Rock Bottom Truth
April 21, 2008
“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11 NKJV).
We have come at last to Jeremiah 29:11. This is one of the most-beloved verses in the Bible. I have often heard this verse quoted, and I have seen it on signs and posters and plaques. Many Christians commit these words to memory. We inscribe them on graduation cards. We share them with those who are sick, discouraged or in some sort of difficult situation. For many people, this is the only verse from Jeremiah that they know. Believe it or not, I found a website called TopVerses.com that rates every verse in the Bible by popularity. Not surprisingly, John 3:16 is number one. Jeremiah 29:11 is ranked number 29 out of all the verses in the Bible.
And rightfully so because it makes a wonderful promise that believers have claimed for hundreds of years. It has been a lifeline, especially when going through hard times.
We will never properly understand this verse unless we know something about its background. The single most important fact is that it was written to the Jewish exiles in Babylon who had been forcibly removed from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. Having been uprooted from all they held dear, they now live hundreds of miles away from home, in the very heart of worldly pomp and pagan idol worship. All their dreams and hopes had been smashed. Deep inside they wondered, “How could God have let this happen? If we are truly his people, how did we end up here?” And they wondered if God had forgotten them. In all their confusion and despair, they made two very human mistakes.
1) They thought they would never end up in Babylon. That led them to false confidence.
2) They thought they would never get out of Babylon. That led them to despair.
We face the same danger when we
1) Expect what God has never promised, or
2) Refuse to believe what he has promised.
Years ago we sang a little chorus that said, “Every promise in the Book is mine.” To which I answer yes, but not every promise means what we think it means. Our danger with Jeremiah 29:11 is that we will quote it without considering its context. We have all heard it said that when you hit rock bottom, there is nothing to do but look up. Here is a message for those who have hit rock bottom. And thanks be to God, it is a message of enormous hope.
As we think about this beloved verse, keep two things in mind:
God will not always do what we expect him to do,
But he will always do what he says he will do.
I. God is thinking about us all the time.
“I know the thoughts that I think toward you.”
God thinks about us!
That may be the most important statement you’ll ever hear. The God of the universe thinks about us. He considers us, he knows us, he remembers us, he keeps us in mind. He knows who we are and where we are. Not for one second are we ever lost or forgotten for his heart is so big and his knowledge so vast that no one ever gets lost in the shuffle.
We don’t always think about each other. We routinely get preoccupied with life and forget the people closest to us. We forget birthdays, anniversaries and graduations. Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day slip up on us. This week I met a man who told me that he forgot Mother’s Day until the very day itself so early in the morning, he went to the drugstore searching for a card and gift, only to find the store filled with other men, desperately doing the same thing. A friend congratulated me on how I remember names, but he was giving me way too much credit. I happened to remember him and his wife and daughter the last time I saw them, but I forget names as quickly as the next person. Just now I tried to remember the next family birthday and realized that I’m not sure who comes next. And that’s why we have Day-Timers and pocket calendars and PDAs and message programs that send us reminders.
The truth is, most of us are better at remembering bad things. We can recall the hard times and the insults of others against us. I’ve met a few people who seem to have an infallible Grievance Meter that remembers every mean thing that anyone did to them—even the things that happened twenty years ago. Some people have memories like an elephant. An elephant never forgets, they say, though I’m not sure who “they” are or how they know an elephant never forgets, but some people remember every rotten thing that ever happened to them, and they nurse their grudges for years.
God Never Forgets His Children
Even when we do have good thoughts about each other, we tend to forget after a while. That’s why we say “out of sight, out of mind.” But God never forgets his children. Even though he has the whole world to rule, he never forgets his own. The Hebrew text of verse 11 contains “thoughts” or “thinking” three times. God is not just saying, “I’ve got plans for you,” he’s really saying, “I have been thinking about you.” That’s much better because it is exceedingly personal. A boss might say to an employee, “I’ve got plans for you,” which might a lot more work, but if the boss says, “I’ve been thinking about you,” that means something else entirely.
