I never noticed before this year how much we shape our lives around plans for the future. We’re always aiming at something: a new job, a new relationship, a big trip abroad, a house extension. So many of those things are gone now. It’s just covid, covid, covid: the ebb and flow of restrictions, the wave upon wave of uncertainty. In many ways it feels like the future is on hold.
It makes God’s words in Jeremiah 29 v 11 seem almost maddening. “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD … ‘plans to give you hope and a future.’” Okay, we might respond, but when? Or, It’s all very well you knowing your plans, but how about letting me in on the secret?
But that would be to wrench the verse out of its context.
How does the classic verse "I know the plans I have for you" speak into life today, when planning seems impossible?
Interestingly, God’s advice to his people a few verses before involves a lot of the things we like to build our futures out of. “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage” (v 5-6). It sounds ideal. But in this case it was not ideal at all. Jeremiah was speaking to a people who had just been taken into exile. They were in crisis, but it was a different type of crisis to ours. They weren’t sitting at home feeling frustrated at their lack of future plans. They were sitting far from home. These people didn’t want to build houses, get married, move on with their lives. They wanted to go back to Jerusalem.
Yet Jeremiah told them, That future’s on hold. You’re in this for the long haul.
My father works to support church leaders around the country. Within a few weeks of the pandemic shutting down face-to-face church meetings, he was counselling them to invest time and energy into setting up new systems and practices that would work long-term. “Don’t assume this’ll soon be over,” he told them. “Find proper solutions, not temporary fixes. Who knows how long this will last?”
There’s something helpful about that. Invest in your life now, rather than endlessly itching for the next step. Be in the place you are even while you hope for change. Get on with your non-ideal lives: that’s what Jeremiah was saying to the exiles.
When plans are cancelled, when next steps are taken away, when we are forced to wait, we have to find something other than the future to build our lives out of. We have to live in the place we find ourselves in right now, and make the best of it.
I suppose God has put all of us in that position now in one way or another. Life is really not ideal. We can’t meet new people, go on holiday, even visit the next town. Some have been out of work for months; others have had weddings cancelled; many have lost loved ones and are having to face the very non-ideal reality of life without them. There’s pain of every kind: pain that is to be acknowledged and not made light of. Yet even in this pain, I suspect there’s a lesson worth learning. When plans are cancelled, when next steps are taken away, when we are forced to wait, we have to find something other than the future to build our lives out of. We have to live in the place we find ourselves in right now, and make the best of it.
There’s at least one good thing about the pandemic, which is that it gives us an opportunity to learn this together—which is appropriate given that these commands in Jeremiah weren’t given to individuals but to a people. Instead of each chasing our own futures, we can learn and suffer and wait and grow collectively.
Of course, we also have to look to the real future, the one we can be sure of. In Jeremiah’s time, false prophets told the people that exile would soon be over, that they’d be home before long, that all their dreams would come true. But God warned, “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have.” That’s in verse 8. In verse 11 comes the famous line: “For I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
That verse gets quoted out of context a lot, but when you see it side-by-side with verse 8 you realise that this is the point, or at least part of it: God’s dreams are bigger than ours. He didn’t just have a sensible next step for the exiles, a little something to look forward to. He had a future in mind in which they would seek him and find him (v 12-13). He would not just take his people home; he would take them to himself.
Which is, as you will know, the same plan he has for us today.
God may give us an immediate future that is painful and unwanted, just as he did to the exiles. But he is growing his church; and in the end, he’ll bring us to himself.
Current restrictions mean I’m not allowed to go home right now, and it’s hard. I’m longing to go back and see my family. I’m weary in other ways too, wondering what the future holds. But I want to make the best of it while I’m here. I’m going to invest in my church, care for those who are struggling, and try to be patient. And I’m hoping that this will teach me something more of what it means to wait patiently and with hope for the day when my Lord comes and takes me to himself at last.