Rethinking Jeremiah 29:11

Growing up I spent a good deal of my youth in evangelical circles.  On one hand I am thankful for that.  I believe it saved me a lot of mistakes and pain.  But growing up in evangelical circles isn’t without pressure.  Within this circle is an odd pressure to find God’s plan for your life.  You know, the plan with only one right path.  The one college God has planned for you to attend.  The one major he wants you to study that will lead to the one job he has for you.  The soul mate.  Ahh…the soul mate.  The Christian oompa-loompa that completes you (never mind Jesus’ role there).  You have to find your soul mate lest you marry someone else’s soul mate and they have to marry someone else’s soul mate starting a cataclysmic chain reaction ruining the matrimonial bliss of the world’s population.  Yes, do not screw that one up. God has a plan.

Sure, we would talk about the grace of God.  But it seemed like God exhibited little grace when it came to his plan.  As a youth pastor I saw countless students paralyzed over the decision about what college to attend because they didn’t want to miss out on God’s plan.  Grace was for our sins, but not for “the plan.”  That you have to get right.

Much of this anxiety stems from one of the most misused verses in the Bible – Jeremiah 29:11“‘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.'”  The conclusion is simple.  God has very specific plans and if I get those wrong then the rest of my life will be spent in joyless wandering as I work to get back on the right path.

Often this verse is used to encourage people.  It is put on mugs, bookmarks and cards given with Dr. Seuss’s “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” at graduation.  While delivered with good intentions, I have seen the misapplication of this verse produce anxiety, fear, and paralysis as people worry about missing out on God’s plan for their life.

It doesn’t need to.  

Because this verse isn’t about you.

Context is everything, especially when we read the Bible.  The context of Jeremiah 29:11 is that Israel is in exile under the Babylonians. This means they were ripped from their homes, separated from friends and family, and exported to Babylon.  Right away we see this verse is not intended for people making difficult decisions like which job to take or who to marry.  This is for people wondering if God has left them.  Jeremiah is writing to people who are crying out for God to simply remember them and to see their pain.

This verse was never meant for individuals.  It was for a people in exile.

Given the misuse of this text it is fascinating to read Jeremiah 28.  In Jeremiah 28 we see Jeremiah arguing with the prophet Hananiah.  Hananiah prophesied that the Babylonian exile would end after two years.  That’s it.  After two years in exile Nebuchadnezzar would be removed from the throne and Jehoiachin would be placed on the throne over Israel.  In other words, Hananiah told the people exactly what they wanted to hear – suffering will be short and wealth is right around the corner.

Contrast that with Jeremiah.  Jeremiah prophesied that the exile would last for 70 years.  In fact, we learn the exile would last 70 years in Jeremiah 29:10, the verse right before we learn of God’s plan for our lives!  God is essentially saying, “Hey, this is going to last a while.  It is going to be hard.  But I haven’t forgotten you.”

Can you imagine those who were in exile who received Jeremiah’s prophesy?  Which one do you think they liked better?  Jeremiah’s or Hananiah’s?  70 years or two years?  It’s pretty easy to figure out who had the popular vote here.

Here is where we get this verse wrong.  We pull it out of the context of exile and give it to a student graduating college and fill their heads with the promises of prosperity if they live into the plans God has for them.  This leads to a preoccupation with figuring out God’s plan because it alone leads to prosperity.  The problem is that God doesn’t promise prosperity to all individuals.  Jeremiah 29 is not a promise of prosperity for individuals but for a people, a nation.  Nor is the promise of prosperity a promise of wealth.  The Hebrew is more along the lines of ‘welfare’ or maybe even better – peace.  Which I like a whole lot because it connects back up to Jeremiah 29:7 which says, “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.”  That sounds an awful lot like, “Pray for your enemies” and “Do good to those who persecute you” as commanded by Jesus.  Honestly, neither Jesus nor Jeremiah are as concerned with God’s plan for my life as I am.

Jeremiah 29 is one of the more difficult passages of scripture.  It promises years of suffering and then encourages people to bless those who are causing the suffering.  It tells them to settle down, build homes, marry, and have kids because the exile is going to last a long time.  That is a difficult pill to swallow.  Not really coffee mug material if you ask me.

And yet, it is an extremely hopeful passage.  God promises his people hope.  He promises them a future.  By stating he has a plan for them, God is telling his children he has not abandoned them.  This is why he says in verse 12, “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

We will find God.

Hope.  Restoration.  Relationship.  Intimacy.  Jesus.  That is the promise of Jeremiah 29.

I do believe God has a plan for our lives.  But I do not believe it is a detailed plan about where we will go to college or live or who we will marry or how many kids we will have.  God’s plan is simply relationship with him.  Or as Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…and the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:34-40).

Frederick Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

St. Augustine said, “Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.”

You want to know God’s plan for your life?  Go get a job and love God and love others where you work.  Get married and love your spouse as Christ loved the church and let your marriage shine grace and mercy and intimacy to the world.  Move where you feel led to and love God and love the people in your neighborhood.  Bless those around you.  Do good to those who persecute you.  Foster a life of intimacy with Jesus.

That’s the plan.  The rest will fall into place.