By Phillip Camp
As we gather for such an important milestone in the lives of you graduates, we feel the duty to send you on your way with a message of hope. We seek to give you some nugget of wisdom and encouragement to sustain you as your commence the next stage of your life. “Nugget” in fact may be a good analogy to describe what we too often offer. Like chicken nuggets, we look for something small, pleasing to most tastes, from a culturally significance source. At Christian colleges, we pick through the Bible looking for such a nugget and end up pulling out a piece that, like a chicken nugget, ends up bearing little resemblance to the whole from which it came.
One such nugget that has graced many a calendar, cup, and commencement address is Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (NIV).
Wow! This is as good as it gets, right? The Bible says that God plans to make you wealthy, keep you safe, and give you a wish-filled, happy future. Beyond that, not only will God give it to you, he has charted out the specific plan for you to that end. No need to worry about silly things like planning and taking responsibility for the choices you make. Just wait for God to lead you to the prosperous life he has planned for you. Then, if it doesn't work out, you've got a ready-made excuse—you can blame God.
But wait. Let's take a minute to practice what you probably were taught in an introductory literature course but may have forgotten. A key to good reading and to properly understanding literature is to read texts in context. The Bible is no exception.
So, in what context does our text, Jeremiah 29:11, appear? Jeremiah is writing a letter to God's people in exile. They are there as a result of God's judgment for their violation of the covenant relationship with God. That is, they were not loving God with all their heart, soul, and strength or loving their neighbors as themselves. They showed it in things like idolatry, cheating in business and on their spouses, abusing others, denying justice to those who couldn't pay for it, and viewing the poor as cheap human resources rather than human beings. God warned them repeatedly through prophets to change their ways, but they refused. They in effect rejected God and repudiated his mission for them to bear witness to him in the world. It was all about them, and not about God and God's greater purposes. So, eventually, God said, "Enough!" He sent the Babylonians against them as judgment (that is, to enact justice). The Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and its temple and exiled much of the population. It is those exiles to whom Jeremiah writes.
Now, whatever hope and future God has in store for his people would be through exile, not in lieu of it. Thus, Jeremiah tells the exiles, "Settle in for the long-haul. Make yourself at home where you are and make the best of it. You're looking at about a 70-year stay. Seek God's blessing there, for you and the people you live among. But God says he will be with you, even in exile. Hopefully there you will learn once more to trust God, seeking him and his ways. When that happens, God will prosper you again, or more precisely, bring you wholeness and well-being. But all this will happen in God's timing, not yours."
The people in exile, however, heard other voices, like the prosperity-prophet who said, "This exile thing is only a temporary blip. We won't be here long. We are God's people, so God wants things to go well for us, no matter what we do. God's plan for you is to make you rich, keep you safe, and give you a wish-filled, happy future. " To which Jeremiah says, "Liars!"
So what does this have to do with you, dear graduates? Many of you may have already done things and many will do things that will not lead to the wholeness and well-being that God desires for you. You have made or will make choices against God and the consequences have or will come back to bite you. You've dug yourselves into deep holes and the sides are starting to cave in. Perhaps this is God's direct judgment or simply the consequences built into the moral order. Maybe some of you have so spoiled your reputations through lying and cheating that you can't find a professor to give you a positive recommendation, and now you can't get into grad school. Maybe you've used and abused others, torching your relationships, and now find yourself alone. Maybe in seeking immediate gratification, you've gotten yourself hooked on something that you aren’t able to shake. Maybe you've pursued the idols of our day—wealth, power, sex, and self—as a shortcut and cheap substitute for the true blessings of God, and you are finding these have led you down dark paths. Maybe you find yourself in a kind of exile as a result of your actions, and perhaps you've dragged along some innocents with you.
No doubt you will find plenty of prosperity prophets who will tell you, "That's just the way the world works. God gets that there's winners and losers. He wants you to be a winner." Or "As long as you have God in your heart, whatever you do won't matter to him." To these prophets Jeremiah still says, "Liars!"
Hear instead God's word to you from Jeremiah 29. Exile is not God's last word. Exile is the place where God's people learn the cost of separating themselves from God. Exile is where God reforms and refines his people, often painfully, into the people he intends them to be. But exile is also the place where God assures you that he is with you, if only you will seek him. God has not abandoned you. God may not deliver you from your exile, the mess you are in, at least not anytime soon. He may use the time to shape you to seek him and his ways.
So, if or when you find yourself in "exile," seek God and pray to him, and he will restore you, not to your plans and dreams but to his plans for you: his plans to live out love of God and of neighbor, for your own sake and the sake of God's mission in the world. It's the future he intends for you, one rooted in hope and a real future, living in loving relationship with God and others. There you will experience the prosperity God has planned for you, the wholeness and well-being that only God can provide. In the meantime, pray for and seek the wholeness and well-being—the prosperity—of that place, and so mediate the blessing of God. That is God's plan for you.
Author's Note: Having so often heard Jeremiah 29:11 taken out of context in graduation speeches, I wrote this piece as an imaginative exercise in how I might use that text to address graduates.
Phillip Camp is Professor of Bible in Lipscomb University's Hazelip School of Theology. He is the author of Living as the Community of God: Moses Speaks to the Church in Deuteronomy (CrossLink, 2014) and co-editor of Praying with Ancient Israel: Exploring the Theology of Prayer in the Old Testament (ACU Press, 2015). He also preaches for the Natchez Trace Church of Christ in Nashville.