For my 21-year-old self, the decade ahead brimmed with endless possibilities.
Thanks to a scholarship I secured before university started, I didn’t need to think twice about what degree to take, what internships to do, or what job to apply for—everything was already decided upon by the sponsor.
In university, I went on an exchange programme to study in Hong Kong for a semester, along with my best friend. After graduating, we embarked on more adventures overseas—Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Australia. We ate roast duck and wandered around morning wet markets in Sham Shui Po, sled down sand dunes in Mui Ne, and posed with sleepy koalas and our farm-to-table brunches in Perth.
Soon I started work as a TV journalist at a reputable broadcaster. I enjoyed how fast-paced and exciting the work was—every day and assignment was different, and I got to visit a ton of places and talk to lots of people I otherwise wouldn’t have.
Having grown closer throughout our travels, my best friend and I began fantasising about our future “epic” adventures abroad (when that word was still in vogue). We’d take the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to Moscow; explore castles and cathedrals in Eastern Europe; apply for a working holiday visa in New Zealand to pick apples and milk cows. We were two friends, exploring and taking on the world together.
We talked about applying for permanent residency in Australia after my scholarship bond ended. There, we’d work and continue our travels—perhaps even rent a caravan and drive across the country, we mused.
Life was good, I was young and free, and my future seemed bright, and all planned out.
How life really turned out
It’s been a decade since, and, well, things have changed.
As planned, my best friend recently got her permanent resident visa in Australia, where she’s starting on her master’s degree, and will most likely end up working and living there for the long haul.
As for me, my life has taken a very different trajectory: I’ve gotten married, given birth, and now have a very energetic toddler on my hands. I’m no longer working in a newsroom that churns out stories round-the-clock, but in a slower paced non-profit organisation.
A decade ago, the world felt like this vast, open book of exciting possibilities, which I could flip to any page and jump into at any time. These days? My world has shrunk to the face of my sleeping son.
This doesn’t mean that I’m unhappy or ungrateful for what I have—I’m incredibly blessed to be married to a man after God’s own heart, to love and raise my son to know the Lord, and to do work I find incredibly meaningful.
Yet, as I watch my friend from the sidelines preparing for her big move, I can’t help but feel a tinge of sadness at what could’ve been—at what I’m missing out on.
Perhaps . . .
. . . if I hadn’t gotten married, I could go wherever and do whatever I wanted, without having to think about the needs and preferences of my spouse.
. . . if I didn’t have a kid, I’d be free to count down the days to our next big adventure overseas.
. . . if I hadn’t changed jobs, I’d be able to afford so much more.
When God’s plans aren’t ours
I don’t know if you’re like me, but life might not have turned out the way you planned. And it’s not always bad things that derail us; it could be perfectly good and wonderful things—like marriage and motherhood, in my case.
Of course, when I first started dating my now-husband, I prayerfully sought the Lord’s guidance and discernment to enter into a relationship with him. And, when the time came, I chose to commit to him in marriage and to start our own family.
What I didn’t quite anticipate, however, was how marriage and parenthood would so thoroughly swallow up my time, energy, and money, thus throwing whatever dreams and aspirations I had out the window.
Often, I have confided in the Lord my disappointments, and confessed of my covetousness and frustrations at not being able to live out the life I had planned as a young, single, fresh graduate. As I lamented to Him, the Holy Spirit prompted me to turn to the pages of God’s Word.
In it, I was repeatedly reminded of one truth: I can make as many plans as I please, but it is God’s purpose that ultimately prevails (Proverbs 19:21). Elsewhere in Proverbs, it states: “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps” (16:9).
Knowing and remembering that God’s sovereignty extends over my every step gives me pause and a sense of peace. It stops me in my tracks whenever I find myself running furiously on my hamster wheel of worry and self-pity, to ask, “Why am I feeling this way, if I know that God really is in control of everything?”
As I dwell on His power over all creation, I am comforted to know that nothing in my life is left to chance or my imperfect planning. It’s not merely my planning for A at X point, or B at Y point, that will bring me to where I want to go, but it is God who establishes my steps on the path He intends for me.
Messy, painful—and good
The promise that our good, loving, heavenly Father is totally in control means that I can submit to Him, not because I don’t have a choice or say in the matter, but because I trust that He works all things for my good, as I endeavour to love Him and live in accordance to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
And His purpose for me—and us all as His redeemed people—is our growing in holiness (Romans 8:29-30). As Ephesians 1:4–5 puts it:
“He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will.”
Looking back at how the last 10 years panned out, everything that I hadn’t planned for was exactly what pushed me to draw closer to my Father, and away from relying on my own strength to map out my life as I saw fit.
During my final year in university, an administrator miscalculated the number of class credits I’d earned, rendering me ineligible for some final year classes. By the time she realised her mistake, I could no longer sign up for the classes. I had to wait till the next semester, which meant I had to graduate later than all my peers.
I was flooded with shock, anger, and worry when I found out what her mistake had cost me. What would I do all semester? What about my scholarship bond that required me to graduate by a certain time? My future as I knew it seemed to hang in the balance—and over something I had no control over.
With nothing left to do, I went down on my knees to beseech the Lord for His guidance. As I poured out my worries to Him, He supplied me the grace to forgive this administrator, and to trust that He knew best, despite the turn of events.
Around the same time, a general election in my country was announced, which would take place that semester. This opened the door for me to do a journalism internship with my sponsoring organisation that period.
I also eventually reconnected with my now-husband over our shared experience of graduating later than our cohort—which might not have happened had I finished school the same time as everyone else.
I see how God has used all the ugly and unexpected bits of my life for my good and His glory:
The bout of depression . . . which compelled me to cleave to Christ and His Word in one of the darkest seasons in my life.
The abusive supervisor at work . . . which taught me how to establish emotional boundaries at work, and to find my identity not in pleasing people, but in knowing that I am a child of God.
The job with a lower salary . . . which drove me to not “set [my] hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17, ESV).
These situations and seasons of life were messy, painful, and fraught with my sinfulness: grumbling and complaining; envy and bitterness; my tendency for self-pity, stubbornness, and sinful distractions.
And yet God sovereignly willed every good and bad thing to refine my faith in Him.
Planning with an open hand
I couldn’t have predicted or planned any of the things that have happened to me over the past decade, whether good or bad. Yet, God did: “all the days ordained for me were written in [His] book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16).
The question is: Do I acknowledge and submit to God’s larger, holier, better will for me?
As I watch my friend bravely explore Down Under on her own, and as I get ready to pick up my toddler from school after another quiet day of work, I confess that sometimes, I still struggle.
Yet, I’m thankful that I’m now quicker to surrender these struggles to the Lord, because I know, deep down, that God wills for each struggle to draw me closer to Him and make me more like His Son.
We can and should be wise and prudent to plan for our future. But, we should also be willing to surrender all our plans and aspirations to Him and pray, “Lord, are my plans in line with Your revealed will for me? If not, then not my will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
Just as Job was able to acknowledge God’s sovereign, good will for him in the path God brought him on—a path totally unplanned for—may we, too, say as he did:
He knows the way that I take;
when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.
My feet have closely followed his steps;
I have kept to his way without turning aside.
I have not departed from the commands of his lips;
I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread. (Job 23:10–12)