I wrote this blog post ages ago, while dealing with a personal crisis of my own, but was reminded of it today. So I dug it out of the old archives and made some edits because I think this age-old truth is so important to keep in mind in times like these.
Yesterday I was drawn to Jeremiah 29. This is of course the chapter containing the famous oft-quoted verse 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 a hope and a future.”Jeremiah 29:11, New International Version
So many Christians cling to this passage when they are fearful or uncertain about the future. But too many tend to take this verse out of context, assuming it is a promise that God is preparing to insert blessings into their life. Indeed, there is an incredible promise contained here–a promise worth clinging to, especially during difficult struggles–but it needs to be understood for what it really is: a message about God’s timing.
Chapter 29 in the book of Jeremiah contains a letter sent from the prophet Jeremiah around the 7th century B.C. to “the surviving elders of the exiles… whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” These are God’s chosen people, descendants of generations upon generations of Israelites, who were enslaved to the Egyptians for 400 years and then wandered in the desert for 40 years because of their own disobedience, after narrowly escaping the Egyptians. They were promised a homeland “flowing with milk and honey” but they nearly never made it there because of their own fear. Once they finally arrived, they were hunted by other nations, warred among themselves, and struggled constantly to remember the things God had done for them, consistently tending to trust their own judgment instead of God’s instruction. These people were not heroes; but they were God’s beloved. Eventually, again because of disobedience towards God, they were ransacked by the Babylonians and exiled into slavery yet again, this time in Babylon.
The early section of the Lord’s message to these exiles in Jeremiah 29 goes like this:
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.Jeremiah 29, verses 5 – 7
In other words, God says: get comfortable, you’re going to be here a while. God does not rush in to the rescue and say, “just ask me and I will set you free.” Quite the opposite; He tells them to settle in, encourage their families to make homes and plant crops, knowing they will be around long enough to harvest them. He indicates that generations may pass before things start to look different. (Interesting to compare the tone of this passage with Christ’s instructions for approaching the “end times” crisis in Matt 24:17-19.) Here in Jeremiah, there is no urgency. There is nothing to plan or prepare. For the time being, there is no escape.
I think many of us feel “exiled” in our current age. The social distancing measures implemented for COVID-19, which are deeply affecting Americans at the time I write this, leave us feeling trapped, helpless, and alone. I hesitate to compare our current “hardship” (complete with wi-fi, home delivery services, and other miracles of modern technology) to the Babylonian exile the Israelites faced. Nevertheless, I believe God’s message to us today might sound the same:
Get comfortable. Pray for deliverance if you like, but recognize that deliverance is not always God’s objective. Sometimes the best way we can participate in His plan is to simply go where He takes us. Stay faithful in the small things. Raise your children. Be present in your relationships. Plant seeds and wait patiently for them to grow. Because we might be here for a while.
Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. Jeremiah continues in verse 10:
“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.”jEREMIAH 29:10, niv
I think if I were a Jewish exile at this point, I’d be thinking, “Seriously, God? Seventy years?” Our modern culture is panicking because it might take an extra week to find toilet paper and online deliveries are delayed by 2-5 business days. When we get a promise, we expect prompt delivery. How odd it must have seemed to receive a letter from God saying: I will live up to my promise, but I’m going to wait until you have grandchildren before I do it.
This is the moment when God proclaims:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. [. . .] I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you,” declares the Lord, “and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”Jeremiah 29:11-14, English Standard Version
The amazing promise contained in Jeremiah 29:11 reminds us that our present reality does not inhibit God’s future plans. We may or may not live to see it, but God still knows what the future holds. Our blessing is not, necessarily, to be recipients of His glory in the here and now; rather we rejoice because we know there is a sovereign King of the Universe who knows perfectly well how our troubled lives fit into the greater story He is writing.
There is so much that can be learned about the heart of God through this chapter. For one, He is absolutely faithful to His promises. He desires goodness, wholeness, and blessings for His people. But this is ultimately a reminder that God works in His own timing, and there is nothing we can do to change that. There have been times when I have gotten quite angry with God for His “bad timing,” feeling He has robbed me of so many of the “prime” years of my life. But Jeremiah reminds me that God’s plans for my life are so much bigger than my own.
Fortunately, in this current world crisis, we probably won’t have to wait to have grandchildren before we see restoration taking place! But even if we did, I think if we had an eternal perspective, we could be okay with that. My life on earth is to accomplish His purpose, and maybe His purpose is just for me to prepare the way for future generations to receive the fulfillment of His promises. He never guarantees us a life of ease or even individual prosperity–what He does guarantee is that our existence means something. We do not breathe and move on this earth for no reason. Even if we don’t live to see the end, He uses us to accomplish a greater good through the fact that we were here.
I encourage anyone who is a big fan of Jeremiah 29 to be sure and read chapters 30-31 as well. God makes perfectly clear what His style of restoration looks like and it is a beautiful and terrible thing to behold! My favorite verse is at the end of chapter 30. After fleshing out the inspiring picture of how He will eventually draw His people back to Himself, he first reminds them that “the fierce anger of the Lord will not turn back until He has executed and accomplished the intentions of His mind.” (30:24) The present suffering has a purpose and that purpose will be accomplished one way or another. Then comes my personal favorite part:
“In the latter days you will understand this.”Jeremiah 30:24
It comforts me to see that a) God understands His promise is counter-intuitive right now for us humans in the middle of the suffering, and b) He promises that someday we will be able to understand His purpose for it all. In His time, all things will be revealed.
He knows the plans He has for our future. His heart is not to cause pain or destruction for no reason. But when we find ourselves in the midst of a clear season of suffering, let’s remember that God has called us to be where we are, trusting Him for strength and remaining faithful to His calling.