The Catholic Thing
The Problem with God’s “wonderful plan for you” Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 06 June 2014

One of the great Evangelical leaders of the twentieth century, Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ (now called Cru) and signatory of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, published a small booklet in 1952 entitled Four Spiritual Laws. It was used for over six decades as an evangelistic tool by literally millions of Christians worldwide. And it had – indeed, continues to have – a profound and lasting impact on Evangelicalism and the way in which that movement presents the Gospel to unbelievers and those who have strayed from their faith.

Even though I count myself among those whose spiritual journey was shaped by Bright’s vision and his call to share the good news of Jesus with family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues, I have come to believe that Bright’s first spiritual law – “God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life” – presents a misleading depiction of what it means to follow Jesus.

It is true, of course, that the teachings, life, and person of Christ offer to the world a compelling vision of how one ought to love, hope, and believe. But the joy that Christ promised us (John 15:11) is not a “wonderful plan,” but a peace that “surpasseth all understanding.” (Phil. 4:7). The message of the Gospel is not Norman Vincent Peale’s The Positive Power of Jesus Christ. Rather, it is Christ’s final answer in his exchange with the rich young ruler (Mk 10:17-22), who, initially, asked our Lord, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”

The young man replied that he had followed all the commandments since his youth. Our Lord, looking at the him with love, offered this final rejoinder: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the moneyto the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The text says that when he heard Jesus say this, the young man “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

After telling his disciples what was coming – his suffering and death at the hands of the religious and political elite, followed by his resurrection on the third day (Lk 9: 21-22) – Jesus said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” (Lk 9:23-26)

           Bill Bright at UCLA in the Fifties (Olympian Rafer Johnson is center)

In that light, “God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life” doesn’t quite seem right, does it? And yet, for some reason, this trite and superficial way of evangelizing has been the staple of American Christianity since the 1950s. It was, I believe, largely successful, because in the era in which it arose, the moral and cultural sensibilities of the Christian faith, though certainly not explicitly embraced by everyone or even lived with total integrity by those who claimed to embrace them, were considered uncontroversially true and the appropriate standards by which one’s conduct could be fairly judged.  Thus, there was no need to bring up the cross, since there didn’t seem to be a hill to die on.

But the decades long near-absence of the truth of the cross and the Gospel of suffering and transformation – that following Jesus is as much about getting heaven into you as you getting into heaven – resulted in generations of American Christians who spend half their Sunday services singing “hymns” to a Jesus that sounds more like their boyfriend than their Lord. 

For this reason, as the hostility to Christian faith continues to mount in the United States – especially on issues that will require government coercion in matters of religious conscience –many of our fellow believers, unwilling to entertain the possibility that they must suffer as Christ suffered, will continue to acquiesce to the spirit of the age and construct a Jesus that conforms to that spirit. This Lord will wind up agreeing – or at least, not disputing – any of the pieties of the secular intelligentsia.

The economic, social, and familial pressures will seem so unbearable – so inconsistent with that “wonderful plan for your life” – they will quickly and enthusiastically distance themselves from those brethren who choose to pick up the cross and not check the “like” button. Whatever it is that hangs in the balance – professional honor, academic respectability, securing a lucrative business contract, or thirty pieces of silver – it will surely be described as the place to which “the Lord is leading us.”

Although they will claim to be devout “Evangelicals” or “Catholics,” they will nevertheless embody the beliefs that H. Richard Niebuhr once attributed to what was at the time the most dominant religious force in America, Liberal Protestantism: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

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Comments (20)Add Comment
written by Myshkin, June 05, 2014
What has always amazed me is that, although Neibuhr made that observation about the foolishness of Liberal Protestantism 60 years ago or so, it did not die as many hoped and expected. Instead, Liberal Protestantism has pretty much eaten up all the mainline Protestant denominations, and is busy gnawing away at Millennial-generation Evangelicals. Recently, I had one such Millenial Evangelical tell me that she was a Bible-believing Christian, and since abortion isn't mentioned in the Bible, she didn't think it was important to Bible-believing Christians. Needless to say, she didn't think of this herself. She was a student at a Christian College in Pennsylvania, which formerly was a very conservative Wesleyan-Evangelical place, but which in the last ten years has almost completely flipped into a Liberal bastion.

