A few months back, a bunch of my friends started sharing the same article on Facebook. It was a blog post about a cliche that Christians throw around, namely, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” The author pointed out that yes, sometimes we are given more than we can handle, that said cliche does not appear anywhere in the Bible, that what the Bible is talking about is the temptation to sin, not the burdens and hardships of life (take a look for yourself; it’s 1 Corinthians 10:13). Apparently a lot of people agreed with him; when I went looking for the original article on Google, I found lots of similar blog posts that followed a similar theme. I think I found the original one, but apparently it struck a nerve.
Today I wanted to talk about another verse that’s been twisted into a cliche. It’s a verse that featured prominently in my novella Gauntlet Goes to Prom.
This Bible verse seems tailor made for Hallmark. Actually, Hallmark isn’t the only one who uses this Bible verse this way. It’s a verse that gets trotted out whenever someone is facing a new stage of their future. We might jot this down inside the card of a student who is graduating from high school. Or we may say some version of this when someone is about to undergo a new, exciting venture.
I’m talking about Jeremiah 29:11—
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
It sounds so good and hopeful, doesn’t it? I almost feel like I should bust out the old ’80s classic “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” whenever I hear it. It sounds perfect for people, whether young or old, who are on the cusp of some brand new adventure. I’ll even admit that I once preached a sermon to a group of graduating seniors on this very verse because it seemed like the right message for them. God has a plan for you and your future! And it’s a good one, full of hope!
And while there may not appear to be anything wrong with that sentiment on the surface, that’s not what that Bible verse is saying. Not at all. And to understand why, we have to look at its context.
Context Is King
When the prophet Jeremiah wrote those words on God’s behalf, he wasn’t addressing a group of graduating seniors. No, he was writing to a group of people who had been brutally uprooted from their homes and forced to march to a foreign land where they were basically prisoners. He was writing to the Jewish Exiles.
In 597 BC, the Babylonian Empire invaded the Southern Kingdom of Judah and laid siege to their capital city of Jerusalem. You can read about it in the Bible in 2 Kings 24:10-16. In the process, they took a number of people into exile and forced them to settle in the city of Babylon.
The Bible makes it very clear why this happened. The people of Judah had sinned repeatedly against God. He had sent prophets (like Jeremiah) to them, over and over again, with the same message: Stop. Repent. Return to Me and all can and will be forgiven. But the people of Judah didn’t stop. And so, eventually, God had to send Jeremiah with a harsher message: it’s all over. It’s too late. The time for punishment has come.
That first deportation in 597 BC was just the initial strike. As a result, a number of people found themselves as virtual prisoners in a foreign land. Naturally, they would have wanted to go home.
And apparently there were some so-called prophets who were telling them that that would happen. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel talk about them. These prophets were telling the exiles that their time in Babylon would be brief, just a few years, if that. “So don’t settle down, folks!” they said. “This will be over before you know it. Don’t look for jobs. And definitely don’t let your kids have a wedding here when they could just as easily wait a little bit and get married back in Jerusalem! God told me to tell you that we’re going home and we’re going home soon!”
Sounds good, right? Except God had never sent that message. That’s why, in Jeremiah 29, Jeremiah has the difficult duty of sending a harsh letter to the exiles in Babylon, one that dashes those hopes to pieces:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 29:4-9)
Jeremiah then goes on to tell them that God will leave them in the land of exile for seventy years. It’s after all of this, where God has dashed their dreams and hopes for a bright and rosy immediate future, that Jeremiah reveals that God does have a plan for them, a plan for hope and a future, but it might be a while before they see it.
Context is everything when it comes to understanding this verse about the plans God has. When those words were first written down, they were to a group of people who were going through a dark and painful time (to see how dark and painful, just take a peek at Psalm 137). These are people who aren’t optimistically looking to the future with a bucket of dreams and a ton of gumption. These are people who have been told, quite frankly, that their lives are going to suck and suck big time for quite a while.
The Future Sucks So Hard, I’m Going to Buy Hoover Stock
That’s why I get a little annoyed at how we modern Christians use this Bible verse. In its original context, I don’t think it was intended for the high school graduate when he or she is standing at the beginning of the exciting new chapter of their lives called college. No, it’d be better suited for that graduate when he or she has made it out of college but is now carrying a ton of student debt and they’re unable to find a job, so they’re forced to move in with mom and dad again.
This isn’t the verse to trot out when someone is starting out on some grand adventure. Instead, it’s better suited for that same person when they’ve crashed and burned.
This isn’t the verse for a young couple who are fresh, in love, and just married. Instead, it seems better suited for that same couple when their marriage falls apart in heartbreak and divorce.
For those who have just got bad news from the doctor, or those people who have lost their jobs, or those people who are trying to imagine their lives without someone significant in it anymore.
That’s what makes this verse more powerful. It’s the assurance that, even when our lives suck and suck hard, God is still in control. God is still working, even then, even when it seems like He’s not there. And that means that I do have hope and a future. It may not be the future I envisioned. It may not be the future I dreamed about. But God’s got it under control.
That may not make for a great Hallmark card, but then, life is too sloppy to be summed up in one pithy saying. Thankfully, we have a God who gives us hope and a future. And it is good.Are God's plans for us always sunshine and rainbows? A look at a popular passage from Jeremiah. Click To Tweet