'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 29:11
It's graduation season which means it's time to buy graduation cards for your favorite high school and college graduates. If you plan on buying a card with a religious message there is a very good chance that Jeremiah 29:11 will be on it somewhere. While it is sometimes difficult to find a card without Jeremiah 29:11, I make it a point to not buy any cards that have it on them. Why? Because usually it is used in a way that misses the actual meaning of the verse.
Typically, especially in the context of someone graduating and embarking on their next stage in life, this verse is understood to be a promise that God is going to bless them on their journey and that He has a great plan for their life. While I do believe God has a plan for His people and that ultimately it is for our good (Romans 8:28) that's not the point of Jeremiah 29:11. Too often people read this verse through the lens of a Christianized American Dream thinking of it as a promise of a great job, big house, fast car, and a beautiful spouse. The reality though is that Jeremiah 29:11 has absolutely nothing to do with the material and earthly success of individuals. The true meaning is actually something far greater than that.
Context of Jeremiah 29:11To find the meaning of Jeremiah 29:11 we first have to figure out who the Lord is actually speaking to in it. The broader context of Jeremiah 29 makes clear that this promise was given to a group of people living in exile in Babylon. In the previous verses there is no feel good promise of immediate return to Israel. Instead the basic message from God to the people in 29:5-6 is get comfortable because you are going to be there awhile. In fact the Lord specifies they will be there for 70 years which means that most of the people who originally received the message of Jeremiah 29:11 were actually going to die in exile in a foreign land. Far from promising worldly success, Jeremiah 29 actually promised oppression to its original readers but with the command to make the best of it.
Message of Jeremiah 29:11The most important thing about any Bible passage is what we can learn about God from it. In Jeremiah 29:11, we learn something truly amazing, God doesn’t give up on His people despite their failures. The reason that the Jews were in exile to begin with was their continued disobedience and rebellion against God. The Lord rightly sent them into exile, but He still had a plan for them and it was to bless and prosper them. The Lord would have been just in wiping them out on numerous occasions throughout the Old Testament, but He didn't break the promises He had made to them. As one who daily struggles with sin it is a comforting thought to know that despite my unworthiness and failures the Lord will not give up on me and that He still has a wonderful hope and future planned. The question though is what is that hope and future? In the original context that hope and future meant a return home from exile for the Jewish people, and I think that is exactly the meaning it has for Christians today as well.
A Greater Hope and Future Many may think the hope and future God has in store for us is a prosperous earthly life, but it's actually something that will make the greatest fulfillment of the American Dream seem utterly insignificant. To understand the hope and future God has planned for us we need to understand the historical context of exile that serves as the backdrop for Jeremiah 29:11. As bad as the 70 year exile the people in Jeremiah's day were suffering, the entire human race has been suffering from a far greater and longer exile than that.
C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity says that human beings were designed by God to need Him. He writes "He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on." To thrive or prosper as a human being God must be central because that is how we were designed. Lewis continues "God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there.” The sad reality though is that while the first humans were created to intimately dwell in the presence of God, the rest of the human race has been living in a self created exile from God's presence. Ever since the human rebellion first began in the Garden of Eden we have been separated from the only source that can bring true human prosperity. The great promise of Jeremiah 29:11 is not earthly success but the wonderful promise that the exile will end. One day, just as the Jewish people eventually returned to their homeland, those who trust in Christ will return to humanity's proper home which is the very presence of God.
The Message to GraduatesGraduates should understand Jeremiah 29:11 in light of 1 Peter 2:11 where Peter tells Christians that we are exiles and sojourners in this world. When we realize we are in exile too we can begin to see that the hope and future we are promised awaits us after the exile ends. In the mean time we have the responsibility to live in the exile for the One who will prosper us when it does finally end. Instead of pursuing worldly pleasure this means at times that we may actually need to abstain from them as Peter commands so that we can better serve the One who our hope is in. The message of Jeremiah 29:11 to graduates is not if you trust God enough He will make all of your plans and dreams come true, instead the message is that the hope and future you desire is God Himself and that nothing in this world will truly satisfy you. On second thought maybe Jeremiah 29:11 is a good message for graduates…