As a teenager in the 90’s at a non-denominational, evangelical megachurch, I joined several prominent movements among the youth of that day. I signed a “purity pledge” to go be strung on a pole at some national event, I wore a “promise ring” and I had a life verse. Far from in depth studies of context in scripture, single verses or groups of verses formed the content of our Bible studies, our youth group talks, and the sermons we heard on Sunday mornings (and evenings for the very spiritual among us). I was hooked on church and the independence it gave me as it was one of the few places I went regularly without my parents (at least for Sunday evening service, Wednesday evening youth group, and Friday evening cell group meetings).
I felt like I’d discovered my life verse on my own while reading, but its prominent placement on merchandise in every Christian bookstore makes me think I probably didn’t. Depending on your background, you probably know the one I mean. Yes, it was 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” (NIV). And yes, you read that right, I’d landed at one of those progressive mega churches. By progessive I mean they’d moved all the way from the New King James to the NIV.
And I wasn’t alone in this shared verse, like so many other approaches to individuality, we somehow had all ended up with something almost identical. And while we talked about the hope it gave us etc, I never remember talking about Jeremiah 29:10. You know, the one where Jeremiah is delivering the message to the nation of Israel that the exile they found themselves currently in was going to be seventy years long.
Yes, God has plans for your future. Some of those plans mean you might die in exile. The plans for the future are communal, sweeping, future-oriented and not necessarily interpreted as good news to those longing for a return to their homeland.
Putting this in our context today, it’s not that God doesn’t have plans to give you a future and to give you hope, it’s that some of our hope is eschatalogical. This means some of it involves understanding the hope that comes from knowing that in the end, God makes all things new. In the end, justice is served to everyone, and that justice is God’s merciful justice. In the end, relationships are restored between us and God, between each other, and between us and creation. All things are made new.
And we are in the midst of that in some ways, striving for shalom: for right relationships, striving towards renewal of creation, striving for justice and human thriving. But this work began long before us and will go on after us, only coming to completion in the new earth.
It’s not that plans to give you a future and a hope can’t be read on an individual level, it’s that as Bryan Stevenson put it, “We have no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity” (Just Mercy, p. 290). If you go back a couple more verses in chapter twenty-nine, you find instructions for the people to settle down, plant gardens, get married, and learn to thrive where they are, even though it’s not where they wanted to be. There are specific instructions to “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” (Jer. 29:7 NRSV).
So while comfort can be gained in the idea of God’s plan, the plan is an overarching one that involves all of humanity, and may involve times of learning to grow where we didn’t want to be planted. That and the knowledge that things can get really bad, but God will ultimately make all things new. I find peace and comfort in those thoughts in the midst of turbulent times and a sense of being part of a story that is bigger than myself, which is something I was missing as a teenager: clinging to this tiny sliver of Scripture, extracted from its context and therefore robbed of a much fuller and richer meaning that helps one navigate our complex world that is brutal and beautiful not even by turns, but all at the same time depending on where you look.