Monday, May 27, 2013

Jeremiah 29:11 and the Myth of the One


 “Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment
Would you capture it?
Or just let it slip?”
--Eminem, Lose Yourself


We live in a culture today which relentlessly preaches something I call the “Myth of the One.” We believe that life comes down to a very small number of pivotal moments, which—if missed—throw everything else off track. I’m not sure where this started—maybe it goes back to Freud and early psychiatrists, who attempted to describe everything in our lives in cause/effect relationship to formative moments. Or maybe they simply were reflecting the general society at large’s acceptance of this Myth of the One.

While the origins may be uncertain, the reality certainly is not:
  •          We believe that there is one perfect major for us.
  •          We believe that there is one perfect college to attend.
  •          We believe that there is one perfect job to take, and one perfect career path.
  •          We believe there is one soulmate for everyone to find happiness.
  •          We believe that there is one “right time” to have kids to maximize happiness.


To put it in Christian terms…we tend to believe that there is one “perfect will” of God for our lives, and every detail of it is mapped out and planned. Because of this, we are forced to either believe that God will make that happen for our lives regardless of our will/desires (Calvinism) or that we are capable of screwing up God’s plan for our lives (Arminianism).

But let’s pretend for a minute that you’re a skeptical Christian. Let’s pretend that—as a reader of this blog—you actually want to base your life on the Scriptures and not the Christian culture we’ve created today. So you decide to look into it. Where can you find verses saying that God will help you find this One perfect major/college/job/soulmate/car/house/etc?

Well many, many books have been written on the topic, by people from Charles Stanley to Rick Warren. They must be filled with such Scriptures! So let’s start there. Here are the verses they commonly site:

  •  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.”
  • And…um…nope, that’s basically it.


There will be a few other verses thrown in from time to time, but even these authors don’t use these as Scriptural proofs, but rather as examples of how to achieve this One Path He has for you. For example some will quote Psalm 119:105, which says that His word is a light for our path. Others will quote Hebrews 12:1, which says that we should run with endurance in God’s race. Or they might reference Proverbs 16:9, which says that humans plan courses but God interrupts to move them other places.

Okay, so there isn’t a whole lot of Scripture there to back up this idea that God has one perfect plan or will for your life. But the Jeremiah 29:11 verse is still pretty-spot on, right? After all, most people think so...it is the second most read Bible verse in Scripture by Christians today. So clearly, this is meant to give us hope in our search for spouses and jobs and such, right?

Wrong.

Context is key, so let’s find out what this verse is about.

After Babylon razed Jerusalem and carried off the Jews into captivity in the 6th century BC, the prophet Jeremiah smuggled a letter into their elders. This letter is recorded in Jeremiah 29:4-23, and says:
  •          The Jews should build houses and settle down
  •          Get into ordinary life – marrying and having daughters and getting to a routine
  •          Seek peace with their new owners, not being trouble-makers
  •          God has not forsaken them during their enslavement. After a cleansing period of 70 years, God will return and lead them back out of captivity (NOTE: This is the section containing v.11.)
  •          God will punish those who abandoned them and fled from exile


That’s what the passage is about, guys and gals. When I think about the 31,000 plus verses in the Bible, it is hard to believe that a prophet's command from 2,600 years ago not to rebel against your slave-masters and instead wait patiently on God to free you is really the second-most relevant verse.

Stop and think for a minute and try and reboot your mind. What our modern American Christian culture has done is so mind-blowing that it borders on violating commands of adding to the Scripture. We have taken a portion of a letter written in the Bronze Age, which was intended to encourage the Jews in slavery to know that God had not broken the Mosaic Covenant…and we have turned that into a theology that says “God has a perfect plan for YOUR INDIVIDUAL life and nothing bad will happen to you unless it’s part of that plan.”

Do you see how, well, arrogant that is? How disrespectful to God and His word?

Misuse of this passage out of context is one of my biggest pet peeves in modern Christendom. This verse is written to a very specific context in the ancient world. IF it has ANY connection in the modern world (and it is not necessary that it does), then it would be to gain encouragement to those in slavery, that God will one day lead them free and back to “Jerusalem.”

