By Jack Wilkie
I’m not sure how or when it happened, but somehow in the last decade or so Jeremiah 29:11 has vaulted into being one of the most-discussed verses in the entire Bible. “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.” (ESV). You’ll find the verse on cards, posters, or Facebook images. You’ll hear it in devos or at graduations. It’s become the go-to verse for reassurance.
Of course, many have (accurately) pointed out that the verse is often used totally out of context and that it was no guarantee of prosperity in the lives of the audience, who were actually the Israelites who had been taken away into Babylonian captivity. Others have pointed out that the verse still has a useful meaning in context, which is also true.
But that discussion has been had before, and that’s not the problem with Jeremiah 29:11 that frustrates me. There’s nothing wrong with the verse when used in its context. It’s a perfectly fine Bible verse with a valuable meaning. But the way it is commonly used puts the focus in the wrong place. The unbalanced focus on and misuse of Jeremiah 29:11 is a symptom of a larger problem in Christianity today, and that is that we put far too much focus on ourselves.
It’s used in much the same way Philippians 4:13 has been, putting the focus on our earthly lives and how everything will work out with them. This can lead to a dangerously self-focused approach to the Bible. It has lead to many modern worship songs being more focused on what God does for us than who God is. It often is a part of the prosperity or health-and-wealth doctrine. And it can be a factor in people leaving the church for one of the leading religious movements in the world today, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, where the emphasis is on living a mostly moral life (moralistic) and leaning on God for support and comfort (therapeutic) without having to submit to His absolute rule in our lives (deism).
If popular Christianity were in the right place, we’d be quoting a different verse on all of those posters, wristbands, and cards and in speeches and devotionals. Just two verses later, Jeremiah writes “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” Yes, that verse is subject to its context as well, but it’s also a promise that is reiterated throughout Scripture (Psalm 27:8, 37:4; Matthew 6:33, 7:7; Acts 17:27). There’s something wrong with our Christianity if verse 11 is the one that pops out in Jeremiah chapter 29 rather than verse 13.
Every verse has value, and sometimes we do need words of reassurance in the Scriptures. But that’s the whole point of why we’re using the wrong verse – the idea that there’s anything more comforting or reassuring than the truth that we can be called children of God if we simply seek Him and walk after His footsteps is crazy. Philippians 3 and 4 illustrate that point beautifully as Paul wrote about abandoning all else to pursue Jesus and noted that because of that purpose he could endure whatever life situation he faced. True comfort comes from knowing God and walking with Him daily, not hoping He’ll pave a smooth paths for our lives.
What if we started tweeting and Facebook posting those verses about seeking God above all else rather than the ones more focused on us? What if our devos and graduation exhortations emphasized that God’s plan for our lives is for us to pursue Him with all of our energy? Maybe we’ll see less of the kind of religion that caters to man’s interests rather than God’s commands. Maybe we’ll see more young people staying engaged with church rather than having a loose relationship with God on their terms as they cease to see Him as a Being who is there to serve their lives. Maybe we’ll see the kind of deeper Christianity that carries a person through all of life’s difficulties. And, most importantly, maybe we’ll see the kind of Christianity that makes God’s name known for who He is rather than for what He does for us.