Alley Theology


Last Thursday morning I went jogging with Dave for the first time in years. It’s part of our new plan to get in shape and replace our constant mantra—We gotta go on a diet Monday!—with action.

The timing seems right, since we’re both at our highest weight in recent memory. Turning it into a competition helps motivate us; the first to reach goal wins a significant shopping spree.

Anyway, while we were huffing and puffing down an alley, we passed a hand-painted sign on the back of a playhouse that read: “Everything that comes your way, good or bad, will happen for a reason because God has a plan.”

I laughed, and said to Dave, “Did you see that? Can you believe it? Some people still think God has a plan.”

Of course, most of the time, I do too. When I’m confused or discouraged, the idea that God has a grand scheme for my life is comforting, even promising. God knows what he’s doing, and one day it will all make sense!

But when tragedy strikes or someone I love is suffering, the same idea can make me doubt God’s goodness. How can a loving God possibly think this is a good plan?

Days later, I’m still thinking about this bit of alley theology. Is everything that happens to me part of God’s personal plan for my life? Or is God more like a traveling companion, working in us and through us to accomplish his will where possible, without manipulating outcomes?

Though I lean toward the second scenario, if I’m honest, my thoughts and actions prove on a regular basis that I believe both. And maybe that’s because both have their benefits.

Here’s what I mean. If I believe God is busy implementing his sovereign, perfect plan, then nothing that really matters is at stake. This means I can place my trust in God’s infinite wisdom, which in turn helps me practice radical acceptance of whatever is happening. It gives me a reason to relax and let go.

But if God is not busy implementing his sovereign, perfect plan, well, then everything is always at stake. This means every decision I make matters, which in turn motivates me to do God’s will and be part of his redemptive work on earth. It gives me a reason to keep hoping, caring, and trying.

Clearly, I’m either double-minded or I ascribe to a spiritual paradox: My life is unfolding randomly in a broken world; but everything is happening exactly as it should.

Do I conveniently alternate beliefs, depending on the circumstance? Yep. At times, I really want to believe that God is intentionally at work in my life to accomplish his purposes. At other times, I want to let God off the hook for all the horrible things that happen in the world.

But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe this is just my way of grasping at a mystery far too big for my finite mind. Maybe resting in the crux of two seemingly incompatible truths is how I manage to hold onto the most important truth of all to me, which is that God is love.

This brings to mind a line from a Rumi poem:

“We were all born by accident,

but still this wandering caravan

will make camp in perfection.”

Maybe I’ll put this on a poster and hang it in our alley. :)

If you’re like me and grew up in the church, you can probably list a boatload of Bible passages that prove either side of this paradox. I’m not opposed to hearing about those, but I’m more interested in your thoughts and feelings. 



  1. Wow…When I read this, I immediately thought to myself, “I’m not the only one who thinks this way?”. It brings me back to a childhood saying “Don’t step on a crack or you’ll break your momma’s back”. I’m a very big realist and very analytical so even as a child I can remember thinking, “Could that really happen”? Surrendering to the thought that God may already know your entire life and knows exactly what your next move will be is hard to grasp. I agree with you that you have to have the mindset of both rationales to fully comprehend something as big as God and eternity. If you constantly think to yourself that God knows how you will get sober and when you will get sober, of course you will have negative feelings and thoughts towards God. I firmly believe that God only test your obedience. He does not bring forth anything negative into your life. That would be the Devil’s job. God is their for repair. So many times we forget about the Devil and solely think of God. The Devil is a very powerful being who wants nothing but to destroy you and everything that means something to you. I still think of it like a super hero versus a villain. Some days I feel that Devil is more around me and I can sense his evil feelings and corrupt thoughts. Other days I’m so in tuned with God that I never think about the Devil. But you can’t go through addiction or sobriety without knowing who’s team your on and who you want as your Captain. Heather, your insight is wonderful. You’re thoughts are meaningful and filled with love and compassion. Thank you for being obedient to our God.

