We Christians love Jeremiah 29:11. We hear it quoted from the pulpit, we use it to encourage our friends and ourselves when life doesn't make sense. We see it on mugs and artwork and jewelry- on pretty much anything remotely Christian. It's a great go-to bible verse when we need some comfort and inspiration, but honestly I've always sensed we were missing part of the message. Have you read the verses before and after it? Go ahead and read Jeremiah 29:1-14.
Many of us love to quote Jeremiah 29:11 divorced from its context, but I have also spoken to some Christians who are so tired of hearing this verse and have said our tendency to apply it to our lives is misguided, given that these words were written to the exiles.
I am of the view that neither of these attitudes are accurate or beneficial. We should absolutely memorize scripture and use it to fight against temptation, discouragement, and falsehood (Jesus modeled this for us in Matthew 4:1-11). However, we must understand these verses in the appropriate context in order to use them most effectively. On the other hand, the notion that a portion of scripture is not relevant to us because it was written for people in circumstances different than ours is unfortunate at best, treacherous at worst. This thinking would essentially negate our application of all scripture- being that it was written about and to people with unique experiences in a different cultural context. If we excise the parts that feel unrelated to us, where does it end? All of God's Word is relevant because His Word reveals His heart.
So, with all of that in mind, let’s unpack Jeremiah 29:11 and the verses surrounding it.
We have (most likely) never been exiled from our homeland, but we can discern God’s message to his people and apply it to our own lives when we consider the characteristics of exile:
▪ A place (literally or figuratively) that is foreign – separation from what is comfortable and familiar; loss of identity, freedom, home, family
▪ A place of oppression and/or opposition
▪ Circumstances when our faith and/or our commitment to the Lord are tested
We observe these experiences in the stories of many of those who lived in exile (for example Joseph, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Esther)
In my bible the chapter heading reads- “A Letter to the Exiles”. I think a great subheading for verses one to fourteen would be “The Israelite’s Guide to Living in Exile”. God gives His people instructions about what to do (and what not to do) while they are in Babylon. We can apply these directives to our own experiences of waiting, trial, and suffering.
Drawing from Jeremiah 29:1-14, there are five things we can learn about how to live in hard seasons:
1) Keep on living and thriving
“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.” (Jeremiah 29:5-6)
The Israelites are instructed to make lives for themselves and continue to flourish. When faced with difficulty and uncertainty, we can be so overwhelmed and consumed by our troubles that we put our lives on hold. God is telling us that we are to still be fruitful in hard times. The nature of fruit is that you must sow something in order to have a harvest. If we are to be fruitful, we cannot allow ourselves to neglect our purpose, community, and ministry. Self-pity and self-loathing will paralyze us. You need to keep on working and sowing into whatever God has given you – no matter how mundane or insignificant it seems.
2) Do not succumb to resentment and bitterness
“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.” (Jeremiah 29:7)
Maybe you’re in a job you despise, a difficult marriage, or a dysfunctional family. Whatever the context or whoever the perpetrator of our hard seasons, we are to pursue peace. It is incredibly difficult to rise above feelings of discontentment, anger, and disappointment. It may even seem unfair and illogical to seek peace with those who are opposed to us. However, in God’s economy, it is those of us who choose harmony over strife who are prosperous: “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” (James 3:17-18, emphasis mine) We cannot harbor bitterness in our hearts and also live at peace with others. If we are wise, we will seek the well-being of those around us, even those who are opposed to us.
3) Discern the voice of God
“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 29:8)
No one wants to live in exile. No one enjoys waiting and trials. It is easy in hard seasons to become so desperate for relief and answers that we are willing to trade the truth for a lie. If someone speaks into your life, ensure that what they are declaring over you is in alignment with God’s Word before you take it to heart. If help or comfort is offered to you, consider if it is truly beneficial. God will not act or speak in contradiction to His character and will. The Lord has revealed His nature to us through His word, and this will not change: “Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:16-17, emphasis mine) Ultimately, our rescue comes from God, no matter what form it takes. Our faith and hope should be in the Lord alone.
4) This too shall pass
“When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 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.” (Jeremiah 29:10-11)
Honestly, I always cringe when someone says, “this too shall pass”. It isn’t the most sensitive response to someone who is in the midst of a hard season. But the fact is, that is the truth. God tells Israel that they will be in exile for 70 years. Nothing lasts forever, and more importantly; God uses even the most heart breaking, unjust, and impossible situations for his glory and our good. We can be honest and candid about our struggles, but we should also recognize we have hope in Christ. Nothing is wasted in God’s hands. Whether our hard season is unfairly forced upon us or is a result of our own wrong choices, we can be assured that “His anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5, emphasis mine)
5) God’s presence is the greatest blessing
“Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to 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…” (Jeremiah 29:12-14a)
It is in the hard seasons of my life that I most clearly see God’s hand, experience His presence, and become more Christ-like. Dark times propel us forward in our faith because we seek the Light of our salvation. We are no longer distracted by our own affluence and plans. We are humbled and open to hear the voice of God. The natural result of being at our Father’s feet is worship and spiritual growth: “Blessed and greatly favored are those who dwell in Your house and Your presence; they will be singing Your praises all the day long. Blessed and greatly favored is the man whose strength is in You...They go from strength to strength [increasing in victorious power].” (Psalm 84:4-5,7 AMP) You can be certain that if you remain in close communion with the Lord during every season, you will experience a deeper knowledge of and love for Him.
I hope that the next time you hear someone quote Jeremiah 29:11, you have a richer understanding of God’s heart toward us and will for us in times of waiting and trial. I pray that in your hard seasons you will seek His presence wholeheartedly, for therein lies the hope and future He promises us.