“You will call to me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you search for me with all your heart.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Finding God is easy when times are good. But what about when times are hard? That’s often another matter entirely. Perhaps we get so tied up in our circumstances that we don’t ever even bother to look up. But most people instinctively reach up when things are hard. This starts to show itself from the first moment an infant reaches up to his mom and dad to pick him up when he’s crying. That is a response that has to be programmed out of us by life and experience. Yet God wants to be found. He wants to help. He desires to be desired. The prophet Jeremiah once reminded the people of Israel of this truth. The way he said it is both comforting and hard. Let’s explore why and what it might mean for us.
There are certain parts of the Scriptures that lend themselves all too easily to become bits of bumper sticker theology. Bumper sticker theology is when a particular verse (often taken out of context) can be made to convey an idea that fits really well on a bumper sticker. It fits there because it’s short, but also because it’s really catchy. Bumper sticker theology has to be generally positive and uplifting too. After all, you don’t want to put something on a bumper sticker that everyone will see that makes the idea the sticker supports look bad.
Well, one of the more beloved bumper sticker theology verses comes just before what I included here for you in Jeremiah 29:11. “‘For I know the plans I have for you’ – this is the Lord’s declaration – ‘plans for your well-being, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.'” Who doesn’t want to hear something like that from God? Especially when times are hard. That verse played a significant role in a tough moment in my own life. And what Jeremiah says in the verses up above seems to continue the idea. God will listen to us, and we will find Him. That’s great! Slap that mess on a bumper sticker and let the whole world know about it!
There’s just one problem: This wasn’t written for us. These three verses come in the context of a letter Jeremiah sent to the exiles Babylon had taken from Jerusalem back to their capital city after the initial wave of conquest. The exiles were scared and confused and not a little worried about what their future held. They had been plunked down in the midst of a totally foreign culture and just wanted to go back home. They wanted nothing more than for things to be like they were once again. Any self-proclaimed prophet or a charismatic priest who spoke up to tell them that was going to happen they were quick to hear and hung on every word coming out of his mouth.
Jeremiah, however, knew that wasn’t God’s plan for them. Not even close, in fact. He was combatting those kinds of ideas back in Jerusalem where the people were still trying to convince themselves that God was on their side in the way they wanted to understand that notion, and that if they all came together (and maybe relied on some help from Egypt), they were going to be able to defeat the Babylonian threat and have their nation back once again. But it wasn’t going to happen. They were entering into a season of judgment God had been preparing for them for quite a long time, and He was going to see it through to completion.
For the remnant in Jerusalem with Jeremiah, that meant trying to convince them to quit fighting the Babylonians and simply accept their fate with faithfulness and perseverance. As you can easily imagine, having someone come claiming they speak for God and offering up a message that is at least borderline treasonous didn’t really resonate with them very well. Jeremiah paid dearly for His willingness to speak the truth when it wasn’t popular. For the exiles in Babylon, though, that meant trying to convince them this wasn’t going to be a quick excursus to a foreign land that would end soon. They needed to be prepared for a long sojourn. In fact, they were to go ahead and settle down. They were to build homes, get married, start families, see their families into the next generation, and generally work for the prosperity of their new home. To put all of this in terms that might resonate a bit more with the modern world, this would be like someone walking into Kyiv today and telling the Ukrainians there to just go along with the Russia conquest; to settle in for multiple generations of Russian rule before things could start to go back to how they were before.
In other words, these verses we so treasure for their apparent hopefulness were not particularly hopeful words for their original audience. These words, while assuring them the abiding help and comfort of their God, would have broken their hearts. History was going to unfold, and God wasn’t going to stop it. What’s more, Jeremiah goes on to tell them that life for their friends and family back at home was about to get much, much worse. Ezekiel would later double down on that idea in much more graphic terms than Jeremiah used. He even promises judgment on the “prophets” telling them the opposite of what he was telling them. In short, this letter was terrible, disheartening news for the people who first received it. By what measure can we legitimately take it as a word of comfort and encouragement today?
Well, to be honest, we really shouldn’t. In fact, we really shouldn’t take these words as having any kind of real or direct application for our lives at all. They weren’t written for us. They were written from out of the context of a covenant that has been fulfilled and replaced. The author of Hebrews would later call that covenant obsolete.
And this is honestly a pretty good thing. One of the basic principles of sound biblical interpretation today is that something in the Scriptures cannot mean for us something it never could have meant for its original audience. In this case, while the idea of God knowing the plans He has for us sounds really good, the context here was that those plans were for the people to live in exile for 70 years. God can know the plans He has for me just fine, but I’d sure rather them not involve my living the rest of my life – and my kids living the rest of their lives – in exile.
What’s more, the two verses we read a second ago aren’t much better. Yes, the idea that God will hear our prayers is a wonderful one, but this idea that we will only find Him when we seek Him with all of our hearts is pretty discouraging if you think much about it. I mean, if you’re someone who has found Him, that’s great for you. But if you’re sitting in one of those hard places of life – like, say, in a Ukrainian city with Russia bombs exploding all around you – and you don’t feel like you’re finding God in that moment, for it to be implied that you’re just not seeking Him hard enough isn’t really all that helpful. Besides, if there is an effort element to finding God, we are all in trouble.
So then, if these verses don’t mean any of the things we normally go to them to receive, what do they actually mean for us? Do they matter at all? Of course they do. When Paul wrote that every word of Scripture is God-breathed and useful for making us more fully reflective of the image of Christ, he had passages like this one in mind. But if these kinds of passages aren’t up for a direct, contextless application to our lives, how do we get any use out of them?
Well, if we can’t get application from them – or at least the kind of application we are accustomed to getting – how about we look to them for some inspiration and information? While what Jeremiah writes here doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about God’s plans for us (we learn a great deal more helpful and useful information about that in the New Testament), what his words do reveal is God’s character. We serve a God who is committed to His people. Even when they are in the midst of a mess that He put them in as an act of judgment, He doesn’t throw in the towel on them. He is positioning Himself to be found when they are ready and willing to seek. This is a part of God’s character we see fleshed out more fully in Christ. We were in a mess of sin and rather than leaving us there, He came for us in as dramatic a fashion as possible. He showed up Himself in human flesh and gave up His own life so that we might be able to live through Him.
That’s the kind of God we serve. Passages like this one in Jeremiah are what laid the groundwork for understanding it. In Jesus, we see these ideas given flesh and bone as they are brought fully and unavoidably into reality. What this means for you is that when you are in one of those hard times, reach up. Your God has already made Himself available in Christ. Your sojourn may yet stretch on for a season as we all wait for His return, but He will be with you throughout the journey. He has promised to never leave nor forsake you. Turn to Him because He has already demonstrated Himself to be for you. Jeremiah gives us a glimpse of this glory; Jesus offers us the whole thing. Let’s receive it.