Jeremiah 29:11 is not about you.
And, to be honest, I really don’t think you want it to be either.
That’s because this verse isn’t about what your personal future holds. It’s not about whether you will get into the college of your dreams or the promotion you are hoping for.
Not even close.
That, of course, hasn’t stopped American Christianity from making it a perennial favorite inspirational verse for all manner of merchandise. In fact, Jeremiah 29:11 has been so warped by all the greeting cards, hashtags, and inspirational placards , I’m not entirely sure we can recover much worthwhile from it at this point (much like Philippians 4:13 and other favorite verses).
I understand why this verse is so attractive. In a world with so much uncertainty and suffering, it can be comforting to think God is somewhere out there with a master plan, orchestrating it all for our personal good, for our personal hope, and for our personal prosperity.
But, God doesn’t really have a plan for your life. At least not the way folks often think. There are many paths each of us can take in our lives. Some of the choices might lead to success or prosperity. Some of them might not. Some are probably better than others. But I don’t think there is some grand, divine plan for you to be a doctor, a priest, or a president of a small undiscovered country.
Instead, the one plan God has for your life is relatively simple. It’s to love your neighbor. That’s the whole plan. All of it. Full stop.
So let’s stop offering folks Jeremiah 29:11 to give folks’ aspirations the imprint of the divine.
To be honest, that verse isn’t even addressed to an individual person in the first place. Rather it’s addressed to an entire nation. That big plan Jeremiah mentions and we all use for ourselves? It’s actually meant for Israel. But we’ve so privatized faith and spirituality that we take this verse meant for an entire ancient nation of God’s chosen people and claim it as our own personal promise assuring us that God will give us whatever we really want so that we can be prosperous and hopeful. How incredibly arrogant can we be to co-opt such a promise for our own selfish desire for success? In this light, Jeremiah 29:11 might be one of the clearest examples of just how infected American spirituality has become with the prosperity gospel and the worship of success and money that fuels it.
But let’s for a minute suppose that God really does have this divine map of your life orchestrating it all for your personal benefit and success. Let’s suppose that this promise to an ancient nation really is meant for you in 21st-century America. Can I at least insist on a little context? Because that’s where it gets really troubling.
The context might even make you wonder whether sending your loved one Jeremiah 29:11 is more of a curse than a blessing.
See, if we take the text at its word, God is going to take a whopping 70 years to get around to showing up again to fulfill your personal promise. Until then, you can expect a life of exile and toil.
That’s perhaps the most ironic thing about Jeremiah 29:11. I don’t want that promise. It’s a promise of God’s absence, not of God’s presence. In it, God promises to show up … in seven decades, once Israel has learned its lesson in exile. Look at it another way: God’s promising not to be around at all for at least a generation. Only then, “when 70 years are complete, I will come to you,” God says in Jeremiah.
In other words, every time we emblazon some inspirational knick-knack or greeting card with Jeremiah 29:11 we are blessing our friends and family with a prayer for God to be absent in their lives, for them to go at it alone for a generation, building houses and planting gardens, until God shows up in their old age or on their death bed.
To its original audience, it was a promise made in exile, in the absence of God. But the way we use it now? Jeremiah 29:11 sounds more like a promise of exile. If you keep reading the chapter, God actually warns that if anyone is considering skipping out on the exile, there will be death, destruction, famine. They will become objects of horror to the world around them.
I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord in Jeremiah 29. Plans to exile you, to abandon you, and to teach you a lesson. For 70 years. Only then, will I let you find me, have hope, and prosperity.
I can’t think of a worse thing to say to someone upon graduating college or any other major life transition.
So maybe Jeremiah 29:11 isn’t really about you.
That might just be a blessing in and of itself.