Young Catholics at least know that the Roman Catholic Church is against abortion, even if they don't know much else. Even weakened as it has become with regard to discipline since Vatican II, it is doctrinally very much stronger than any of these Protestant sects.
written by DeGaulle, June 06, 2014
Would it be putting it too strongly that the "Christ" described so appropriately by H. Richard Niebuhr might in fact be the Anti-Christ?
written by Bruno, June 06, 2014
The problem with "Jesus wants you happy" is that it is a half-truth.

I mean, I am sure that Jesus would prefer me to be happy than to be sad, but at the same time He would not prefer me to be "HAPPY WHATEVER THE COST", and that is the sense our concupiscent and self-indulgent nature is prone to take "Jesus wants you happy", even using it to justify a refusal to take the cross.

Must happiness in this world be opposed to happiness in the world to come? Not necessarily, but worldly happiness, if it comes from God, often is not anticipated. That is, we receive it without directly seeking it ("look first for the Kingdom of Heaven and all will be added unto you"). If we directly seek worldly happiness at the expense of the cross, and feel justified in doing so because we erroneously think that "this is what Jesus wants for me", then "Prosperity Jesus" not only hampers our search for worldly happiness, it may also remove us of eternal happiness.

Jesus biggest desire for us is to be by His side, because that's the only place where there is true happiness, yet we may live all our lives without seeing this happiness. Outside the bourgeois comfort zone, many will live without ever feeling this sort of happiness that "Prosperity Jesus" promises, and yet a single one of those may be more blessed than twenty happy ones.
written by Manfred, June 06, 2014
In short, Evangelism, Protestantism were NEVER true. "One of the effects of modern, liberal Protestantism is to gradually change religion into poetry and therapy,....." Flannery O'Connor, 1961 Neither ia Modernism, i.e., liberal, progressive catholicism, true as well. It was the victory of Modernism at Vat. II which collapsed the entire "Christian' structure.
Here are two comments from a participant at the Council:
"I am bound by the secret.The secret is horrible. I would have books to write about the different Conclaves. Very serious things have taken place. But I can say nothing."
"If the Church were not Divine, the Council would have buried her." Cardinal Siri.
written by WSquared, June 06, 2014
Well, God does love us and offers a wonderful plan for our lives-- life eternal. And it is indeed brought to fruition through the Cross. If love is not an emotion, but an act of the will that wills the best for the other as other, then it most assuredly is not going to be warm fuzzies all the time. God can love us even through unpleasantness-- like when we have dry spells, which He uses to discipline us and purify our desires.

We live in an age where we not only have no sense of the highest goods, but also can't handle paradox, and where the ontological end of Christian discipleship is somehow supposed to be the American Dream.
written by Schm0e, June 06, 2014
Here we go again.

From an experience of over 20 years as a "born-again", "bible-thumping", "tongue-talking", "Spirit-filled believer" - in the Bible Belt, no less -- I can say that I have met far fewer of that persuasion who are as naive about the cost of following Christ as you suggest than I have Catholics who voted for Barack Obama and are OK with abortion.

More pressing problems at home, I'd say.
written by Stanley Anderson, June 06, 2014
This reminds me of a problem I have with a lot of the promotional material I see for Pro-Life causes that show pictures of happy mothers snuggling cute smiling babies. I don't know exactly what the proper approach should be, but promoting the idea that not aborting the baby and keeping it will be all cozy and comfortable can only backfire. Somehow it needs to show the indeterminable value of life whether in joy or pain.

Popular culture willingly shows us pictures of a beaming St. Francis, birds lighting on his upraised hand and happy furry creatures curling around his feet -- nothing wrong with that of course, and of value for prayer and contemplation. But the other part of sainthood is more troubling to the world and generally hidden from view. Their holy sufferings are not such pretty pictures to go along in the scrapbook of "God's wonderful plan for your life"
written by Drusilla Barron, June 06, 2014
In writing a book that explores theodicy, I find myself encountering more and more Christians who expect Jesus to be "nice." They show great angst at Jesus cursing the fig tree. They find a comforting explanation for Jesus telling the rich young man to sell all he has, give it to the poor, and follow Him. They limit Jesus anger to the established religious teachers of the day but never imagine His wrath could fall on them: that they could be the fig tree, that they could be required to lift a heavy cross and, at the same time, that those crosses are love.

