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.
Lately I’ve been reading a fascinating book about misquoted or misinterpreted Bible passages, and I’m finding that I’m learning a lot about things that I thought I knew. Context is actually super-important in the Bible– who knew??
To start this story from the beginning: so I started working with a new church last week, Belmont UMC, in downtown Nashville. It’s fabulous, there’s a choir of 40-ish people who have a stunning sound, and the church has gorgeous organ in a beautiful sanctuary, and I’m singing alto with the choir on top of my other intern duties. Also, last weekend I was on an overnight retreat with the youth choir– 25 hours straight with 25 teenagers, in the wilderness. A friend asked if we saw any wild animals; my response was “well, does a couple dozen teenagers hopped up on chocolate and junk food count?” We agreed that the answer was definitely, yes.
Also, this past week the campus ministry started up, we had 34 students come to our first worship service, which was pretty exciting. We have a few logistical things to iron out for week two, but we are in really good shape with this campus ministry, and will be even better once the outreach and missions work that these students do starts up in a few weeks. The opportunities these students have to do so much good in their community through this United Methodist ministry is really exciting.
All that to say, this past week eeeeverything has started up. And all the services that have started up, are doing back-to-school things, especially geared towards new or returning students, since both ministries are such a part of the Belmont University community.
So for the past week or so, I’ve been hearing messages about new beginnings, and about trusting in God’s plans, and I just happened to read a discussion about this passage in Jeremiah right about the same time.
Most people use this passage as a way to reassure themselves and others that if they’re good enough Christians, then God will make sure their lives are prosperous and full, that they’ll have a hopeful future, and all of their dreams will be realized. But if we look at the context, that’s not at all what this passage is saying.
God is addressing the people who have been exiled from Jerusalem, and is basically telling them “Yes, you’ll be wandering the deserts for 70 years. Most of the people who have started this journey will not see the end of it, you will die while in exile. So, here’s a message of hope for you to pass on to your descendants.”
That’s crazy– to have your lives absolutely ruined, forced to leave your home forever, and then to hear that message from God and to understand that it’s part of His plan for you to live in exile, and die in exile. And your reaction is to trust him that the same future is not His plan for your children or grandchildren.
When we talk about this quote and apply it to our daily lives, we’re talking about how great God is going to make our lives because we believe in him. He has “plans” for us to “prosper”, and “plans to give you hope and a future.” That’s awesome! But by forgetting the context within which He is making this promise, it makes the promise completely superficial and indeed, the opposite of its intentions. He is promising a future for the faithful who last 70 years of suffering and exile from their homeland. He is telling these people that while it’s their fate to die in exile, if they are faithful and they teach their children and grandchildren to also be, that He has plans for their future.
So of course this makes me wonder– what if God was saying this to me? Instead of the happy-go-lucky superficial meaning I always attributed to this passage, how would my faith fare if God was telling me, “Listen, the rest of your life is going to totally suck. If you are faithful through all of this, I have the most wonderful plans for your children and grandchildren, but you’re not gonna see any of it.” Would my faith stand that test, or would it crumble?
Right now, God has opened many, many doors in my life, and I am trusting him and walking through every single one, despite my uncomfortableness with some of them, despite some of my serious moments of doubt over the past couple of weeks, because I know that it is what He wants, and that it will be for the best. And I wonder– is my faith only so strong because I know his plan is working towards the future he has for me? What if He told me that it wasn’t a hope-filled future that I had to look forward to, and still asked for my unwavering faith?
What would your answer be?