assumed that planning is something we do alone and for ourselves.
Of course, effective planning often requires some focused time alone — thinking, organizing, outlining, and, most importantly, praying. But an awful lot of our planning ends there. God says, through the voice of wisdom, that plans like those will fail — not in every case but generally and consistently (just wait and see).
We are to pray in secret (Matthew 6:6), and give in secret (Matthew 6:3), but not plan in secret. Who consistently speaks into your plans — for your walk with Christ, for your marriage, for your family and your ministry, for your spending, giving, and scheduling? Where do you receive the crucial advice and uncomfortable counsel we all need?
Wars Aren’t Won Alone
Proverbs repeats the wise refrain about planning together:
- “Plans are established by counsel; by wise guidance wage war” (Proverbs 20:18).
- “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14).
- “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice” (Proverbs 12:15).
- “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment” (Proverbs 18:1).
- “By wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory” (Proverbs 24:5–6).
Wise plans are proven, sharpened, and enhanced in the minds and hearts of others. If we daily wage war “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12), then Scripture says we seriously and consistently need guidance, an abundance of counselors. We need life together as the church, as Ray Ortlund Jr. writes,
Why are we in the book of Proverbs at all? Because so much of life is a series of nuanced judgment calls. . . . We are all creating social dynamics both subtle and powerful, and those dynamics are either life-depleting or life-enriching. What makes the difference is the wisdom of our life together as the church of Christ. (Proverbs, 35)
Ask the Church
If we know that our plans will fail without counsel, where do we find good counselors? Have you considered looking first and foremost (and most persistently) in your church? We may be less prone today to think of the church as a storehouse of wisdom because of all we can search and find online — articles, sermons, podcasts, courses. Who needs a church anymore? We all do.
Hebrews says, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24–25). When God inspired those words, he knew full well how much information would be available to us today, and he still said, “Make sure you meet together.” In fact, all the more. God wanted us to look each other in the eyes, and hear each other’s voices, and spend time in each other’s homes, and learn each other’s stories, and get to know each other’s families, and carry each other’s burdens, and be able to say face to face, over and over again, Keep following Jesus. Keep treasuring Jesus. Keep trusting Jesus (Hebrews 3:12–13).
Information is not wisdom. And wisdom takes living. And you can only live what you’ve lived. To gain real wisdom, we must gain some real-life counselors. Facebook friends won’t cut it in realities like ours. We need flesh-and-blood, week-in and week-out, sorrowful-yet-always-rejoicing brothers and sisters in Christ — not merely members of a church, but members of one another (Romans 12:4–5).
As wise and powerful as Google may seem, and as much data as they may have gathered about us, they do not have the spiritual power God has reserved for the church. Again, Ortlund says, “Christ is creating a new community of wisdom. . . . Community in Christ isn’t a legalistic rule against missing church; it is plugging into the power of sharing Christ together. . . . You have a new community in Christ, where you can ‘walk in the way of insight’ (Proverbs 9:6)” (Proverbs, 127).
When we join a church, as ordinary or simple as it may seem on the surface, we are being surgically woven into a whole new nervous system of wisdom. God has specifically gifted the people he has put us in covenant with in the local church — through his word, through their experiences, through gifts of his Spirit — to meet real needs in our lives, including helping us make wise plans and life decisions. And he has specially gifted you to be that wisdom for others.
Do Not Plan for Yourself
Wisdom says not to plan by yourself, and also not to plan for yourself — to serve yourself.
One gives freely, yet grows all the richer;
another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.
Whoever brings blessing will be enriched,
and one who waters will himself be watered. (Proverbs 11:24–25)
If we are wise in our planning, we plan to bless others, and to water what God is doing through others — not only because it is loving, but precisely because it is wise. We know, from God, that those who bless will be blessed, and those who water will be watered. The sacrificial love God demands of us, in Christ, becomes a fountain of life and joy and peace for us.
Jesus took on the shame and agony of the cross “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2), a cost he had planned to embrace and pay even before the foundation of the world. He lived out an enduring principle and promise for us: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). What plans in your life feel costly for the eternal good of other people? Where are you intentionally dying to your preferences, your comfort and convenience, even your plans, in order to meet a serious need around you and draw someone closer to Christ?
Plan to Do Good
Don’t plan for the lesser, private, selfish joys when you could plan for the greater, sharable, selfless joys for the good of others with you.
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
when it is in your power to do it.
Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again,
tomorrow I will give it” — when you have it with you. (Proverbs 3:27–28)
Paul picks up the same theme when he writes, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands” — not so that he might provide for and serve himself, but “so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). We are called to work hard and plan well so that we can be generous — not to be self-serving, but others-blessing.
Paul goes even further, saying that when we are intentionally, sacrificially generous, we store up treasure for ourselves in heaven.
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17–19)
You could build an entire vision for godly planning from those three verses alone: First, as you decide how to spend your time, energy, and money, plan above all else to be rich in good works — to be consistently and deeply “generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:18). Second, plan your short life here on earth as if it were just the foundation of a fuller, better, forever life in heaven (1 Timothy 6:19). Third, as you plan and serve and give, learn to really enjoy all that God has provided for you (1 Timothy 6:17). Lastly, build all your plans on God and for God (1 Timothy 6:17). He is what is truly life.
If You Seek Him
As you consider what plans you might make — with a community of counselors and for the good of others — remember that the God who calls us to plan has himself always been planning. Let his plans for you shape all your plans for yourself.
The early church took refuge in God’s sovereign plans, saying to him in prayer, “Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27–28) — even the betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. Before he made the world, he chose you (Ephesians 1:4), and planned to sacrifice his precious Son for you (Revelation 13:8). And that all-powerful, loving, planning God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).
So, as you wrestle through a lifetime of difficult decisions and priorities and nuanced judgment calls, ask your wise and faithful friends what they think, and find rest in the sovereign plans of your God.