Apparently, one of the most popular verses in the whole Bible is that one in Jeremiah 29: “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…” You see it on bumper stickers, devotional daily notes and we often send it to other Christians as an encouraging reminder that God knows and cares about their uncertain future.
But there’s one slight issue with that application: the “you” is plural. It was originally given to a nation, not an individual.As you probably know, it concerns the return of the nation of Israel from exile:. Here’s the context:
“This is what the Lord says: ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my good promise to bring you back to this place. 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. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.’” (Jer 29:10-14)
So can we really use it individually?
Of course we can. God’s love and care for us is infinitely precise. “Lo, I am with you always” “Are you not more valuable than many sparrows?” Even the knowledge of the number of hairs on our head is a metaphor for the closeness of that interest!
But when we use the verse, it’s just worth remembering that what God is doing in and through your life is bigger than you are.
The word “through” is important there. He even has plans for other people that are brought into being through your life and obedience!
And if you really ponder the Jeremiah passage and let it soak into the way you live, then even the long detours, the curvy roads and the apparent disasters are part of the extensive planning procedure that brought you where you are today.
It’s like studying a tapestry or jigsaw close up, where the detail which seems so intricate (and perhaps even meaningless) can only be seen to be part of a larger pattern when you stand further back from the whole.
Or perhaps it’s like a series of seemingly random notes and crashing chords which only the master composer can forge into a total “Piece for Orchestra and Six Billion Voices.” When you hear the whole, the individual jingle not only makes sense but fits perfectly.
“I know the plans…”
This is how Paul understood his whole life. He held both the individual and the corporate together in one harmonious whole. Look at Galatians 1:15:
“…when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles…” (Gal 1:15)
So here’s a thumbnail sketch of God’s blueprint for Paul’s life: 1. Set him apart from birth. 2. Graciously call him. 3. Reveal the Son in him. 4. Send him to preach to the “Gentiles.”
The working out of this plan required precision planning and meticulous preparation: Paul had to be so embedded in the faith of his fathers (“A Hebrew of the Hebrews,” “advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions”) that “I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it.” Only there, at the white-hot passionate centre of the Jewish faith, could he encounter the God of Abraham and the promises of God for the nations (Genesis 12).
But none of it made sense. The penny didn’t drop till God “called” him and revealed his Son in him. (“Who are you, Lord? I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting“) And suddenly the promises and plans of God for Israel expanded into the passion and grace of a God for the whole world.
“I know the plans.”
So what about you and me? Dare we use the same principle and apply these verses to our lives?
“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. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord…”
Notice that the planning comes before the praying. It’s in response to the knowledge that God has all this in hand that we finally come to submit, to pray, to listen and to be listened to, to seek and to be sought -all the wonderful balance and counterbalance of warm personal relationship.
It reminds me a little of Psalm 139:
“For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be…”
But even the dodgy stuff, Lord? Can you somehow weave my faltering and failing into your “hope and a future”? It seems like I’ve made a million false turns: can you still bring me home?
Well Lord, I want to claim it by faith, that the answer is YES. I believe you have set me apart from my mother’s womb; that you have called me by grace; that you have revealed your Son in me and purposed me to reach outsiders…. I believe that you have not missed a trick and have never been deflected from your purpose in my life, daft as I feel I am, left to myself.