What is your greatest desire in life? And what is right now your most difficult situation in life? And how do to the two relate?
If you know Christ, you know what the answer to the first question ought to be. Your greatest desire ought to be to glorify God, to live so as to reflect the glory of His saving grace in the risen Christ. That’s your heartbeat, but maybe as you read this, that desire feels faint, more like a murmur. Enter, then, your greatest difficulty.
Your heavenly Father put the desire for His glory in your heart by the Holy Spirit. He will deepen this desire and fulfill it, and He will do so precisely through the difficulty which makes you feel like you’re going to flatline. This difficulty, all the difficulties which confront us in the Christian life, are not hindrances in God’s plans for you; they are means by which God will bring His plans to fruition. We can easily lose sight of this truth in light of popular interpretations of one of Scripture's clearest teachings of it, Jeremiah 29:11
This verse has to be one of the most misused if not outright abused passages in all of holy Scripture. God tells his people that his plans for them are to prosper them and not to harm them, to give them a hope and a future. So often, we interpret this passage in terms of what we might call individualized earthly prosperity: personal peace and happiness with regard to the circumstances in this world – having to do with marriage and family, work, health, wealth, whatever. These are good things, but the problem arises when we think that they are guaranteed things – and especially when we think that this passage provides that guarantee. But that is not in any way how the original audience would have heard these words. Nor, therefore, is it how we should hear and apply them today.
The people of Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s day had been conquered by Babylon, and many of them dragged into captivity there. In the midst of all the sorrow and pain of captivity, certain prophets rose up among them and promised them that the pain would end soon, that they’d be going back home to Jerusalem. But the prophets were lying. The Lord tells Jeremiah to tell the people the hard truth that yes, they would go home, but not yet, not for a long time – not until seventy years were complete.
Imagine being one of the exiles and hearing that news. Seventy years would come and go before the people could return home. 70 years! When we read history, seventy years can pass in a paragraph. But as we live history, seventy years may in fact be the full expanse of our lives, or we might have far fewer years in this world. Think of the older people hearing this news. They were essentially learning that they were not going home. They would die in exile. Yes, the people of God as a whole would return to Jerusalem, to rebuild the destroyed temple, but not all of them would have the joy of that journey, the joy of that rebuilding work, the joy of going home.
And it’s on the heals of this heartbreak that God makes the famous promise which has been so infamously interpreted and applied. You can imagine people in the crowd thinking: “How is death in exile” a good plan and a hopeful future? Have you struggled with how to reconcile God's promise to prosper you with the painful situations you're facing? You look at your life’s circumstances, and you look at Jeremiah 29:11, and your heart says to God like a heartbroken child to a parent when fun plans fall apart: “But you promised!”
Jeremiah 29:11 does not promise you money, marriage, a job, a win at the meet, healing for you or a loved one, political freedom – all of which we tend to feel entitled to in this culture. And it is a good thing that this passage does not make those promises! If this passage promises individualized earthly prosperity, then when we don’t get it – when we don’t get the job, when the disease isn’t healed, when the bank says no – then we must either conclude that God broke His promise, or that somehow this promise depends upon our faithfulness to fulfill it - neither of which is true.
When we read this promise and others like it through the lens of individualized earthly prosperity, we begin to wonder what pains in our lives are the direct result of our personal sin. When hardship comes, do you find yourself in light of this passage or others like it, unable to stop asking the question: is this my fault? Did I cause this?
Sometimes the answer is yes. The reason God’s people were in captivity was their collective unfaithfulness to Him over so many generations. And in our lives - if I continually lie to you, then it’s no wonder I have a hard time getting you to trust me. If I keep lying to you, then when I tell you that I’m actually 6’4” but just have really bad posture, you might not believe me. And that would be terrible!
However, there is not always a direct relationship between our personal sin and the pain we find in our lives. God does not play manipulative mind games with us – making us guess and worry about what’s our fault and what’s not. He gives us His Word as our guide. We need not live the Christian life in a state of paranoia. We need not look for a sin behind every sneeze, ours or that of others! Besides being socially awkward - when someone sneezes, instead of saying: “Bless you” we say: “Sinner!” – it’s just a bad understanding of how God works and what God reveals, based usually on bad interpretations of biblical passages like Jeremiah 29:11.
Times of hardship do encourage a hard look at our hearts – am I facing this difficulty with humility? Is this hardship bringing out sin in me which needs to be dealt with? While we need not look for a sin behind every sneeze, in the ultimate sense, we all caused every instance of misery in this world. The fact is, pain is in the world because sin is in the world. In our first father, Adam, we rebelled against the God who placed us in paradise. Rebellion against a righteous, good God who give us life, means death. Every bitter tear, every bad-news X-ray, every betrayal and broken heart, – every famine and every violently active fault line is an aftershock of our rebellion in Eden. And we amplify those aftershocks in our time when we sin willingly.
We must admit our fall in Adam, but as God’s people we must also affirm our forgiveness in the second Adam – Jesus Christ. And it is precisely that salvation to which God points His people in this passage. Verses 12-14: “You will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me. When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and 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."
Christian, you know this in the depths of your being: God Himself is the great object of your heart’s seeking. Take heart! God supplies what our hearts seek. He gives Himself to us, and He even supplies the seeking! Two chapters later, in Jeremiah 31, God promises to provide the new heart by which we seek Him, and by which in His grace we find Him.
In Jeremiah’s day, God was purifying for Himself a people, a church, and He’s doing the same thing today, in and through every delightful and difficult detail of life. Some 600 years after Jeremiah’s letter, Peter refers to his New Testament Christian readers as, wait for it, exiles. Elect exiles – sons and daughters of God who live as strangers in a sin-filled world.
Christians are in this world as exiles, away from our home in heaven, daily feeling the effects of our sin in Adam and yet alive and growing in the grace of the second Adam. As our culture contemplated recently, but as Christians ought to publicly celebrate each Lord’s Day, the second Adam is risen from the dead and He is Lord! And, he is coming back! We are closer to his return than when you first started reading this sentence.
In the meantime, the Lord has work for us to do. This work is not defined by achieving individualized earthly prosperity; it’s work which may result in the total loss of it. It’s foreshadowed in the work of the exiles who eventually did return to Jerusalem. We’re here to participate in the building of God’s true temple.
Whether or not a particular believer made the journey back to Jerusalem, the big picture to which that faithful life contributed, is the Lord’s building His church – His family, His temple – the ultimate fulfillment of this promise and prophecy. 1 Peter 2:5: “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
The individualized earthly prosperity view of Jeremiah 29:11 blinds us to one of the most fundamental and freeing truths of this promise. Something we often miss when interpreting and applying Jeremiah 29:11, is that the “You” is plural. “I know the plans I have for YOU…” “Y’all” or if you’re from Pittsburgh where I live, it’s “Yiunz guys.” In this promise, God addresses the church. Yes, the individuals who comprise the corporate body, but fundamentally and most essentially, the church as the corporate body. He gives them the big picture which their individual lives and circumstances help to paint, the picture which your life as a child of God helps to complete for his glory.
When difficulties in our lives drive us to despair, Jeremiah 29:11 reminds us that we are not alone, and that we are part of a process way bigger than we are and more glorious than even the full assembly of God’s saints from throughout history could together comprehend. Every cutting disappointment and difficulty we face in this life is part of the Lord’s sculpting and fitting us into his spiritual house, nestled in right next to the rest of our family in Christ. Together we comprise the building which Christ will one day complete and reveal as the universe’s most spectacular display of the glory of the triune God. Thanks be to God! What prosperity, what a hope and what a future!