The Pursuit of “Destiny”

My friend Les responded to one of my recent emails in which I asked readers to challenge me with study and blogging suggestions. He shared that he is currently pondering the concept of a person’s individual destiny in God.

Do we have a distinct individual destiny that exists within our souls and is progressively revealed as we live and grow? Or is destiny something that we find outside ourselves and must work to achieve as an endpoint to our walk with God? How do we understand this idea of destiny on a practical level? How might it inform the way in which we live?

I thanked Les and told him I’d love to see what the Bible says about destiny. No doubt lots of philosophers and theologians have pondered this idea for ages. Merriam Webster provides one definition, “a predetermined course of events often held to be an irresistible power or agency.”1 But as you know, my primary interest is in discovering how Scripture comes to life on every question.

               First of all, it’s important to note that the word destiny does not occur in the King James Bible, and the corresponding Greek word is not found in the New Testament. “Destiny” was the name of a pagan god and is associated in Islam and Stoicism with the idea of fate, “a blind, purposeless force, rather than providence, foresight, and wise planning.2

An initial concordance search for the word destiny in the NIV is revealing. Bible Gateway presents Jeremiah 29:11 as the only positive verse that relates to the concept of destiny. But this verse, known and loved by many, doesn’t even contain the word!

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

This familiar verse tells us that God has plans that are good. In this context (always essential to consider!), his plan was revealed to the prophet and addressed to a group of Hebrews about to be exiled to Babylon. It is not a prophecy of an individual destiny.

Also, this is not a disembodied, other-worldly prophecy. Rather, it reveals a continuation of God’s redemption story in a real time and place. God is speaking history before it happens. And he makes no mention of individual destinies. God declares that as his covenant people, the Israelites will prosper, increase in numbers, bless the land and people where they sojourn, and eventually be returned to their homeland. Their destiny is embedded in God’s perfect plan for them.

The same source cited above implies that destiny can be broadly interpreted as a biblical concept in the sense that, “God sees the end from the beginning. He has appointed a destiny for the Christian, for the unbeliever, for Israel, and for other nations. But instead of the word ‘destiny,’ the Bible speaks of providence, predestination, and last things or eschatology.

Interestingly, all of the references in the NIV that do include the English word destiny have a negative connotation. One, in Philippians 3:18-19 delivers a dire warning about the destiny of the wicked and rebellious, the carnally minded who deny and despise God.

“For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.”

The Apostle Paul only speaks this one time about destiny, and it is the destiny of the wicked, not the destiny of the righteous.

There is a parallel Old Testament reference in Psalm 73, and I’d like to hang out there for a minute to explore the context fully. The psalmist Asaph is troubled about the apparent prosperity of the wicked. He laments that he has had all kinds of lack and struggle in life despite his devotion to God, and wonders if it’s worth it:

Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments. (v.13-14).

In contrast, he observes, those who ignore or defy God seem to have an easy time of it:

They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills. (v. 4-5).

 But then he comes into the manifest presence of God, and gets a golden revelation:

“…I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny. Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors!” (v.17-18).

As for Asaph, he turns his lament into thanks and praise:

“Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (v.23-26).

While the wicked will eventually come into a very dark and unfortunate destiny, lovers of God like Asaph (and hopefully, you and me), have the comforting awareness of God’s presence and guidance in this earthly life, and the promise of glory to come. Our destiny as believers is to live in this reality day after day. We look to God to be our strength and are satisfied with the portion we are given.

This is a very humbling view of the concept of destiny. It speaks to my heart that I am to endeavor to remain faithful to God, each day finding the next right thing to do, and doing it. Whatever gifts or talents he has bestowed upon me, I’m to use them diligently, with the heart of a servant. My individual destiny only matters as it pertains to trusting God and giving glory to him, one day at a time.

I could perhaps give a more encouraging pop psychology interpretation of the idea of destiny, or even try to put an evangelical positive spin on the concept, but I find these Scriptures fully satisfying in themselves.

Does God have good plans and purposes for us? Absolutely! His plan is to lavish love upon us as we follow his commandments to love him and serve one another. His purpose is that his name would be thoroughly known and praised throughout the earth, “as the waters cover the seas” (Hab. 2:14).

               I don’t discount or ignore the reality that individuals have very different paths, and sometimes it appears that we are subject to an inscrutable set of circumstances outside of our control. This can feel like what the pagans called fate or destiny, or even, luck. We can also get very concerned about whether we are living the right kind of life, the one we were “destined” for.

But as Asaph came to understand, it is not wise or healthy to get too hung up on this. We are instead to remember how good our God is, and what pleases him. We are to steadfastly pursue his good purposes to the best of our ability, whether we feel immediately rewarded for it or not. We live honorably and worshipfully and leave the rest to him.

             We cling tightly to our hope of eternal life with him, which will be rewarding beyond measure. That is our destiny, and that, my friends, is destiny enough.



3 Ibid.

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