The Jews really needed to know this because they were in exile in Babylon, far from home, carried away against their will, held against their will, under the absolute power of the Babylonian king, and able to do only what he permitted them to do. God has just said, “You’ll be returning home but not for 70 years” (v. 10), which was good news and bad news, good because it meant they wouldn’t be in Babylon for ever but bad because 70 years is a long time to be in exile. And God says, “You think I’ve forgotten about you. You know that you are here because you forgot me, and it’s true that I am punishing you for your disregard of my commands, but my punishment does not diminish my affection for you. You are forever in my thoughts. You are still my people. I have not forgotten you.”
I find great comfort the following truth. God knows what he is thinking even when we don’t. Many times I have said, “Lord, what are you doing? Why is this happening?” So much of life makes no sense. The good and the bad, the happy and the sad, it all gets jumbled together with apparently no rhyme or reason, and even if I say to myself, “God has a plan,” it’s rarely clear to me. But God knows what he is thinking even when his thoughts are hidden from me.
He has us constantly on his mind. Listen to how Spurgeon puts it:
The child playing on the deck does not understand the tremendous engine whose beat is the throbbing heart of the stately Atlantic liner, and yet all is safe, for the engineer, the captain and the pilot are in their places, and well know what is being done. Let not the child trouble itself about things too great for it.
We know so little.
We understand so little.
We have so many questions.
But this much is clear. God is thinking about us—always.
II. God’s Thoughts Toward Us Are Good.
“Thoughts of peace, and not of evil.”
It is not enough to know that God is thinking of us. We need to know what he is thinking. In this case he makes it clear. “Thoughts of peace, and not of evil.” Various translations render this phrase differently:
“Plans for welfare and not for evil” (ESV).
“Plans to take care of you, not abandon you” (MSG).
“Plans for good and not for disaster” (NLT).
“’Plans for well-being and not for trouble” (NLV).
This answers our greatest question. Is God for us or against us? The 18th-century German philosopher Lessing asked, “Is this a friendly universe?” Here we have God’s answer. All his thoughts move toward one expected end. Nothing happens by chance or for no purpose at all. As one writer said, “Every affliction is timed and measured.”
We will never properly understand Jeremiah 29:11 if we think it is a kind of divine rabbit’s foot to protect us from pain or to keep us from suffering. Remember that this verse was given to the Jews while they were in Babylon to give them hope that they were not forgotten and that Babylon would not last forever. It is not a “Get Out of Babylon Free” card.
This verse would provide great encouragement to the Jews …
“I sent you to Babylon.”
“I am thinking about you while you are in Babylon.”
“I have not forgotten you in Babylon.”
“I am with you in Babylon.”
“I will give you a future in Babylon.”
“I will bring you home from Babylon.”
Mostly it is God’s way of saying …
“I still love you even though you have blown it badly, and I still have great plans for you in the future, and the future starts now, not just 70 years from now.”
But still we wonder. Spurgeon imagines the devil whispering in our ear in hard times, using discouragement (perhaps his chief weapon) to cause us to doubt the Lord.
The next time the devil comes to you with a dark insinuation, tell him that the Lord’s thoughts are “not of evil.” Drive him away with that. When he hisses his foul suggestions, say, “Not of evil.” God cannot have an evil thought towards his own elect. He that gave his own Son to die for us cannot think anything but good towards us.
What is God trying to do when he allows his children to go through hard trials and deep suffering? There are several answers to that question. First, God is trying to purge us of sin and to purify us of iniquity. Second, God uses suffering to test our faith. Will you still obey God in the darkness? Will you serve God when things aren’t going your way? Will you hold on to the truth when you feel like giving up? Third, God uses times of difficulty to humble us. When things are going well, we tend to get puffed up about our accomplishments. But let the darkness fall and we are on our knees crying out to God. Fourth, God uses hard times to prepare us to minister to others. He comforts us so that we may comfort others. I know many Christians whose greatest ministry has come from sharing with others how God helped them through a time of crisis. Fifth, God uses hard times to prepare us for a new understanding of his character. In the furnace we discover God’s goodness in a way we had never experienced it before.
