Sometimes we turn Bible verses into bumper stickers. While I’d prefer to see Scripture on bumpers instead of some of the stickers I see, it’s really not a fair reading of a rich and complex story to lift single sentences out of their Biblical and historical context. To be fair, we all do it. I’ve done it, and I have professional training that taught me not to do it.
It’s not necessarily harmful when our bumper sticker version doesn’t contrast too strongly with a more thoughtful reading. But sometimes, we form an entire belief system out of a single verse in a way that isn’t true to the message.
For example, consider Jeremiah 29:11: “Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
I wager it’s the most common Bible verse shared with high school graduates. It’s a passage we turn to when we are anxious about major transition points in life. And please hear me: it is not wrong to do so. Those words are true! But they aren’t meant to be a convenient security blanket.
It’s worth remembering the Biblical and historical context: Jeremiah wasn’t speaking to people who were walking from success into success. His audience was not on the doorstep of greatness. On the contrary: the people of Israel were in big trouble. They found themselves captive, taken from their home by the invading army of Babylon.
To make matters worse, the Israelites themselves were responsible for their own situation. God had warned them repeatedly on matters of faith and obedience, and the consequences of their choices came to pass.
Understandably, the Israelites wanted nothing more than to go back home and rebuild their nation. The false prophet Hananiah tried to comfort the people with promises that God would bring Israel back home within two years.
Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen.
Jeremiah called out Hananiah as a fake and then delivered the famous promise of Jeremiah 29:11. But prior to verse 11 are verses 5 and 6, where God calls on the people to build homes, plant gardens, get married, and raise families. In verse 7, God says, “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.”
The short version? “Sit tight and trust me, because you aren’t going anywhere, anytime soon.”
When you are in pain, “sit tight” is the last thing you want to hear. We want pain to end and now isn’t soon enough. But God’s direction is not only to sit tight, but to thrive where they are and to bless their captors.
Just prior to the good news of verse 11, verse 10 lands like a rock: “Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.”
Ouch. No wonder Hananiah found willing ears. Two years feels a lot better than seventy. If Jeremiah’s words were true, some of them would never see home again.
Only then does God speak the words we know so well: “Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
Author Mary DeMuth explains the core of this passage: “God’s heart in Jeremiah 29:11 is not that we escape our lot, but that we learn to thrive in the midst of it.” (Read more here.)
Sometimes, good news can be hard to hear.
The good news: God has a plan. The part that’s hard to hear: God’s plan is not to make our plans certain.
The good news: God has a purpose. The part that’s hard to hear: God’s purpose is much bigger than our personal happiness right here, right now.
The good news: God is always working with a hopeful future in mind for us. The part that’s hard to hear: we have to struggle through and wait while the consequences of our choices play out.
The good news: we are not forgotten and we are never alone. The part that’s hard to hear: God’s faithfulness doesn’t make hard things easy.
The good news: resurrection is coming. The part that’s hard to hear: there’s a cross and a grave to get through first.
The good news: joy comes in the morning. The part that’s hard to hear: you have to make it through the night.
Jeremiah 29:11 is true and worthy of our faith. But it’s a complex, nutrient rich meal for our soul…. not a piece of candy for our lips.
So during our right here, right now struggles, remember the good news, but don’t forget the part that’s hard to hear.
Because good news without the part that’s hard to hear probably isn’t good news after all, and our God is a God of good news.