I have an oddly visceral reaction to "coffee cup" Bible verses. You know the ones that everybody knows, even if they've never stepped in church, because people can't help themselves from knitting them on things and painting them on things and wearing them. I react to them the same way I do to Christian radio and Christian bookstores and inspirational messages on church signs. I feel vaguely nauseous and make my "stank face". These things aren't all bad; I've just been beaten by those Bibles and it was none too pleasant.
On Friday, I sat down to read the Bible for the first time in a month. I've been struggling lately, foggy, and while the issues I'm battling are drawing me into prayer, somewhere along the way, I left my Bible in the dust. Anyway, I opened up some brain space and took the opportunity to sit down and read. I've been reading in a One Year Bible, one of those handy ones that breaks the whole Bible down into daily readings for you to make it through the whole thing in a year. I told myself that if I skipped more than just one or two days that I would pick back up on the current date so I wouldn't feel defeated and not read at all. So I flipped to October 17th and started to read.
About a page in, what do I find but one of those tired, old verses, one that has been inscribed on more Hallmark cards than Jeremiah ever anticipated. "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.'" Jeremiah 29:11 Immediately, I felt my stomach turn and I rolled my eyes so far back up into my head, I could practically see my babysitter from my childhood throwing me a disapproving glance. It's just, ugh. How annoying! (Yes, I just called the Bible annoying. Bear with me. I'm laying it all out there for you.)
"I know the plans I have for you." Well, that's great, God. I'm so super glad you have a plan. If you could, I don't know, shoot a little whisper my way about WHAT ON EARTH is going on, that'd be awesome. You know, just whenever. "Plans to prosper you and not harm you." Okay, so see, this is where the train derails further. Because, really, God? There's been a WHOLE lot of harm in this past year and a half. A whole lot of pain and medication and uprooting and harm. Physical harm, mental harm, emotional harm, spiritual harm -- it's been one giant ball of harm, and I don't see how this stupid phrase could possibly be true. "Plans to give you a hope and a future." Well, God, you have a seriously funny way of showing that.
As I stewed in my sarcasm and emotional response, I thought about how I could try to give this verse a fair shot. It is certainly no coincidence that this verse pops up on the precise day I sit down with my Bible after letting it collect dust for a month. Maybe, if instead of pulling this verse out of thin air like I'm drawing my pistol for a duel, I could read it in context. It comes after some stuff and before some other stuff, and like anything written down and especially like in the Word of the Living God, it certainly is connected to both what comes before it and what comes after it. So, okay, so let's give it a fair shot and see.
Before: Okay, so this little passage is being written to exiles, people God sent out from Jerusalem to Babylon. And here's what He says to them: "Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take
wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give
your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters;
multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." Jeremiah 29:5-7 Basically, God is saying, even though you are out here in this strange land and you feel separated from me, go on living your lives. Do your thing. Do your human thing, and invest in the place where you are because you will benefit from what benefits your place. Don't let go of yourself, don't let go of Me, just because things don't look like you expected they would.
And you can do this, this is possible, BECAUSE... "I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 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." (Jeremiah 29:10-11) Okay, so this is a little less annoying here because we know that these people need encouraging because they're in exile and all this stuff. BUT. But what about when after 60 years and God's still not back or whatever and things have ALL BEEN SHOT TO HELL? What about when things look 100% totally crappy? What about when there's an absence of "welfare" and a seeming abundance of "evil" and a gaping hole in what should be the "future" and put all together, that means "hope" is about as unlikely as tap-dancing unicorns? WHAT ABOUT WHEN LIFE??
And then I read after. And what came after made me cry. What came after was not at all what I expected for the after, and what came after made everything that came before make so, so, so, so, SO much more sense. Because, you see, what I realized, was that my definition of "welfare" and "future" and "hope" were totally wrong. I defined the terms totally wrong and so when I went to look for them, when I went to look for evidence of them, I couldn't find them anywhere. I couldn't see them because I didn't know what I was looking for. I was looking for physical health. I was looking for mental stability. I was looking for a thriving, pulsing, beating spiritual heart. And with all these things lacking, I logically concluded -- I have no welfare. I do not see God in this place "prospering" things. I see evil and wrong and confusion and difficulty and pain. So what comes after?
After: "Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile." (Jeremiah 29:12-14) And I'm crying again. I'm sorry, but DID YOU READ THAT????? "I will be found by you." After the exile, after being sent out and separated and broken apart, when we seek for God, WE WILL FIND HIM.
I've been spinning around "looking" for God and waiting for Him to pop up like my genie. I've been taking all the troubling circumstances as signs that we're being "taught" something or "tested by fire" or something sadistic and terrible. I've been looking around to the physical things to see the spiritual meaning and I've been completely missing it. "You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord." This "welfare" and "future" and "hope" that God promises in His plan, He's not dangling the promise in front of our noses to get us to just keep going one more step with Him. He's not holding our futures out in front of us like some prize that we have to run the race to earn. He's not keeping us in limbo to see how we will act or react or whether we will toe the line. HE IS THE PRIZE. He is the welfare. He is the future. He is the hope. HE IS THE PROMISE. "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord... You will seek me and find me."
The "plans" God has for us are for us to find Him. To seek Him, to find Him, to be restored to Him. "I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile." The plan isn't, "No bad thing will ever happen." The plan isn't, "You will always feel entirely emotionally and mentally stable." The plan isn't, "You will know exactly what is going to come tomorrow and it will be all entirely good things." The plan is... we are apart now. We are exiles. But we won't always be. And when we go seeking God, He WILL be found. It's a promise. We get God. That's the whole plan. Everything is all down the crapper, but who even cares, because WE GET GOD.
Y'all, the tears I have cried, you don't even know. This is not a life preserver to a drowning woman; this is a freaking rocket to the stars. I am an exile, trudging through a weary land, and while I sincerely hope the fog lifts, the panic subsides, the darkness is swiftly blown away, in the end, it doesn't really matter. Even in my fog and panic and darkness, God is with me. Even in my clarity and peace and joy, God is with me. Even while in exile, I can seek God and He promises He will be found and let me tell you my friend, He is found. He is found. Praise the Lord, the Lord is found.