The first and ninth verses are parallel:
To man belong the plans of the heart,
but from the LORD comes the reply of the tongue.
In his heart a man plans his course,
but the LORD determines his steps.
It's interesting to note that man's plans (I make no apologies for the use of the politically incorrect [man] to refer broadly to humankind) are a matter of the heart. We think we plan with our minds. Maybe there's some confusion of terms and translation, where ancient peoples imagined thinking to be a heart-action. But I have not idea if that's the case. Either way, the point of both proverbs is God's sovereignty. We must recognize that we can do all the planning we want, but God is ultimately in control (even of the words that come out of our mouths -- which is particularly humbling and encouraging in the context of preaching).
Enter the tension:
Commit to the LORD whatever you do,
and your plans will succeed.
This is one of those "that can't possibly be true" statements. It sounds like another "I'll give you anything you want if you ask in my name." But let's move past the obvious requirement of defining exactly what it means to "commit to the LORD" or "ask in my name," and discuss the deeper tension. If verses 1 and 9 are true, why are we planning at all. Don't they claim planning is futile? But we're told here that our plans should succeed.
So, we come to these questions of God's will. Should I take this job or that job, this major or that major? Should I pursue this ministry? this role? this relationship?
And so we worry and fret about whether our plans are God's will, or just our own ambitions, our own emotions, our own dreams. Worry is sin, so we don't actually say that we're worried. We euphemize. "I'm struggling with this decision." "I just don't know what to do about this issue." And I know how easy it is for me to let these kinds of things consume my heart and mind.
So, how do we know when the plans in our hearts are in the LORD's will? First of all, it's been my experience that at times, God has a very specific path in mind. When that is the case, he makes it abundantly clear. There's rarely a question to be asked. At other points, I think "God's will" for us is very broad. We can choose from any number of good things, and it's in his will. Of five good choices, there's may not be a best. That's when we make plans with our heart, and trust that God will work them out. And he does. We seek him, but we don't worry when he says "you choose."
So, there's my experiential argument. Let's get back to scripture. Again, the question is "How do we know when the plans in our hearts are in the LORD's will?"
Proverbs has answers. Verse 6:
Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for;
through the fear of the LORD a man avoids evil.
If proverbs is all about anything, it's about wisdom, and the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the LORD. Want to know if your plans are in God's will? Are you living and planning in the fear of the LORD? I think contemporary Christianity downplays the reality of this fear. It is a stronger word than reverence and awe.
We step back to verses 5 and 2
The LORD detests all the proud of heart.
Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished.
All a man's ways seem innocent to him,
but motives are weighed by the LORD.
So we must do a bit of internal inventory. What are my motives? Why am I making these plans? If there is pride in your decisions, watch out. James also discusses the futility of proud planning here. If I was planning to move into a ghetto because I wanted to be seen by others as holy, I've missed the mark entirely. God hates pride. I'd be punished. But if our motives are pure for the decision before us, and we are not hiding pride in our hearts but committing ourselves to following God first, I think we can say that we are in God's will.
And if we're wrong, it really doesn't matter as much as we like to pretend. Check out verse 4:
The LORD works out everything for his own ends—
even the wicked for a day of disaster.
God's working everything out the way he wants. We can't really mess up his plan. God never says, "Crap! He didn't do what I wanted him to. How am I ever going to fix this hopeless situation?" Yeah, God would never use [crap] as an expletive.
Go in peace. Don't worry. God is taking care of you. Check your life; check your motives. Is God first? Then follow your heart.