Dear Lauren,

I'm not a teen, but I loved your article “God’s Plan Vs. My Plan,” except for one question which I struggle with on this topic: I can have some peace when I feel I really couldn't control an outcome through my actions (for example, it rains on the day I've planned a picnic). But what about when I think the plan I don't like was at least partially my fault? In the example given in the article, what if the author could have used a GPS, found a website with current traffic patterns, called for help, figured that something was not right if a lane wasn’t being used, etc? So was it God's plan that the writer was late for the seminar, or her own?

It gets even trickier with other choices. What if we marry the "wrong" person and get divorced because we were too caught up in superficial traits and ignored character? What if we could have worked harder at a job and end up getting fired? Once again, God's plan is for the best, but maybe God's plan would have been different if I had acted differently?

Dr. Lauren Roth Lauren Roth's Answer

Ours is definitely a religion in which we are expected to take an active role in our own lives. And ours is definitely a religion in which we are held accountable and responsible for our actions, decisions, and behaviors. But ours is also a religion in which we can take great comfort in the certain knowledge that after we’ve done our due diligence, and even before we’ve done our due diligence, when the chess board is being set—that’s up to God.

Yes, if I were in Boston on April 15, at the finish line of the marathon at 2:49 p.m., it would have been my choice whether to run towards the blast and help the victims or whether to run away from the blast and save myself. And yes, once I’m in a marriage, my choice of behavior will make or break the relationship. But Judaism’s philosophy is that when I weighed all the factors that made me decide, of my own volition, to attend the Boston Marathon 2013, and when I made the decision, of my own volition, to position myself at the finish line, God was guiding the factors that put me at that decision crossroad. And when I decided, of my own volition, to marry the person I did, God was guiding the factors that influenced me at that time which put me at that decision crossroad.

God allows us free will and our decisions are ours alone. But God shapes all the factors surrounding us.

In other words, yes, God runs the world and God runs our life, and yes, God allows us free will and our decisions are ours alone. BUT God shapes all the factors surrounding us. To put it succinctly: anything in our control is in our control. Anything outside of our control God arranges. And many of those arrangements affect our moments of freely willed decision.

So when we kick ourselves and say, “Why did I do X?” or “Why didn’t I do Y?” we have to take responsibility for those freely chosen decisions, and we also have to realize that God arranged our circumstances at the decision point such that we were more apt to choose X, or not to choose Y.

The best example I can give is the example of deciding whom to marry. Some couples in my office second-guess their choice of partner, and wonder if they chose “the right one.” When they want to throw up their hands and throw in the towel and scrap the marriage, I encourage them to believe that God guided them to freely choose this spouse.

We are now trying to sell our house. And I’ve had a list of potential buyers for about a year. Two weeks ago, I called the people on the list and told them they could come and look at the house. One particular buyer and I made up that she would come on Tuesday, April 22. I thought the trees would be in perfect bloom then, and the house would look just lovely. Guess what happened on Tuesday, April 22? It was a gloomy, dreary, gross day. And the tulips had just come up, and their colors were atrocious! Icky peach and sickly yellow and nasty-hued purple...not only were the colors unpalatable, they also clashed with the color of our house. I wanted to reschedule her viewing date, but my husband, my father, and my mother all advised me to keep the appointment, so I did. Do you know that the potential buyer didn’t give a second glance at the tulips? And she seemed quite pleased with the house, dreary day and all.

My 12-year-old daughter said to me, “Maybe God wanted you to show the house on that day to prove to you that if He wants her to buy it, she’ll buy it even after seeing it on a dreary day, and if He doesn’t want her to buy it, she wouldn’t buy it even on a sunny day.”

I agree. God sets the chess board. Anything we don’t control, He does. Like the colors the tulips came up. Like the advice we receive from loved ones. We choose our moves, but He controls the moves that we don’t.

I’ll give you another example. We decided to use a certain device to help kasher our kitchen for Passover. It was an electrical device which kept blowing fuses in our kitchen. I could have decided not to use that device, but I, of my own free will, decided to use it. I researched it and heard that other people use it, so I had no qualms. Well…the fuses consistently being blown by the device actually broke my fridge! So on Passover I had no refrigerator! (Which was quite unpleasant, as you can imagine.) And because our fridge broke, I had to buy a new fridge, which was a hassle and cost money. But guess what? I love our new fridge as much as it is possible to love an inanimate kitchen appliance! It services our family’s needs so much better than the other fridge ever did!

I freely chose to use the device. I even researched it. But God only allowed me to hear good things about its use (I heard all the damage it caused in other people’s kitchens after the fact), and led me to the crossroad where I decided to use it—which decision ultimately ended in my lovely new refrigerator.

Jewish philosophy maintains that all my freely-willed actions and decisions are guided by God, for my ultimate good. So the next time you wish an outcome had been different than it was, take responsibility for your part, and also recognize that God led you to the decision-points.