To make it about me and my job and my love life and my finances and my car choice and me me me me is just so very selfish and so very wrong.

And worse, it plays into the going narrative in our society that history is all about a series of inflection points, pivotal moments that must be captured or your life is ruined. The Myth of the One, that if I don’t hit that one moment, that one opportunity, then I will ruin God’s plan for my life.


So what is God’s plan for your life?

This is not to say, however, that God has no plan for us. Far from it! God has a very specific plan for your life. It’s just not what Hollywood—or modern American culture—wants it to be.

You see, we have been told that God’s plan for us is a specific path, a “preferred decision” at every moment (no matter how small), and that He helps us achieve it. It is a path that brings us comfort and wealth and happiness and health. It is a path that will please Him and, if we deviate from it, we fail. Oh, maybe we have some latitude here and there, but there are a few key moments that we must pass through.

(Doctor Who fans:  We tend to think that it is just like the Doctor’s “Fixed Points in Time” comment—that history can be rewritten except for a few key fixed points in time, which cannot be altered or messed with.)

But God’s plan for your life is—paradoxically—both more intimate and less you-centered; both more beautiful and less grand.

God’s plan for each of us is to live in our lives as new creatures. To allow Jesus to transform our hearts, wherever we are, and to thereby transform everything around us. Our God is not a God of grand stages and worldwide press, but a God-of-the-moments, a God who is in the dust and muck with us.

With a very few exceptions (Paul, David, John the Baptist…you know, exceptions rare enough to warrant including in the Bible!), God does not have this grand and detailed step-by-step plan which leads you to Great Glory and Wonderful Achievement.

His plan for you is simply this:  to allow Christ to transform who you are so that, whoever you are, you are now an Heir-of-Christ in your environment. If you are a farmer, God’s plan for you is to be a Christ-like farmer. If you are an engineer, God’s plan for you is to be a Christ-like engineer. If you are a journalist, God’s plan for you is to be a Christ-like journalist. If you are a parent, God’s plan for you is to be a Christ-like parent. If you are single, God’s plan for you is to be a Christ-like single.

Your “path” is one of spiritual growth and holiness…not of achievements and works.

To put it simply:  God wants you to make wise decisions, to love God, and to love others. That is His plan.

This makes some of us uncomfortable. We (being so individualistic) hate the idea that this sounds so impersonal. We should each have an exact God-plan for us individually, not just collectively as a group! But you see, that’s wrong. Because when we become Christians, we do in fact precisely this: we die to ourselves and become part of One Body, the Church. Its plan becomes our plan. The Kingdom, not our personal satisfaction, becomes our goal.

Some of you now, as you read this, revolt against it. You want God to have a specific plan for you, John Q. Public, a specific plan that tells whether you should buy this car or not and how that affects your overall story arc. You want, in other words, to be the main character in your story.

You see, that’s the problem. Hollywood has taught us that we are all stars in the picture…when in reality, we are the supporting cast. We are an ensemble. The leading man is the Triune God, and this is His story, not ours. We have roles to play, and those roles are to be wise, love God, and love others. This is the message of the entire Bible, cover to cover. Every Scripture plays into this role, and every Scripture supports this view of our lives.

God loves us, God saved us. Therefore…His plan for you is:  Live wisely. Love God. Love others.

What is God’s plan for your marriage? Choose a partner wisely. Love God by upholding the oaths you make on your wedding day. Love your spouse even during hard times.

What is God’s plan for your college/major? Choose a college and major wisely. Love God through your obedience. Love others during your time there.

What is God’s plan for your career right now? Is He wanting you to accept/reject such and such job? His plan—make a wise choice. Love God and give Him praise that you have such options. Love others in your career so that they can see Him through you.

What is God’s plan for your car choice? Choose a car wisely. Love God and represent Him well. Love those you encounter during the experience, living as a child of the light.


Do you begin to see the point?

God does have a plan for your life. But it is not the Myth of the One, that there is some perfect set of steps which, if not followed, ruin this great glorious tapestry He has woven to bring you fame and fortune.

No, God has a plan which is far more beautiful, far more powerful, far more intimate, and far more awe-inspiring. He wants YOU to become His light in the world around you. To reflect His glory and be one of His candles holding back the darkness of our age.

