For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart … (Jeremiah 29:11–13, NRSV)
Often invoked as encouragement for the church. Always—always!—ripped out of context.
Just the prior verse will give an excellent hint to the ignored context: For thus says the LORD: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. (Jeremiah 29:10, NRSV)
Jerusalem and Judah are beginning a period of exile in Babylon. Their “prophets” are telling them that Yahweh will end it quickly because they are his chosen people. Jeremiah, the true prophet, is telling them that they are exiled for a reason: they have turned away from God. And for a purpose: that they might turn back to God.
So Jeremiah tells them to settle into their exile and let God’s reason and purpose work. It needs to play out. There is hope, but it comes later, not now.
If the church today is in exile, we are listening to voices that say, “If the culture doesn’t care about us anymore, let’s be more like the culture so we can be relevant.” But perhaps we should take the words of Jeremiah to say to us, “Use this time to figure out who you are as a church. Don’t give in to the culture. Let the exile work on you.”
As I’ve been reading Jeremiah I have enjoyed John Goldingay’s commentary on the book. He has something to say about this passage.
A parallel in the life of the Western church might be that if God has taken it into exile so that the church no longer counts in our culture, we need to settle down in that position until God wants to restore us, rather than trying to turn the church into something the culture wants. Maybe we have prophets who tell us we can return from this exile sooner rather than later, and maybe we have dreams of this kind, and the prophets might be right, and the dreams might be God given. In Jeremiah’s day, however, such dreams came out of people’s own heads.
(John Goldingay, Jeremiah for Everyone, Old Testament for Everyone (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2015), 145.)
Bottom line: let’s take our time and get this right. We don’t need culture wars to try to make the church more prominent in the culture. We don’t need politics. We need to figure out how to be a church in exile.
Read the Bible yourself and don’t be tempted to pull out proof texts and promise texts without their contexts. You’ll grow as a Christian.