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Contingency Plans: Humanity Proposes and God Disposes
August 8, 2021

It’s important to make plans rather than coast aimlessly through life. It’s also wise to make contingency plans in order to account for the unexpected. Still, things happen that one would never imagine needing to prepare for, like my son Christopher suffering a traumatic brain injury earlier this year. It’s hard to see anyone lying on their back most hours of the day, especially someone so young with a young family and a storehouse full of energetic plans and aspirations.

Much of my family’s time these days goes to making plans and preparations for caring for Christopher and his family. There are so many contingencies and complexities. So many matters are beyond our control. So much is unpredictable. Still, we do the best we can.

If you have been following my posts, you will know that a neurologist informed my family that we should look for signs of conscious control in Christopher’s person in the midst of random movements. I recently wrote a post on this subject. Believe me—we’ve been looking. We do see signs of conscious control, as I have noted in prior reflections. We give thanks for such signals.

Still, as I ponder all the planning we have to do, I keep reflecting on the word “control.” How conscious are you and I that we really don’t have much control over our own lives? While there is nothing funny about the neurologist’s statement, and I take it to heart, I must confess that in the big scheme of things “control” is a funny word. It reminds me of a line from Woody Allen: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

Allen may have gotten the line from a Yiddish source. In the book, A Rabbi Teaches, Herman Hailperin pens: “Our Yiddish speaking folks used to say, ‘Der Mensch tracht und Gott lacht — Man proposes and God disposes’” (A Rabbi Teaches: A Collection of Addresses and Sermons {New York, NY: Bloch Publishing Company, 1939}, page 43). Another rendition reads, “Der mentsh tracht un Got lacht. Man thinks and God laughs” (Fred Kogos, 1001 Yiddish Proverbs {New York, NY: Citadel Press, 1970}, page 20). These quotes call to my mind Psalm 2, where it says that God laughs at the nations for plotting in vain against the LORD and the anointed one whom God has installed as king (Psalm 2:1-6).

Another biblical text that comes to mind when thinking about making plans is James 4: 13-16: “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them” (James 4: 13-16; NIV). Vanish or perish the thought that we are in control of today, tomorrow, or the distant future. We are mist and vapor.

Various people have told us what will happen in my son’s situation. Some of them talk as if they are in control of his future. They’re not in control. I’m not in control. My son’s not even in control. As my wife Mariko said to me, “We are all contingent beings.” So, we had all better make our plans and our statements about our plans with an open hand and with the caveat, “If it is the Lord’s will.”

God alone is not contingent. The rest of us are dependent on the One enthroned in heaven, who laughs whenever we make plans as if they are etched in stone. So, we had better not boast like the Roman Governor Pilate, who perhaps thought he had the last laugh when judging Jesus. He said to Jesus during his trial leading to crucifixion: “‘Do you refuse to speak to me?’ Pilate said. ‘Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?’ Jesus answered, ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin’” (John 19: 10-11; NIV). Sobering thoughts.

Our lives are not in our own hands. We do not have total control. Just as Jesus entrusted his life to God, so I must entrust my son’s life to God’s hands. This is nothing new. I didn’t even have control of my son coming into the world with the various traits, abilities, and potentialities that he had. Nor would I ever imagine engineering him, even if I could, and even though there were some concerns about his health initially. Here I note the work of the Jewish philosopher and Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel who wrote, “A Gattaca-like world in which parents became accustomed to specifying the sex and genetic traits of their children would be a world inhospitable to the unbidden, a gated community writ large. The awareness that our talents and abilities are not wholly our own doing restrains our tendency toward hubris” (“The Case Against Perfection: What’s Wrong with Designer Children, Bionic Athletes, and Genetic Engineering,” The Atlantic, April 2004).

As in the case of my son’s birth, so now: I must guard against hubris. My son’s talents, abilties, and life itself are not wholly his, mine, or anyone else’s doing. That is not to say I don’t try hard. Anyone who knows me realizes that I am not a passive person. I make plans and contingency plans and advocate for my son and his family to the best of my finite reasoning skills and feeble abilities with the help of family members and trusted advisors in various spheres. I also pray fervently and weep to God, my heavenly Father, for meaningful recovery for my son. But still, I must surrender everything to the One enthroned in heaven: “If it is the Lord’s will,…” My son’s future belongs in God’s good, gentle, skillful, strong, and sizable hands.

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