Wildly out of Context?

Okay. I’m going to do it. My New Year resolution was not to crush anyone’s dreams in 2017 but 24 hours in I’m already prepared to fail.

Jeremiah 29:11 is a beautiful passage. We all know it well. From bumper stickers to coffee mugs, graduation mementos to encouragement cards. “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. Boy do we LOVE this verse! So why does it bother me so much? Enter the dream crusher.

It wasn’t written to you.

There. I said it. Can’t we all just be friends again? I’m not just here to rain on anyone’s parade, though. Why is this important? Because a dishonest representation of what this passage means can set believers up for failure – the disappointment coming from the realization that the Perfect Kingdom their preacher (or coffee mug) promised is, according to God, only here in part, not yet here in full. Life is still going to be messy, painful and will ultimately result in the death of everyone you know. Happy New Year!

Don’t get me wrong – this verse has a powerful message. It’s just maybe not the one you were clinging to. Like a half-drowned shipwreck survivor who thinks she’s grasping driftwood to stay afloat but then finds it’s actually a dolphin. It’s not that the dolphin is bad, per se. It’s just… unpredictable. It’s an animal all of its own. If it saves her, that’s super awesome! And if it gets spooked and dives deep leaving her to her fate, well, it had that right too. Driftwood is controllable. It makes us comfortable. Amidst a storm, it lets us feel like our own salvation is in our own hands. Which… it is not.

But let’s be fair. We shouldn’t just assume I’m always right, because being right is a rare enough occasion all on its own. Let me build my case. Jeremiah 29:11 actually did apply to real people in real history, and so it might apply to you if:

  • You are a the kid of a skilled metalworker who, being over 600 years old, was an Israelite taken into exile during Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian exile after conquering Jerusalem

Oh yeah, and God said his promise couldn’t be taken to the bank for 7o years. So, really, the verse says, “I know the plans I have for you – plans to let you live and die in captivity hundreds of miles away from your homes as a defeated nationality subjected to exile – but cheer up, I’m going to make it up to your kids in 70 years.”

Don’t believe me? Read the whole chapter, all of Jeremiah chapter 29. I dare you.

Here’s the rub: We have a really bad habit of taking great soundbites out of Scripture and applying them wherever we want whenever we’re having a rough time without bothering about the context. It is important to “do right by Scripture” though – to handle it with integrity, to make sure the message we are taking out of it is actually the messages the authors (including God) meant to put in it. Jeremiah 29:11 is NOT a passage that means, “In this life, everything is going to be peachy.” It doesn’t even mean that in the long run, over time, things will generally tend to get better. To see this, just put a little bit of real life into the passage:

“I know the plans I have for you, plans for you to get cancer and suffer physical ailment.”

“I know the plans I have for you, to lose your job and struggle to get by.”

“I know the plans I have for you, for your child to die in a car accident.”

These, too, are plans God allows for. Is a relationship with God the most important thing a person can cultivate in their life? YES. Is God an all powerful God who, if he wanted, could give us anything we wanted? YES. Is God a loving God who tends to give us wonderful gifts through life? YES. Will each and every one of us still die a horrible death on our way to the next life. Also, yes.

People don’t need a lovey-dovey everything-is-gonna-be-alright message. Because we all see straight through that. What we need is Truth, and sometimes that’s harsh. What does Jeremiah 29:11 tell us? Nothing about our future, that’s for sure. But it does tell us…

Incredible things about God’s nature.

God IS a God who loves his people. God does allow them to be punished when they turn away from him. God is just – yet God is also merciful. God wants to lavish gifts on his kids and often DOES lavish gifts on his kids. Sometimes his kids need to be put back in line as well, and sometimes he gives them challenges so they can lean on him more, so they can set a good example for the world, so they can come be home with him.

The next time you see Jeremiah 29:11, don’t think, “That’s right – my lucky day is right around the corner, I hope I win the lottery – God owes me some prosperity because he promised me.” Because he didn’t promise you. He promised exiles 600 years ago, and what he promised them wasn’t even for them, it was for their kids.

The next time you see Jeremiah 29:11, praise God instead of feeling entitled yourself. Tell him how much you admire his character – how you admire how he had patience with his people until they had just gone too far, how you admire how he provided for them even in captivity, how you admire how he planned a reformation and return of the exiles to have freedom and their homeland again, how you admire that he’s a good father and a good gift giver and that even when he gives us bad things, whether to test us or make us stronger, we admire how he remains right their with us.

Maybe the “plans I have for you, plans to prosper you” include things more like… him being with us 24/7 rather than us getting a raise at work. Maybe the plans include getting us a job where we can serve him, not a job that serves us. Maybe the plan include a health crisis that prompt you to set relationships right in your life before he takes you home. Maybe even the plans include being set in an unhealthy church so you can help heal it rather than it helping heal you. Maybe… the possibilities are endless.

“Live long and prosper” is just one of a slew of possible outcomes when clinging to the dolphin of God amidst your personal shipwrecks in life. But I promise you this: while we shouldn’t misappropriate promises to other people found in Scripture for our own purposes, we can count on God’s nature. And that nature is to have a plan, one that advances his Kingdom and provides us opportunity for growth even if it doesn’t always feel good along the way.

“Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” — Westley (The Princess Bride by William Goldman)

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