“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 a hope and a future.” (Jer 29:11, NIV)
I appreciated the way Pastor Aaron cited this well-known verse from Jeremiah this weekend. He observed that we often take the verse out of context, using it as generic biblical encouragement: Don’t worry, God’s got great things in store for you, so just hang in there! It reminds me of another passage I’ve heard used the same way:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Rom 8:28, NIV)
The problem is that using these verses to encourage a general hopefulness about the future–that is, each of our futures as individuals–can actually rob us of our true hope.
In the case of the Romans passage, Paul paints a broad portrait in which present suffering is to be endured, even with groaning, because we look forward in hope to the day in which “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21, NIV). We have the gift of the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit doesn’t take away our suffering. Rather, in the midst of our groaning, when we can’t even put together the words to pray anymore, the Spirit steps in to take up the slack:
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Rom 8:26-27, NIV)
This is the context for the promise that “God works for the good of those who love him”–we have been called for a purpose, and that purpose involves future glory. That affirmation, in turn, is the biblical basis for one of the songs we sang this weekend: “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31, NIV).
So, the Jeremiah passage: there, the context is the people of God’s exile to Babylon. Yes, God has a plan. Yes, he wants his people to prosper. Yes, he wants them to have hope.
But for now, God says through his prophet, the plan means living in exile for what will seem like a good long time. How long? Long enough that some of the people will die in exile and not see their homeland again.
So what to do?
Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. (Jer 29:5-7, NIV)
Settle down. Have families. Seek the peace and prosperity of the land in which you live. But don’t get so comfortable that you forget the fact that you are exiles, and that your true home lies elsewhere:
Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Pet 2:11-12, NIV)
That is our future hope, and it’s crucial to how we live in the present. And yes, God has a plan to get us there.
It’s just not always the exact plan we would have designed for ourselves.