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You’ve probably experienced this situation before. A relationship ends, or you lose your job. Or maybe you’ve been praying for an opportunity in a certain area and your prayers seem to go unanswered.
Perhaps you don’t get that promotion or that job interview, or you have to endure long-term singleness or infertility. This seems to go on forever and might even leave you in a wilderness.
Maybe you wonder why this is the case. You certainly prayed about it and committed your plans to God. However, the door seems firmly shut. Then someone else tries to offer their advice about the situation. They tell you something along the lines of how maybe God is closing that door because he knows you wouldn’t be happy there. Or that he has something better for you in store. They’ll assure you that one day you’ll look back upon this time and see how it wasn’t the best choice after all.
Then, in all likelihood, they’ll typically tell you they have this verse for you that maybe you’ve never come across. And lo and behold, it will turn out to be Jeremiah 29:11 yet again.
Sigh. You’ve heard that verse a million times before.
Is it always the case that God is going to replace that thing you lost or failed to gain with something better? Will you, for example, get a more prestigious job that pays more or makes you happier than the one you lost or the one you missed out on with that interview?
Will you actually find someone better that God has intended for you than all those other potential relationships that either ended or where the person rejected you?
Is that long-term singleness or joblessness simply because God was saving you for someone or something better?
When God closes a door, is there always something better in store?
What do we mean by “better”?
Now sometimes it may be that God does have something better in store for us. He delays answering our prayers to bless us with a better thing. For example, Ruth Bell Graham, the wife of the late Billy Graham has been quoted many times saying
“God has not always answered my prayers. If He had, I would have married the wrong man — several times!”
However, this is not always the case. There isn’t the promise that our present earthly circumstances will definitely be better than what they are now or what they were before. Things won’t always improve in this life. Sometimes they may even get worse.
Jesus says in Matthew 6:19-21
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
If we live in the expectation that things will get better, we can begin to put our hope in the things of this world. We can end up bitterly disappointed and crushed if we were waiting on a better life. It may seem that God hasn’t come through on this after numerous delays. As a result, we can begin to question his goodness and faithfulness.
In his book God on Mute, author Pete Greig, the founder of the 24-7 prayer movement, writes:
“Many people are shattered when their prayers are not answered. Often, they begin to doubt God. Sometimes we patch these people up with a few words of comfort or even counselling and some bland comments about God moving in mysterious ways when what they really need is biblical teaching about what it means to be a Christian. Perhaps when they became Christians, they were told that God was going to make all their problems disappear, or perhaps they just assumed this.”
Often these words of comfort take the form of Jeremiah 29:11, which Christians will quote as an assurance that things are going to improve. But is this verse really that sort of promise?
What about Jeremiah 29:11?
Jeremiah 29:11 says:
“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.”
Many Christians often use this as a life verse. They view it as a promise that things will definitely get better in our time spent here on earth. A hope of a brighter future when it comes to material things. They take it as a sign that God is eventually going to prosper you by giving you a job, a relationship, that long-hoped-for prayer you’ve been waiting on.
But that’s not what the verse is about. The original context of this was God speaking to a nation, not to an individual.
In the book of Jeremiah, this verse is actually part of an ominous message spoken by the prophet. It’s not part of a hopeful word as such, but more of a warning.
When Jeremiah spoke this, he had two groups in mind. Those Israelites who were exiled into captivity in Babylon, and a remnant of Israelites who were left behind in Jerusalem. The remnant believed that because they survived, this was evidence that they were blessed by God. However, those who were taken away were under God’s judgment. Likewise, those in captivity had this same way of thinking. They believed God had cursed them while those who were living free were under God’s favour.
God wanted to show that this was not the case. He would also judge the remnant just as he would still fulfil his purposes through the captives.
When Jeremiah speaks this verse into this situation, God is saying that He knows exactly what he has planned for the exiles. He can see ahead into the future.
The fact that they are in captivity is all part of His overall plan and isn’t merely an accident. Although their return from exile won’t happen anytime in their own generation, this situation won’t last forever. However, their overall hope and future is not ultimately something that will be met through a better future here on this earth.
Instead, it’s in a person – the coming Messiah, Jesus.
Notice that the promise to them wasn’t that things would even improve in their lifetime. That generation of exiles would still die in captivity. But that was not where their hope should lie. They needed to look beyond that and not fix their eyes on their present circumstances.
Where does our hope lie?
We must read Jeremiah’s message in the larger context of the hope that we have in Christ, and all of God’s purposes that are fulfilled in Him.
Jeremiah 29:11 is not a promise of a bright future as far as some of the earthly things you may seek. It’s certainly not a promise of success or material wealth, as often preached by Prosperity Gospel speakers. In fact, we may very well suffer in this life and live in poverty, singleness, unemployment, barrenness etc.
We can make things into idols in our lives and feel that we can’t live without them.
In his book Counterfeit gods, Tim Keller defines an idol as:
“… something we cannot live without… It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give. A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.”
Above all, God wants us to put him first in our lives. No other gods before him. It’s easy to allow relationships, jobs, money etc to become idols that we feel we can’t live without.
We may never overcome our long-term singleness while here on this earth. It may be that God never replaces all the ones who got away with someone better that God intended for you.
But don’t despair.
Both Hebrews 11:13 and 1 Peter 2:11 tells us that, once we are in Christ, we are also strangers and exiles in a foreign land. However, like the Israelites, God also has a plan for us. But this plan does not lie in earthy treasures here.
The hope of Jeremiah 29:11 is that God wants to give us a hope and a future in Christ.
Next time you sing that worship song “Sovereign Over Us”, you need to sing the lyrics in the context of the hope of Christ who is our anchor, and not with the expectation that God is necessarily going to turn your situation around.
In Philippians 3:18-20, Paul tells us that our true citizenship is in heaven and not here.
18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame.Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Our hopes and dreams in this life may not come to fruition. God may not answer some of our prayers for material things. However, our hope lies in our future in Jesus Christ. We have the hope of the resurrection one day when God transforms us in glory into the likeness of Christ.
If we quote Jeremiah 29:11 to someone in their time of anguish, we should do so not to offer them the hope of a better future in this life. Otherwise that is offering false hope. However, if we’re pointing them to the idea that there is hope beyond this life, then by all means give them that verse.
But if you are indeed saying that their sufferings aren’t going to last forever because of a future glory, why not give them Romans 8:18 instead?
18 “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
If you do use Jeremiah 29:11 to assure someone, then I think it’s necessary to explain the context, otherwise it can lead to the misunderstandings and wrong assumptions I’ve discussed above.
God does have something better in store for us if he closes a door. But that is the hope of heaven. It is not necessarily the hope or promise that God will replace the thing we lost with something of equal or better value.
The “better” thing is our eternal hope. In the meantime, God is working out his purposes in us. He wants to make us more like Christ, and to renew our minds each day so that we put him first and learn to love him above all else.
Have you often read Jeremiah 29:11 as a promise of a better life here on this earth? Are you surprised to discover what its original intention was and the hope it actually points to?
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Robert is the founder of Drawing on the Word. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Theology and a Master’s degree in Systematic Theology. He also has a degree in Law and was called to the Bar. Robert previously taught religious studies and was a theology lecturer. He is an artist, musician and writer, and has created a graphic novel version of Luke’s gospel. You can follow him below.