[This article first appeared here in the Zimbabwe Sunday Mail on 4th December 2016.]
[Featured image is ‘House of False Hope’ by Corene Werhane.]
Jeremiah 29:11 – “’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.’ (NIV)
“It’s OK” she told me, “I know I’m not going to get sick”.
She thought she had just exposed herself to infection so I was surprised by her confidence. “How do you know you won’t get sick?” I asked her.
“Jeremiah 29:11”, she replied. “God says he has plans to prosper me and NOT to harm me”, so I won’t get sick. I KNOW it.”
When someone is so sure that God has said something to them which he hasn’t said, a theological argument isn’t usually the way to go. Preferable perhaps to stick around people like that because sooner or later their faith is going to take a huge hit when God appears to be breaking his promise and they will need a friend to reassure them that yes, God DOES keep his promises. We just need to know what those promises are before we claim them.
This verse is misused by people expecting healing, a new job, a better job or resolution to a variety of life’s problems. It’s used as a false reassurance to people who are afraid that something horrible is going to happen to them, “It’s OK, [bad thing] isn’t going to happen – remember Jeremiah 29:11”.
THE GRAIN OF TRUTH
For God to be God, it is true that he knows the plans that he has for his people. For God to
be a good God those plans are going to be for their benefit. Paul the Apostle says as much in Romans 8:28 – “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose”.
It’s also true that God is a healer, and that miracles do happen. The Bible encourages us to pray in faith for healing, and in many cases that healing does happen when we have faith in who we are praying to. God has answered “yes” to many of my practical prayers, including prayers for healing.
WHY IT DOESN’T MEAN WHAT PEOPLE WANT IT TO MEAN
However, the fact that a sovereign God blesses his people doesn’t mean that a sovereign God will bless you in any way that you want him to, whenever you want him to, or that you can never come to physical, mental, financial or emotional harm.
Paul the Apostle asked God for healing and God said no.
Jesus – God himself – prayed to his Father in heaven not to have to go through with the crucifixion and God the Father said no.
Of the 12 original disciples one killed himself, one died in exile and the other 10 were murdered. None of them wanted to be martyred – they simply accepted it when it happened.
And they all died in poverty.
If you are considering becoming a Christian in the hope of suffering less, then I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed. If – as God commands – you have confessed your sinfulness, asked God for forgiveness and are trusting in what Jesus has done on the cross to make that happen…well, that’s not a change of heart that you can be driven to by a desire for money or wanting less suffering. Wanting money can make you say things like “I love Jesus!” or “I accept Jesus in my heart!”, but it can never drive you to be sorry to God that you are a sinner.
So if someone wants you to attend a meeting, belong to a church, listen to ‘sermons’ or whatever because through it God will make you well again, or rich, you would be better off staying at home and reading your Bible and praying to God on your own.
What was the context of Jeremiah 29:11? A false prophet had prophesied good things to the Jews, saying that they would be freed from captivity within two years, assuring them that this was God’s word to them…but it wasn’t.
Jeremiah had to break it to them that it would be 70 years, not two years, before they could go home. On God’s behalf Jeremiah then wrote to the exiles in Babylon – torn from their families with all of them suffering grief and displacement, poverty and enslavement. God promised to bring them back home and while they were suffering they needed to remember that their prayers would one day be answered and he would bring them back as he promised, “For I know the plans…” etc…
So we have here a 2,500 year old promise by God to return his people from Babylon to Jerusalem (much later than they wanted), and his encouragement for them to have faith because they know that he is a loving faithful God who keeps his promises. You can’t twist that into, “Whatever good I want to happen, God has promised that it will happen”.
WHY THE TRUTH IS BETTER THAN THE LIE
The Jews were given good news that turned out to be a lie from a man pretending to speak for God (who died as a result). What God promised them was much better than simply going home to Israel – he promised that he would listen to their prayers, and that they would know him when they were determined to find him more than just wanting gifts from him.
All of us would like to have more than we have, and to be protected from all possible harm, to get the promotion we feel we deserve, and to be able to set our children up in life with some security. Or simply to get through life with a little bit of comfort and security. God doesn’t say we shouldn’t pray for any of that, but he offers us something far superior: himself.
He promised the Israelites that they would have him, just as his worst curse on them was to say that he would no longer be with them and no longer be their God if they continued to worship false gods and mistreat the poor. The last line of the prophet Ezekiel promises a city called, ‘The Lord is there’, and Revelation speaks of a city that needs no lighting because the mere presence of God provides all the light we’ll need.
Before we get there he lives in his people, making them more like him, helping them want to be with him, to like what he likes and hate what he hates, never leaving us alone for a second.
In the meantime we will struggle in all sorts of ways and get sick from time to time, just like the woman who left my office certain of her immunity from sickness. She didn’t get sick from the infection she told me about. But she’s been ill many times since.
Just like Jesus.
Just like the apostles.
Just like you and me.
The real question is, can you say that the Lord is with you as your Lord and Saviour?
Not because you want him to do things for you, but because you want him?