  2. This is definitely one of those issues that I grapple with and in the end realize that God is bigger than I can fully understand–and thank God for that–literally! There are so many things that my simple mind cannot fully grasp but my simple heart strives to trust in. God is omniscient–and therefore he knows exactly what we are going to do before we do it…yet free will exists. I have come to the conclusion that these two ideas are not mutually exclusive. We humans only really understand linear time–but God is beyond that, in my understanding. So he can know all even though he does not decide all (though he could if he wanted to because he is also omnipotent. But I firmly believe that this is why God allows free will–he does not want robotic lovers. He wants lovers who can choose not to love.) And through the bad that we might choose, as well as the good, we have Romans 8:28 to look to and realize that “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

    But, Heather, I am a far cry away from really understanding it. With all of the challenges in these recent years for myself, I can’t help but wonder what God wants me to see…what I am supposed to be hearing whispered in my ear. But I do believe that he helps reveal to me, if I am still enough, what should be my next right step.

    Thanks for offering up this food for thought…so much to digest!

  3. Not to over simplify, but I think that God’s plan is probably not what we might perceive. Mostly it has to do with learning to hear from him, and following what he wants me to do. It’s about what he wants to see us become. I suspect that if he divulged his whole plan to each of us, we probably would not be able to read the map further than the one obedient step we hear from him at a time. We tend to get too attached to what we are doing. We identify with our jobs, our families and a lot of other things. God’s plan is much bigger and greater and amazing than that.

  4. David J. says:

    A friend has what she calls her “small potatoes” theology: Either God is in control, in which case her problems are small potatoes to Him (and He can and will handle them), or God is not in control, in which case her problems are still small potatoes — because now she has much bigger problems than she thought.

  5. Maybe the word for me is Redemptive. God is just so redemptive in all of it.

  6. Marjie Douty says:

    Life is full of paradoxes!

  7. On one hand I admire my parents rigorous, unflagging optimism born out of the certainty that everything that happens/doesn’t happen is simply “Gods Plan.” There’s no arguing with it, but the serenity appeals. On the other hand, my husband’s more complex, nuanced take on the world rings true. But there’s no resting there.

    Like you, I waffle between perspectives. Not sure I’ll ever land. Not sure either is entirely right, or wrong. Glad I’m not the only one!

    • Thanks for relating. More and more, I put a lot of stock in everything happening as it should because it rings true with my heart and brings me so much peace in surrender. Maybe if I could cling to that to be true but at the same time take responsibility for doing my best to bring God’s love to bear in this world, that’s a good balance for me. I think what matters is that we keep doing both–Trusting and resting; stepping forward to help make the world a better place. Good to see you here, by the way. Hugs. H

  8. In my opinion (since you asked…smile), you are probably touching on the toughest question there is as relates to faith/trust and the whether a personal God exists. To be sure, we are all thankful for the good things that happen in life, but we actually care more about the bad things, because pain and suffering are both hard to take, as well as understand in the context of a good God, one good enough that we can trust. If God is good, and all powerful, then why does he not intervene in all pain and suffering? Wouldn’t we, if we were God?

    Thank God it is God who has the plan (and as pointed out by Joanne, it is HIS plan (and remains so – unlike a 401K plan that is given to us to administrate and do). I see so many frustrated people looking for God to give them the plan for their lives, or even worse, the ones that think he has! (and some go as far as to think he has given them the plan for other people’s lives!!!)

    For me, the key to the issue is free will (albeit the factor that requires that it be God to figure it all out, because only he could). God is not responsible for all things and so we don’t have to “let him off the hook” always. When persons do bad things, they are responsible, and yet somehow, God is able to work in the midst of all those thing for good. If he prevented the “bad” actions of people that negatively affect others, free will would cease to exist (we have to allow the bad with the good). But this does not answer, for instance, natural disasters (tsunamis, earthquakes and the such). I don’t let him off the hook (he doesn’t need me to) but I talk to him about my failure to understand within the dynamic of reaffirming my trust of/in him. I know so many questions, frustrations and anger, in relation to suffering, come from my thinking that goes something like “if I was God, I’d certainly do some things differently!”.

