Monday, December 23, 2013

What Does God Promise Us, Really?

When I say that God has a wonderful plan for your life, what Scripture is the first to pop into your mind?

Chances are that Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”) was the first Bible verse that you thought of. My purpose in this short blog post will be for you to consider a new Scripture that gives a similar promise but has the advantage of being a promise that we should claim.

But first, a quick word about Jeremiah 29:11. Considering my purpose here, I will only do the briefest of overviews. More pillows, wall hangings, and Bible covers are stitched with this verse than any other selection of literature in the English speaking world. It has tremendous emotional appeal to many who have held on to this verse in times of difficulty, and some of you will question my Christian orthodoxy by what I’m about to write. But I’m convinced that if you give me a fair hearing, the Scripture passage that I replace it with will do more for your spiritual journey.

Jeremiah 29 was not written for you. Or me. Nor anybody alive today.

Let me explain. When I read Scripture I employ a rule that I learned from Greg Koukl of Stand To Reason ( This rule is simple, significant, and enlightening. It goes like this: Never read a Bible verse (NRBV).

Never, ever read a single verse of Scripture. When you read the Bible, you should always read at least a whole paragraph – before and after the verse in question. Following this basic rule will give you more of the author’s flow of thought. The alternative is always to read verses out of their context and develop a meaning contrary to the author’s intent, and thus, in essence, to write your own Bible.

So when we employ NRBV to Jeremiah 29, we find that Jeremiah wrote this section specifically to the Jews who had been taken captive in Babylon. He wrote it as an encouragement to them that after 70 years of captivity, God would remember them and bring them back to the land. Why? Because he knows the plans that he has for them. Good plans for welfare and not for evil; plans that will give them hope.

You see, Jeremiah 29:11 is somebody else’s promise, and nobody today is now alive to claim this promise anymore. Now, it is very common at this point for some Christians to spiritualize the verse and say that, well, the point is that God has good plans for his people. I have two problems with this approach. First, it’s true enough that God plans well for his people, but why can’t we find Scripture more pertinent to us from the New Testament that speaks to us? Second, and more problematically, when Christians take this verse to heart, it gives the impression that God has only pleasant things in store for us in this life. God has plans for my welfare, after all. It is often unspoken, and we absorb it from our Christian culture in a hundred subtle ways. We expect that things will go well for us.

And then they don’t. The car dies. You develop cancer. A job is lost. But God, I thought you had good plans for me? Plans for a future and a hope! What happened?

Let me suggest a selection of Scripture that makes the same promise that we take Jeremiah 29:11 to be, but is more powerful, more encouraging, and is actually written for New Covenant Christians.

In Romans 8 (using NRBV) Paul asserts that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, that those who have the Spirit are led by the Spirit to put to death the deeds of the body, that we have been adopted as sons (and daughters), that all creation is awaiting our full redemption, and that that the Spirit intercedes for us. The apostle then says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers….if God is for us, who can be against us?” (v28-31). He goes on to proclaim that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing. Not tribulation. No power, no angel, no height nor depth. No job loss. No dead cars. Not even cancer will ever separate us from God’s love in Christ.

Now that is a promise that we can cling to! Jesus said that in this life we will have trouble, but that we shouldn’t worry because he has overcome the world (John 16:33). We will have trouble. God never promises us easy street. But none of this trouble will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ. And this is not the general love of God for all people. Paul is specific that it’s the love of God in Christ. For you, Christian.

But wait, there’s more meat to this promise that Paul is giving us. For those of us who love God, who are called according to his purpose, all things will work together for our good. What does good here mean? Does that mean everything will be hunky-dory in my life, all peaches and cream? No. He completes the thought in the next sentence. The good for which all things will work is that we will be conformed to the image of Christ. God is promising us that all things, all things, all suffering, pain, depression, anxiety, and sadness. All happiness, pleasantness, and sunshine. All things will work for our good to make us more like Jesus.

This is a promise that we can claim, hang on to, dig our nails into during our toughest times when life seems to have gone off the rails. We followers of Christ need to prepare for suffering. It will come. Many a believer has had her faith derailed because of unexpected trials. Don’t let this happen to you.

By the way, the more you mature as a follower of Christ, the more appealing the promise to be like him will become. When I was younger this promise felt like the booby prize at a third grade birthday party. But now that I’m approaching middle age, and about 33 years in the Lord, I desire more and more to be made more like Christ.

So in summary, I’m not telling you to throw out all your pillows that have Jeremiah 29:11 stitched on them. I simply want you to replace in your mind the promises that you cling to. Jeremiah is weak sauce compared to Romans 8, which is rich and deep with meaning for us in Christ.

Praise be to the Lord that he will work all things out in my life for my good so that I will resemble more and more the Lord whom I have chosen to follow.