It's one of the most popular verses in the Bible, bringing comfort to millions every day. It's a wonderful, warm sentiment, which has spawned a veritable industry of bookmarks, posters and mugs. It is pinned to refrigerator doors all over the world, a source of daily encouragement that 'God is in control.' Most Christians will know it well:
"For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you; plans to give you a hope and a future" (Jeremiah 29:11).
There's an awful lot of truth in this verse. God is absolutely all-seeing; he knows everything that has been and that will be already. He certainly has a plan for the world, and our privilege as his followers is to experience and join in with it daily. He definitely promises us a hope and a future. But that's not really what we read into that verse, and it's not really what it's saying, either.
The problem is that we take the verse completely out of context. Set into the rest of Jeremiah, we see that this is a statement given at a specific time for a specific group of people: the prophet telling the exiles in Babylon that God has not forgotten them and that their time will come again. If you look at the chapter itself, the first three verses make it clear that this is a letter to those exiles, not a generic sentiment to be applied by all Christians at all time.
Yet it sounds so compelling when you pull it out on its own like this and mount it on a picture of a sunset. If you're looking for an inspirational, heart-warming verse in the Bible, they don't come much more Hallmark than this. So we conveniently choose to ignore the context and assume this is simply the sort of thing God intends for everyone. And while this might sound like semantics, actually I think the general misapplication of this verse reveals two really big fault lines in our theology.
First, our love of this verse reveals how individualistic modern faith has become. Despite God working throughout history in communities – from Israel through to the Church – we've become increasingly focused on our 'personal relationship' with Jesus, something the Bible says comparatively little about. The very fact we can re-appropriate a verse aimed at a whole nation for our own personal comfort is proof of the fact. Because we've become so focused on our one-on-one connection with God, rather than his relationship with the whole Church, it's perhaps only natural that we go searching for Scriptures which seem to answer our questions about our future safety and security. Essentially we're asking: what is this God going to do for me?
Second though, Jeremiah 29:11 can foster a very brittle faith, because out of context it promises things about God of which he doesn't assure us himself. Our individual economic prosperity is not promised by Scripture, nor is our personal safety. In fact Jesus calls his followers to take up their cross and die to themselves. Most of his immediate disciples actually met with nasty ends as martyrs. God doesn't promise to keep us safe or make us rich, not in the short term anyway.
When we subscribe to the theology that this out-of-context verse encourages, we're set up for a total faith crisis when the worst happens. God is effectively proved a liar when our home is repossessed because we couldn't keep up repayments, or when personal tragedy strikes. We end up asking: "Why did God let me down?" or even why he broke his 'promise' to us. We simply don't need to burden ourselves with this kind of faith time-bomb.
Instead, we can hold on to the truth about God. That he loves us: both as individuals and as communities, that he is working out his over-arching plan for the universe, and that he is making all things new so that we might all enjoy an ultimate future hope. But he doesn't promise we'll all get rich, and he doesn't promise that life is going to be easy. His plan is so much grander than that.