We've anthropomorphized Jesus. Made Him tame. Made Him the nicest person we can imagine. The only problem is, it's not Jesus.
written by Stanley Anderson, June 06, 2014
Schm0e, the article I read talked about Christians in general and mentioned specifically in the last paragraph that, "Although they will claim to be devout “Evangelicals” or “Catholics,” they will nevertheless...". It also says earlier, "For this reason, as the hostility to Christian faith continues to mount in the United States..." without reference to which part of "Christian faith" the hostilities will be aimed at, or which contingent of "many of our fellow believers, unwilling to entertain the possibility that they must suffer as Christ suffered, will continue to acquiesce to the spirit of the age..."

Of the persons of "that persuasion" you mention, do you know which way and how many of them voted and are OK with abortion? Unless, by "home" you mean "the United States" in general as regards pressing problems, I don't quite follow your "Here we go again" comment.
written by Paul, June 06, 2014
If you follow His "wonderful plan for your life" won't you have a peace that "surpasseth all understanding".

written by linda eaton, June 06, 2014
I am good by virtue of my faith and baptism, I am kept by rubbing shoulders with saints and angels as we worship and adore the one who is by his very essence good. linda eaton
written by Howard, June 06, 2014
How many of you are commenting without even looking at the original material on which this post is based? Nothing makes one an expert like a little ignorance!

First of all, you can find the whole thing online at the Campus Crusade for Christ website. Go look at that first.

All that is written under "Law 1" is this:

[Begin Quote]

God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life.

God's Love
"God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever
believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16, NIV).

God's Plan
[Christ speaking] "I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly"
[that it might be full and meaningful] (John 10:10).

Why is it that most people are not experiencing that abundant life?


[End Quote]

If you take exception at "abundant life", your quarrel is with Jesus, so I'll assume your quarrel is with "wonderful plan". Does Catholic theology back up the idea that God has a plan for everyone? Absolutely. Is it wonderful? Yes.

I think the problem is that people are seeing "wonderful" and reading "easy" or "fun" or "luxurious" or some nonsense like that. Certainly there are people who make such claims, but that is not what is being said here.

You are reading this the same way Protestants read the Bible. You look at the words, then paraphrase them, then forget the original and refer only to your paraphrases. Furthermore, you find something that is not addressed and then jump to wild conclusions as though that were denied -- the way, for instance, people try to read into Jesus's "silence" about sodomy and abortion. We Catholics really should know better than that.

By the way, anyone looking for an easy, fun, or luxurious life surely has himself on his heart's throne, which is clearly presented as the wrong approach a few lines further down.

The problem with the Four Spiritual Laws is that they make no mention of the Sacraments -- not even Baptism -- nor of the Church. The problem is *not* that they promise the believer will "be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease".
written by Justin K., June 06, 2014
The thing is the wonderful plan isn't all unicorns and rainbows but involves a lot of death: death to the world, death to the flesh, death to the devil, death to the very self, as well taking up a cross and following Him even unto death. But there is no other way.
written by Myshkin, June 06, 2014

It's good you've had that experience of "bible-thumping, tongue-talking, etc ..." Protestant evangelicals. I suspect its limited to evangelicals of your own age cohort. My own experience with the Millenial generation of Protestants is very different. Most of them are okay with gay marriage and indifferent to abortion, even if they don't okay it. They follow preachers like Tony Campolo, read theologians like James K.A. Smith, and get their vision of God from books like "The Shack". That's what Christianity means to them. They have no real doctrine at all. As for Scripture, the art of proof-texting is alive and well, only now it's pressed into service to legitimate their liberal positions (see my earlier comment for an example).

Now Catholics may dissent from the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, but they cannot hold that the Church teaches their errors. They can say that the Church is wrong, they can say that they know more than the Apostolic Tradition, they can say ... well, anything, but they can't change the teachings by what they say.

