You Have a Great Future: God’s Answer to Failure
June 2, 2020
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Sometimes we can know a Bible verse too well.
Strange as it may sound, we can memorize a verse and still miss the truth God wants us to know. Something like that has happened with the text for this message. We’re in a series called Big Promises: God Says You Are, You Can, You Have, You Will. So far we’ve covered three amazing promises of God:
We can know a Bible verse too well
You are Forgiven: God’s Answer to Guilt
You are Never Alone: God’s Answer to Fear
You Have a Way Out: God’s Answer to Temptation
Now we come to one of the best-known promises in the Bible:
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).
Most of us know this verse by heart because we have seen it on signs, posters, and even on T-shirts. Perhaps your grandmother cross-stitched the words on a pillow. You may have a magnet with this verse on it. We share it with those going through a hard time, or we might buy a graduation card with the words inscribed on the cover. For many people, this is the only verse from Jeremiah they know.
“Has God forgotten us?”
How popular is Jeremiah 29:11? In 2018, it was the most popular verse on Bible Gateway, coming it in at #1 out of 2 billion total pageviews.
We will never understand this verse unless we know something about its background. 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 heart of worldly pomp and pagan idol worship. All their dreams and hopes had been smashed. They wondered, “How could God have let this happen? If we are truly his people, how did we end up here?” They wondered if God had forgotten them.
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.
With that as background, let’s consider three tremendous truths from Jeremiah 29:11.
#1: God Thinks 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 knows who we are and where we are. Not for one second are we ever lost or forgotten.
He knows where we are!
We don’t always think about each other. We forget birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations. I met a man who told me he forgot Mother’s Day until the very day itself, so early that 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 remembered 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 I’m not sure who comes next. That’s why we have apps that send us reminders.
Most of us are better at remembering bad things. Early in the Coronavirus crisis, we heard about a cruise ship called the Diamond Princess that was quarantined off the coast of Japan for many days. During that time, reporters contacted the passengers by cell phone, writing stories about what it was like to be cooped up in a cruise ship stateroom. One reporter talked to Ellis Vincent, a 76-year-old retired airline executive from Australia, who was on the cruise with his wife. When asked how they were spending their time in the tiny stateroom on the ship, Mr. Vincent made this comment about his wife:
She has an excellent memory. She is able to bring up every transgression I’ve ever had. I believe she is not finished. (How Not to Tank Your Relationship in Quarantine.)
We chuckle about that because we all understand the situation. It’s easy to focus on the faults, failures, and foibles of those close to you. But that’s not what God does. The Bible says, “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more” (Hebrews 10:17).
No wonder we’re so messed up
God forgets our sins, but he remembers us. We do the opposite. We forget our friends, but we remember their sins. No wonder we’re so messed up.
Even though God has the whole world to run, he never forgets his children. He knows your face, he understands your pain, and he records every tear you shed.
This would have been an enormous encouragement to the Jews in captivity in far-off Babylon. God has just said, “You’ll be returning home but not for 70 years” (v. 10). That meant they wouldn’t be in Babylon forever, but 70 years is a long time to be in exile. God says, “You think I’ve forgotten you. You are here because you forgot me, and it’s true I am punishing you for your sin, 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.”
God knows what he is thinking even when we don’t
I find great comfort in 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 no apparent rhyme or reason. Even if I say to myself, “God has a plan,” it’s rarely clear to me. But God knows what he is thinking when his thoughts are hidden from me.
But that’s not all. There is even more encouraging truth in this verse.
#2: God’s Thoughts Toward Us Are Good
“Thoughts of peace, and not of evil.”
It is not enough to know God thinks about us. We need to know what he is thinking. In this case he makes it clear. “Thoughts of peace, and not of evil.” The translators render this phrase in different ways:
“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).
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 divine rabbit’s foot to protect us from pain or to keep us from suffering. Remember that this verse was given to the Jews to give them hope that their time in Babylon would not last forever. It is not a “Get Out of Babylon Free” card.
Every affliction is timed and measured
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 today, not just 70 years from now.”
I can imagine someone asking, “But what about when we sin? Does God still love us then?” Good question! All of us sin, and we sin more than we know. We’re not as good as we think we are, and we’re worse off than we know. How does Jeremiah 29:11 help us when we blow it big time? Even when we sin, God does not think evil toward us because that goes against his nature. When the devil whispers in your ear, “You’re rotten. You’re no good. You’re a bum,” tell him he’s right, you are a bum, but God still loves you, and he cannot think evil against you. Even when we suffer because of our sin, God intends to bring us to repentance and healing. God still loves us even when we sin.
That’s what grace is all about. Grace that only works when we are good is no grace at all. We need grace that runs to us when we have acted stupidly for the 47th time. We need “47th-time” grace, and that’s what we have in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We need 47th-time grace
We all know that’s true, but we forget it until life falls apart.
#3: God Intends to Give Us a Hope-Filled Future
“To give you a future and a hope.”
Some versions say “to give you an expected end.” That’s a good translation. God is not just giving a vague promise that things are going to be better sometime, somewhere, somehow. That’s true, of course, but this verse has a particular focus. God has an appointed end for his people, and nothing will hinder them from reaching that appointed end. 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. 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 Lord has no unfinished plans. That includes sending his people to Babylon, keeping them there for 70 years, and then bringing them home once again.
Seen in this light, Jeremiah 29:11 becomes a great comfort, especially when we go through hard times. It teaches us that God thinks of us, that his thoughts toward us are good, and that when his purposes have been completed, he will bring our troubles to their appointed end.
This is the “hope and future” we all need.
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. My job 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 liquid 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 glass, but it was red hot when it flowed into the mold. As soon as the mold opened, the newly-formed Coke bottles came out like soldiers in a line, 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. In those days, before plastic bottles and aluminum cans, the glass 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 new bottles shatter so easily on the assembly line? A worker on the line patiently explained that the glass had to be “cured” by heating it to an extremely high temperature. 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 broken glass all night long.
We cannot skip the “furnace times” of life
That curing process was absolutely necessary to produce a Coke bottle that could be used and reused. Baking in the oven guaranteed each bottle could withstand heat and cold without shattering.
The memory of that late-night science lesson has stayed with me for over 45 years. The curing of the Coke bottle was necessary and beneficial for its ultimate purpose. Passing through the furnace made it stronger. It is the same for you and 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, you will come forth stronger than before.
What 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 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. I bow before you and say, ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord.’ Amen.”
In light of this verse, our position should 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 your sister is battling Covid-19. We live in a fallen world, and we ourselves are fallen people, not yet what we could be or should be or someday will be. No Bible verse can take away the pain of this world. But Jeremiah 29:11 leads us out of the darkness into the light.
Sin and death lie defeated at Jesus’ feet
We cannot escape the troubles of life. Ask the Christians in Sudan if they know anything about suffering. Ask the Christians in India what it’s like to follow Jesus. Our brothers and sisters around the world face trouble every day because of their faith. Jeremiah 29:11 tells us God intends good for us and not evil when we go through our “furnace time.”
What difference does being a Christian make? Because Jesus died and rose again, our two greatest enemies lie at his feet:
He utterly defeated them both. The Lord Jesus purchased us with his blood and brought us into God’s family, guaranteeing our salvation. No wonder the Bible says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)
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, knowing 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.
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 you finally get to heaven, you will look back over your life with all its twists and turns, and you will say, “Jesus led me all the way.” Amen.