    Although God sovereignly chose to give us true free will (sorry to all the Calvinists…smile), God maintains his. Do I understand all his actions? Not a chance, but he has revealed enough of them (like all that is revealed about him in and through Jesus who we can best relate to when trying to understand God and his ways). Thus the need for faith, which is really trust (we can’t “faith things”), and of course, trust (as relates to its capacity) is all about the object of trust, or who it is that we trust.

    I know I’ve gone on far too long (while only scratching the surface of my views on these matters), Paradoxical? I guess? So may things seem so with God’s thinking and ways, but I enter the realm of wonder when I think what we will understand on the other side when we will be “like him” in experiential fullness.

    Just one more thought (because I see the harm it does in the lives of people I get involved with, trying to help – particularly ones that have messed up repeatedly). It is related because although I was uncomfortable with the thought of God ordaining trials and suffering, I have come to accept it inside the dynamic of trust, albeit, again, I don’t often understand it. I’ll refer to this as “tough love”. The problem I observe, is that people try to engage in tough love (not to be confused with doing, or not doing things that prevent enabling). When it comes to tough love, only God is equipped to exercise it, because he KNOWS EVERYTHING. We don’t, and so he keeps it real simple for us by commanding us to pay the price of always doing good for the other, for the sake of the other. We should never withhold love when the opportunity arises because we think that by withholding, the other person will come to their senses and meet the conditions we have set for our love to be shown to them. Unconditional love. We must trust that it is the answer. Easier to say than to do. Grace will provide the means. Receive from it, then give from it.

    Apologies for length….. but welcome back!

    • Tom, I am so glad to have you back, too! I knew I could count on you to bring a nuanced and smart comment to this topic. I agree that is THE question of questions in all the world. Taking it on in a blog post is perhaps ill-advised, but because I trust the grace of my readers, I hoped they’d understand this not as a treatise but simply a fellow human voice saying, “Wow, this is hard to grasp! But I know that I know that I know that the nature of God is love.” I so appreciate that you brought perspective and didn’t scold me for an inadequate discussion of such an enormous topic. As you can imagine, the subject of love–and our inability to understand or practice tough love–is such a complicated one when it comes to addiction in particular. Most of us don’t struggle with the idea of loving unconditionally someone who is spiralling out of control, but we do struggle a great deal with what Constitutes love in such cases and how to practice love in practical ways that don’t end up hurting more than they help. It’s SUCH a tough one. I appreciate your thoughts on this a great deal, and maybe the best way to think about it is that it’s important to act in love, to not stop loving or make love conditional even if at times our helps or actions have conditions attached to them. Does that make sense? Love your thoughtfulness on all of this, Tom. Much appreciated by me and I”m sure, many readers.

      • I’m so glad you took this on in a blog post because you so effectively communicated the paradox. You succeeded in stimulating discussion and I always enjoy hearing the views of others. I particularly appreciate those that focus on redemption. (someone means it for evil, and God makes it for good).

        To be sure the dilemma of loving the hurting, that are in turn hurting themselves and others, is challenging (including when we do it to ourselves). The enabling question is relatively straight forward once the dynamic is understood. Simple is not to be confused with easy.

        But as you identified, the question is often “how do I love unconditionally?” It takes wisdom and guidance from above (certainly a time “a higher power” is an appropriate description). I think it is also helpful to gauge whether the other person is influencing my decision of how to love by setting conditions for whether or how they will receive the love. I believe it helps me to understand unconditionality (I don’t think that is a real word) if I look at it for both parties. I agree that in the area of addiction it is particularly difficult, but then I believe most everyone deals with addictions. Some are just more readily identifiable and/or obvious.

        I continue to learn to receive love unconditionally because I keep being tempted to think I have to earn it, or repay it. But grace just keeps on producing and gently teaching the practice of receiving God’s love, so often through others. And then he graciously works in me both to will and to do according to his good pleasure, and it looks like love.

