There’s a verse that’s in every Christian household or office space (and not just because it’s in our Bibles). Maybe it’s on a coffee mug or a t-shirt. Perhaps a poster or a greeting card. Or perhaps it’s featured on a decorative throw or a tattoo. It’s the life verse of virtually every women’s ministry leader and children’s ministry director.
Of course, you know I’m referring to Jeremiah 29:11, and it’s assurance that God knows the plans he has for us, “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
It’s a wonderful encouragement, isn’t it? We look at it and say, “Wow—God has a plan for me!” That plan, of course, is one we assume to be free from any sort of difficultly, strife or conflict. But to paraphrase the oft-quoted line—this verse you keep using; I do not think it means what you think it means.
When we read this verse, we typically do so through the lens of the western desire for prosperity, safety and security. That God’s plan obviously includes a full bank account, a big house and kids who remember to wash their hands after using the toilet. But as much fun as those things might be—especially the last one for the germaphobes out there—this isn’t really what’s promised by God to the Israelites. And make no mistake: this verse offers a promise to them, first and foremost.
Although we all (should) know this, we can’t forget that Jeremiah 29:11 comes as part of a larger conversation between God and the newly exiled Jewish people. After years of rejecting God, of consistently rebelling against him and his commands, Jerusalem and the nation of Judah was finally overtaken by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians, and Jeremiah was there to witness the whole thing. As they sat in Babylon, many so-called prophets came to them with messages promising a swift return to Jerusalem and a restoration of their fortunes.
Surely, God wouldn’t leave the people in exile, away from the promised land, for more than a few months. Maybe a couple of years, tops. But any longer than that, come on…
And yet, of these prophets God said, “Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord” (8-9). They were liars, deceivers who preyed on the people’s hopes and dreams. But their promises and prophecies were empty babbling. They were fanciful ideas from their own minds, and nothing more.
Instead of a swift return, God had something else in mind for his wayward people:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jer. 29:5-7)
So, rather than telling them not to unpack their belongings, God says get comfortable: Settle in Babylon. Get jobs. Get married. Have children. Be a blessing to this city, because you’re going to be here for a while. For the rest of your lives, in fact.
And it’s in this context that God says to his people, “For I know the plans I have for you.”
Despite this being primarily a promise to the Israelites, there is a principle that is true for us as well. Though, to be honest, I doubt us Christians feel anymore joyful about it than the Israelites of the day. Sometimes we’re in communities and context where we’d rather not be. It’s difficult to imagine trying to be a faithful Christian in an incredibly harsh context—one where you can be killed simply for your beliefs. And yet, for many, that’s the reality they live with. But God is still good, isn’t he?
Even here in North America, there are certainly times when we might prefer to hunker in the bunker or move somewhere far away from all the people who need Jesus because they really don’t like this Jesus we represent. And yet, it’s to them God has sent us. And he has a plan for us here: it is to serve those in need. To proclaim truth of the gospel. To do all we can to encourage all around us to thrive, and to be “a light to those who are in darkness” (Rom. 2:19b). To seek the wellbeing and welfare of our communities because those who are perishing need to see that Christians really do care for them.
In other words, God’s plan for us right now is to be his ambassadors in a foreign land. And God’s plans are always good (even when we don’t like them). We aren’t to sit on our duffs and just wait until Jesus returns. We are to go about the work he has commanded us. Because that is the plan he has for us—and it is the best future any of us could hope for.
Adapted from an earlier post written in October 2009.