Someone wrote me a note describing several traumatic events, including the death of a parent and a very painful divorce. He said that he was glad to see the previous year end because it had been filled with so much pain. The whole year he had been living on the brink. But that’s not bad, he said, because out on the brink of life he discovered the grace of God. “I have learned I am a person desperately in need of grace.” Hard times helped him see how much he needed the Lord. His pain taught him that he is like a helpless baby, totally dependent on the Lord.
On one level we all know that’s true. It’s just that we forget it until life falls apart all around us.
III. God intends to give us a future filled with hope.
“To give you a future and a hope.”
I was fascinated to discover that some versions say “to give you an expected end.” That’s actually a good way to translate the Hebrew. God is not just giving a vague promise that things are going to be better sometime, somewhere, in some situation. That’s true, of course, but this verse has a very specific focus. God has an appointed end for his people, and nothing will hinder them from reaching that appointed end. Though they could not see it, held as they were under total Babylonian domination, seventy years down the road the same God who raised up a pagan king (Nebuchadnezzar) to judge them will raise up another pagan king (Cyrus) to deliver them. And neither pagan king was aware of his part in God’s plan. Each man acted according to his own free will, and God worked through those kingly decisions to bring his children home.
The end they expect will come—though not exactly as they expect it.
And not for 70 years.
They will see the end that God always intended.
God has no unfinished plans!
They will see what God intended from the beginning.
Seen in this light, Jeremiah 29:11 becomes a great comfort, especially when we are going through hard times. It teaches us that God thinks of us, that his thoughts toward us are good, and then when his purposes have been completed, he will bring our troubles to their appointed end.
This is the “hope and future” we all need.
Lessons From the Coke Bottle Factory
The summer after I graduated from college, I worked at a factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee that made Coke bottles. I worked as many hours as I could because Marlene and I were getting married in August and then we were moving to Dallas where I started seminary the next week. My job mostly involved cleaning up the area around the huge machines. I spent hours sweeping up shards of glass from bottles that had been discarded during the manufacturing process. It wasn’t particularly difficult, and I loved working late at night, surrounded by the roar of the enormous machines, as the molten glass was pressed into a series of molds, out of which came a long row of translucent green Coke bottles. I forget the precise temperature of the molten glass but it was red hot when it flowed into the mold. As soon as the mold opened, the newly-formed Coke bottles lined up like soldiers in a line, row after row after row, thousands of bottles every hour, carried away on a slow-moving conveyor belt.
The men who worked at the factory warned me never to touch the new bottles, partly because the glass was far too hot and partly because they would easily shatter. The first part I could understand but the shattering part made no sense. Coke bottles were made to withstand enormous abuse. In those days, before plastic bottles and aluminum cans, the bottles were used and then reused, sometimes several times. You could take the empty bottles to a store where you were paid a few cents for each one. If the bottle was in good condition, it was cleaned and then refilled. So how could the bottle shatter so easily right on the assembly line? I remember one man, a longtime worker, who patiently explained that the glass had to be “cured” by heating it to a very high temperature. The manufacturing process involved taking molten glass, pouring it into a mold, lining up the new Coke bottles on a conveyor belt, allowing them to cool for a few minutes, and then passing them through a vast oven that cured the glass. Once the bottles came of the oven, they were hard and strong. To illustrate the importance of the curing process, the man took a few newly-formed bottles off the conveyor belt, using tongs to keep from getting burned. When he pushed them over, they broke instantly. “If we don’t heat the bottles, they will all shatter like that,” he said. That occasional shattering kept me busy sweeping up glass all night long. And the curing process actually made the glass stronger.
The engineers who designed the Coke bottle knew it had to be heated in order to be strong. That curing process was absolutely necessary to produce a Coke bottle that could be used and reused. We might say that the engineers had a hope and a plan for those bottles, they had an “appointed end” by which the bottles would provide a refreshing drink to young kids all over America who would go to the corner grocery store and pay twenty cents for a Coke. The baking in the oven guaranteed that that bottle could withstand heat and cold without shattering.