On the other hand, Protestants do this all the time. Recall Clinton, Carter and the New Baptist Covenant? According to Carter it was "one of the most historic events at least in the history of Baptists in this country, maybe Christianity." I suppose that wasn't part of your Protestant experience ...
written by Nick Peters, June 06, 2014
The problem in our culture is we think enough about ourselves as it is. In reality, God does have a wonderful plan for us! It's to conform us to the likeness of Christ. It's just that's done through the way of the cross. The outcome is wonderful. The journey is highly "unpleasant."

I prefer to say "God is King right now and is shaping this world for His glory and He's inviting you to join in on that."
written by Paul, June 06, 2014
The Four Spiritual Laws are a excellent beginning, a baby needs milk not steak and potatoes. It's not that people like me think "wonderful" means "easy" or "fun". We think He is to give us The Holy Spirit to comfort us when His "wonderful plan" doesn't seem either "easy" or "fun".
written by Roderick Blyth, June 07, 2014
Thinking on Mark:10:17-22 has prompted in me the following reflections: first, that like may of Our Lord's sayings, it is multi-layered. Those of us who admire the genius of the Jews almost as much as theta of the Greeks and Romans, will often find in the parables, this feeling of high hopes disappointed. Here is a young man, who has observed the Torah from his youth, but confronted with the human presence of the God who ordained it, he finds himself unable to take the next step. Yet we are told that Jesus loved that young man, rich though he was, and we are surely to infer that Jesus didn't stop loving him, just because the young man couldn't rise to the challenge. Second, and perhaps more conventionally, whether or not we have responded to the challenge, the tale is surely about our own spiritual lives as well: Our Lord offers us much, and the more we are able to take, the more he will surely give us. It is difficult to believe, isn't it, that the riches that the young man might have experienced by doing as Jesus said would not have outstripped all that his wealth ever bought him, and it is also difficult, isn't it, not to believe that, in later life, the rich young man would not, from time to time, have been aware of this. We too must often feel that we are called to more than the compromised lives that we lead, and have glimpses of how it might be if we could follow the Lord along the paths to which he points, but down which he does not compel us. And yet, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that, as with the rich young man - Jesus loves us. What the young man had achieved in his life was not, after all, nothing: the point, surely, is that it could have been so much more had he risen to the challenge. And this prompts the further thought that we must not over look Jesus' harder sayings because we do not, and perhaps, cannot, live up to them. We must be conscious of our limitations, and respect and venerate those who have managed to chose the better path. The real poison of liberal protestantism, is to start diluting the hrad sayings, or dismissing them altogether, and reassuring ourselves, and saying that Our Lord didn't really mean it, and that the mere fact that God is love is enough to guarantee us spiritually in God's sight This may well be true, but it is bot by any means , the right place to stop. The point, I always think, is not that Our Lord was angry with the young man for failing to rise to the invitation - instead, we must picture him, I think, as being desperately sad. 'It could' as Joni Mitchell once wrote about something, else ' have been more/Than a name on the door/On the thirty third floor...'
written by Pam Tevington, June 11, 2014
Although I found I agree with the main view of this article I could not help take offense to the picking on Evangelicals in general. I for one have a true admiration for the book
The Power of Positive Thinking. The basis is that the bible will help all of us"be transformed by the renewing of our minds" Romans 12:2. Additionally as a devout Catholicism Christian I regularly listen to contemporary Christian music. It brings me into worship...and supports the famous quote of "singing is praying twice". As for claiming that these songs sound like "they are singing to their boyfriend"..that's just nasty and untrue.

It seems to me we all need to develop spiritual back bone for these hostility to Christianity times. Let us all humbly figure out how is the best way to bring about the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by focusing on how we can accomplish this as members of the one true faith.
written by Joe Tevington, June 11, 2014
As Professor Beckwith has not properly done his homework for this article, he should offer a retractio. Here's the very first Q & A from the Compendium of the Catechism:

"1. What is the plan of God for man?


God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. In the fullness of time, God the Father sent his Son as the Redeemer and Savior of mankind, fallen into sin, thus calling all into his Church and, through the work of the Holy Spirit, making them adopted children and heirs of his eternal happiness."

Enough said.
written by Terri, July 13, 2014
“God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life” –

This has been true for me. I never would have imagined the path God had laid out for me. It is sometimes hard and is "wonder-filled" in that I know God more (and hopefully look more like Him) as I live it out (obey). It's important to live out Gods love more than to split hairs and shoot at ourself.

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