Busting Sunday School Myths, Part 4—Jeremiah 29:11

by Lee Anderson, Jr. —

“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*

Broken promises often lead to hurt, disappointment, and distrust. Sadly, some believers experience the same feelings when one of Scripture’s promises, mistakenly assumed to apply to them (when it is actually meant for someone else), does not come to pass.

If at the end of the traditional school year you happen to peruse the graduation cards sold in a typical Christian bookstore, you would struggle to find one that doesn’t have printed in it the words of Jeremiah 29:11. Even if something of a cliché because of its overuse in cards and other (often kitschy) media, many Christians find comfort in this verse, taking it as a promise for them that God desires their prosperity rather than their harm, and that He wants to give them a bright future. That is certainly a positive outlook for the graduate holding a newly printed diploma—or, for that matter, any Christian. But is it really what this verse teaches?

As we have observed before, the verse’s context is key. Looking back to Jeremiah 29:4, we see that verse 11 is part of a longer announcement from the Lord written down by Jeremiah and addressed to the survivors from the nation of Judah who had been carried off into exile in Babylon. Later, in verse 10, we see more specifically what God spoke of in telling the survivors that he had “plans to prosper” them: He promises that in seventy years’ time, He will bring them back from their captivity into the land He had long before given to them (see also verses 12–14). At that time, the hearts of God’s people would be turned toward Him such that they would seek Him in prayer, and He would respond to them in His benevolent mercy.

The immediate context of Jeremiah 29:11 does not suggest any sort of a direct application of this verse to present-day Christians. And most believers who read this verse within the broader passage realize this. However, there is a subtler concern that cannot be ignored, a concern which is more prone to show up in Sunday school lessons and sermons. I suspect that some believers—at least subconsciously—while knowing that this verse concerns the exiled people of Judah, still look to this verse as a promise applying either indirectly or analogously to themselves. After all, isn’t this verse talking about the same God we worship who desires the very best for us? Don’t we, as believers in Jesus Christ, find wellbeing and protection in Him?

The answer to these questions, of course, is yes. But that answer needs to be qualified by some observations from the broader context of the promise contained in Jeremiah 29:11. It seems sometimes that those quick to cite Jeremiah 29:11 take it as a blanket statement that all who have trusted in Jesus are somehow immune from any calamity. Unfortunate though it is, nothing could be further from the truth. There are three main reasons that this is so.

The first reason is that believers are still subject to hardships because our world is fallen and still reeling from the aftereffects of Adam’s sin. The world is no longer “very good” as God intended it to be (Genesis 1:31). Sickness, injury, natural disasters, financial hardships, and other difficulties can, and do, come upon believers. It is not that God has failed us or does not care for us; but we must realize that the provision and blessing He has guaranteed to us is principally of a spiritual nature. Ephesians 1:3 states, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Likewise, we read in 2 Peter 1:3 God’s “divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” We have, as the old hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” says, “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow”—but there is no guarantee for us of an easy, prosperous life free from challenges.

Second, in addition to the hardships that are part of living in this fallen world, Christians also face persecution from nonbelievers. While this does not necessarily mean that believers today will all encounter physical abuse, confiscation of property, and martyrdom as many of our New Testament-era forbearers did, we may endure other kinds of mistreatment and marginalization. Paul, in writing to Timothy, reminds him that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Obviously, this is a very different outlook from how some people understand Jeremiah 29:11. But it is worth noting that even this very verse implies that reality. Yes, God promised to prosper and care for His people, but the circumstances leading to the issuing of that promise were far from rosy. Judah had been conquered, deported, and many of its people killed prior to the words of Jeremiah 29:11 being spoken. Simply put, the blessings we are promised do not necessarily shield us from mistreatment by others.

Third, despite the very real blessings we enjoy, we can abuse our relationship with God. As Jeremiah promised, God did provide for Judah to return from exile, and He continued to bless the nation. However, that did not spare them from discipline (and being removed from their land again) when the nation later sinned against the Lord by rejecting their Savior.** So too, Christians today can sin grievously and incur God’s discipline (see, e.g., 1 Corinthians 11:27–31). They do not forfeit their salvation or the privileges of belonging to Christ, but they may face considerable hardship under God’s disciplinary hand. Such is hardly in keeping with how some take Jeremiah 29:11 as an unconditional promise of prosperity for present-day believers.

Of course, the problem lies not with Jeremiah’s promise, but with its strained application to contemporary Christians. Those who read into Jeremiah 29:11 a promise of prosperity in the world today eventually face a reality (hardship, persecution, and sometimes even discipline) very different from what they believe the verse to guarantee. Some of them, quite sadly, even become disillusioned with following after Christ. This fact underscores just how important it is to rightly handle the Scriptures (see 2 Timothy 2:15). We should be cautious not to make Scripture out to mean more than it does, and to claim promises in it that are not ours to claim. Nevertheless, we do well to remember just how many promises Scripture does hold for us as believers today, and how great it is to be “blessed . . . with every spiritual blessing in Christ.”

*All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, is taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

**Of course, there were many Jews who did come to faith in Christ (e.g., Acts 2:41); but the nation’s leaders overwhelmingly rejected Jesus and the message of the Apostles, as did the majority of the people.

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