The memory of that late-night science lesson has stayed with me for over 30 years. The curing of the Coke bottle was necessary and beneficial for its ultimate purpose. Passing through the furnace actually made it stronger. It is the same for you and for me. We cannot skip the “furnace times” of life. They are part of God’s purpose to make us ultimately useful. That may not seem like much consolation when you feel the heat blasting around you. But know this much. You will not be in the furnace a second longer than is necessary. When your trial has come to its appointed end—appointed by God himself—you will come forth stronger than before.
What, then, should we say in response to all of this? Our first and greatest need is to submit ourselves to our Heavenly Father and say very simply, “Lord, you know even though I don’t know. You see what is ahead even when all is dark to me. You have a purpose even when my life seems to be going in circles. Nothing that is happening to me has come to me by chance. I bow down before you and say, ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord.’ Amen.” Surely we all need to pray like that every single day.
If this verse is true, then our position ought to be one of ever-increasing hope in the Lord. I admit that is hard to do when you see your child suffering from cancer or when your marriage falls apart or your career dissolves or you cannot pay your bills or you suffer rejection from those you thought you could trust. We all live in a fallen world, and we ourselves are fallen people, not yet what we could be or should be or someday will be. There is no Bible verse that can take away the pain of this world. But Jeremiah 29:11 leads us out of the darkness into the light.
We are not children of darkness!
We are the children of light!
“But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day” (Proverbs 4:18).
Let us hear Spurgeon again:
We are not driven into growing darkness, but led into increasing light. There is always something to be hoped for in the Christian’s life. Let us not look towards the future nor regard the present with any kind of dread. There is nothing for us to dread.
When we read a verse like Jeremiah 29:11, we ought to ask ourselves, “What difference does being a Christian make?” We suffer as others suffer. We get sick, we face trouble, and we go through the full range of human experiences. Ask the Christians in Sudan if they know anything about suffering. Ask the Christians in Saudi Arabia what it’s like to follow Jesus. Our brothers and sisters around the world face trouble every day because of their faith. Let me say again that I have no “magic verse” that can remove all your troubles, wipe away your tears, resolve all your conflicts, or bring you quickly out of the furnace. If anything, Jeremiah 29:11 is meant to help us while we are in the furnace with the certain truth that we are there for a purpose, that it won’t last forever, and that God will be glorified and we will be improved by our “furnace time.”
What difference does being a Christian make? Jesus Christ has died; he has risen from the dead. In his death he defeated sin; in his resurrection he defeated death. Our two greatest enemies lie at his feet:
He utterly defeated them both. And the Lord Jesus has purchased us with his blood and brought us into God’s family, guaranteeing our salvation. No wonder the Bible says, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)
If we know Jesus, we will have what we need, when we need it. That means that if you find yourself in the furnace of pain, difficulty, sickness and loneliness, then it must be true that in some way that we cannot clearly see, that you are where you are because you need to be there right now. That was true for the Jews in Babylon, and it is true for you and me wherever we happen to be. We can say it another way. If you needed to be somewhere else right now, you would be in that other place but you are where you are because of God’s providential oversight of your life.
Either we believe that or we don’t.
If we don’t, we are bound to end up unhappy, frustrated, miserable, filled with doubts, given to anger, and prone to seeking quick fixes instead of waiting on the Lord.
But if we believe that, then we will wait patiently on the Lord, believing that Babylon is better for us than Jerusalem, even as we wait for the day when we finally go home.
We’re not home yet.
But we will be soon.
Fear not, child of God. No one knows what a day may bring. Who knows if we will all make it through this week? But our God is faithful to keep every one of his promises. Nothing can happen to us except it first pass through the hands of a loving God.
If your way is dark, keep believing. When your trial is over, you will say what the saints have said in every age, “The Lord was with me all the way.” Amen.