        There is something so engaging about the way you hang your soul out there for us, so unpretentiously….. thanks……

  9. Heather, I love your term ‘spiritual paradox.’ It makes me remember that when we think we are broken beyond repair that is exactly how we are being made whole.

    I have been thinking about this from the church calendar: Jesus went to the mountain privately with friends, glorified between two saints and was transfigured, his friends were amazed. Jesus goes up on the cross publicly, crucified between two criminals and is abandoned by his friends.

    God makes us good no matter what. I think we miss out on that because of our own perceptions/judgment of what it means to be sinful or holy. (yes, its almost Lent…)

  10. I discovered a few years back that faith in God is full of paradoxes. I dunno, maybe just likes to twist our brains into pretzels and make us do mental gymnastics in order to accept man’s attempt to explain the inexplicable – theology. Or, maybe He just wants us to accept what is, surrender what we need to let go of, and trust and firmly believe that He has the answers.


    P.S. It took me getting a Master’s in Religion in order for me to figure out there are no real answers and the only answer is God.

    • Oh man, do I agree. I can’t believe how many times in recovery I’ve noticed this, too. I’ve come to the point where I think almost any profound, important spiritual truth is in some way a paradox of sorts. Thanks for talking to me, Nancy. Hope you have a great day. Love your P.S.!!

  11. >>My life is unfolding randomly in a broken world; but everything is happening exactly as it should.<<
    I don't see the paradox in a world of free will with people that have a tendency to make bad decisions.

  12. Love all 3 comments here, this post was such a lovely start to my day off. I think the thing that makes me laugh regularly ( at myself) is that I think I understand God’s plan for me, and that I understand His plan for others. And that it is my job to help that plan along… Mostly by complaining loudly with my words and actions. And then I am grateful God has a plan and it does not depend on me, or my ability to understand it.

  13. paradox, honey.

  14. Joanne, thanks for sharing that. I haven’t heard that exact phrase, but close. I can’t believe how much it has meant to me in recovery to surrender to this idea and to trust that no matter how it all looks, something perfect is happening right this second; nothing is missing, nothing is wrong. I wish I’d written more about that now. :) Loved seeing you here this morning.

  15. I am one of those who grew up in church. In fact, I attended Bible collage. At 50 years old, I’ve decided I really don’t know if everything has a plan in God’s great scheme. Taking it one step further, I’m not sure why we even pray. After a year that included the suicide of a beautiful 20 year old friend, only to be followed by the death of her mother 5 months later, I have no words for the remaining sister/daughter. A young family member is currently in the hospital fighting for her life, and the life of her unborn son who has Achondraplasia. Was this part of God’s plan?Can I change the outcome by praying hard enough. If that were the case, I think God would be pretty mean. I still love and trust God with all of my heart, but it’s been my experience that theology seems more meaningless with time. I’ll still pray, but I think I’ll praise more. One thing I’m certain of is that prayer may not change things, but it certainly changes me. I’m so glad you are back, Heather!

  16. ChuckSigler says:

    Thinking of God as the Author of creation and people as the characters in the story of creation is helpful for me. From God’s perspective, “everything is happening exactly as it should.” He wrote the story; established the storyline; developed the characters. From our perspective as characters living out the story, God is “working in us and through us to accomplish his will.” Within the story, our choices are real and significant; God placed chance into His story. The trick is to trust the Author when we’d rather be living out an alternate storyline. The movie “Stranger than Fiction” with Will Farrell nicely captures this dilemma.

  17. Thanks for caring about our thoughts and feelings. That’s all. Thanks for that.

  18. Good morning Heather! I love your bit of back alley inspiration this morning. One of the first things I ever heard in the rooms was “God has a great plan for me and I am not on the planning committee.” I LOVED this and still hold this as my mantra today. It is the best way for me to take my hands off the steering wheel and enjoy my spiritual ride. xo Joanne

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