This Proverb Challenges Us To Reflect Upon Two Truths

Have you ever, with the best of intentions, planned something, only to find that your plans are overturned and something you never expected came about instead? The Scottish poet, Robert Burns, deals with this phenomenon in his poem “To A Mouse.” In it a field mouse’s efforts to build a winter home in the stubble of a harvested field are destroyed by the unforeseen farmer’s plow that cuts right through it as it comes along turning the stubble under for the coming winter. The mouses “plans” are thus overturned, too late to build another before the winter sets in. It is written in Scottish dialect. I provide an updated modern English translation below:

“But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best laid schemes o’ Mice and Men
Gang oft agley,
An lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy!”

“But Mousie, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best laid plans of Mice and Men
Often go awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
In place of the promised joy!”

The proverb works, doesn’t it. It has a transcendent life of its own, because it is true. The first verse of chapter 16 relates this truth in this striking way: “To humans belong the plans of the heart, but from the Lord comes the proper answer.” It is followed with this perspective in the second verse: “All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the Lord.” This is our experience, isn’t it. We are challenged to reflect upon two things here; first, the idea that God’s ways are not ours; and second, our need to develop the humility to, “Commit to the Lord whatever [we] do, and he will establish [our] plans.” (verse 3) As Christian believers, we are challenged to look first to the Lord when making our plans, to humbly contemplate our smallness, and our narrow horizons, in relation to his greatness and infinite wisdom.

If we do this out of love for the Lord; if we are faithful to searching for his way in all that we do, our “sins [will be] atoned for; and evil [will be] avoided.” (verse 6) We are told that it is, “Better [that we do] a little with righteousness than much with injustice.” (verse 8) A Christian, then, is called upon to “plan” his or her life, in the small, as well as the great details, in the ways of God. We have a model for this. If we keep our eyes on Jesus in all of our plans, our motives will be rooted in a humble awareness that the Lord will, “work out everything to its proper end.” (verse 4)

Yes, if we plan all things in humble accord with God’s will, “the Lord will establish our steps.” (verse 9) In this we can be assured. If we let go of the often narrow desires of our egos for our own particular outcomes; if we let go and let God, our “plans” may have results we never expected, but we will be able see the hand of God in them.

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site blog.