Stop this silly search for “God’s perfect plan” for you. Just be wise, love God, and love others. Be His light in your life, whatever it brings you. And look forward to the coming Kingdom, where all will be remade.

8 comments:

  1. Michael:

    What an outstanding post! Free will allows us the liberty to move about; wherever that happens to be, God is with us and providing opportunities to love others. His perfect and pleasing will, as you say, is to be Christ to others, regardless of our vocation - whatever we happen to be doing, wherever we happen to be doing it.

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  2. Hmmm, I don't have much time for these sort of prescriptive articles, basically promoting your personal belief as doctrine. Although I do believe there is an element of truth that God might have a variety of options for an individual regarding some issues in life, that's not to say He doesn't have specific plans.

    You need to look at the principle rather than being legalistic about the scriptures. I don't see why Jeremiah 29 v 11 can't have relevance now. It reflects the loving nature of God.

    Let's look at other examples from the bible that suggest God has a specific plan. Isaac's marriage to Rebekah...the fact that Jesus and His family had to flee to Egypt to escape Herod's persecution. Couldn't they have just stayed put and God deliver them anyway? Perhaps but He chose not to do so. They had to follow a particular plan.

    That's why it's a personal relationship with God. Jesus didn't minister to everyone the same way. Why do we put God in a box? The way He works in one person's life is not the same for the next. For some He might indeed have 'The One.

    I think articles like this are as dangerous, if not more, than the 'Myth of the One' that you disparage. By all means we should not be self-centred and overly-individualistic. But at the same time we are not just numbers and God does care about the direction of the individual beyond just. God having a specific plan for us according to HIS will is very different from the selfish 'God I want to do this and You should bless it'. You seem to confound the two.

    '...To put it simply: God wants you to make wise decisions, to love God, and to love others. That is His plan...'

    Yes that's the general plan but it's so over-simplistic. The way it works out in one person's life would be very different from another.

    What is a 'wise' choice? A person can seem like a 'wise' choice of spouse but the reality is very different. The bible talks of wolves in sheep's clothing. Judas was initially numbered amongst the twelve. We often judge by appearances but God looks at the heart. So yes you'd have to seek God's face as to whether this ONE is right for you. I don't believe everyone has a soul mate. Some people have a few compatible choices. But I know that God is more specific about certain matters than others depending on the individual. It's not as if it's as trivial as 'should I wear the blue or red top today'. For those things God might be indifferent but for major decisions He does have a direction for us. Even then God does get involved in the nitty gritty if we allow Him.

    Something can seem good on paper and yet be out of God's will for you. I know that from personal experience. It doesn't mean you chose recklessly. It could just mean you assumed God was leading you in a certain direction and He wasn't. It's important to step out in faith and be practical, not waiting for some voice from the clouds. That's not to say God hasn't got a say in the specifics of our lives. If you're stepping in the wrong direction but are committed to Him He'll set you on the right path. Because He doesn't reveal the full 'grand plan' as you put it all in one go, it doesn't mean that it is only in exceptional cases that He has one. He will reveal it piecemeal according to what we need to know. But He exists outside of time and sees the end from the beginning. Psalm 138 vs. 8 and Phil 1 vs 6 are proof enough as far as I'm concerned if you are bent on finding scripture to back this idea up.

    Shalom x

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    Replies
    1. Tolita,

      Thanks for your post. Allow me to reply, if you don't mind.

      1. First I wanted to explain why I deleted your second comment. I greatly appreciate differences of opinion on this blog, and we have some good debates in the comments. One of the few things that will get comments deleted, though, is calling names or being otherwise un-loving in a disagreement. Read my slogan at the upper-right of the page: "in all things, love" on this page. For you to call me a "Christianized atheist" is not appropriate and will not be tolerated.

      2. I think you might need to re-read the above original article, because I have to believe you are bringing some sort of context into it. You are not arguing against my article but against some sort of straw man.

      I never said, "He doesn't have specific plans," as you claim. What I said is that there is no perfect set of "must-do" steps that if not followed perfectly will screw up your life completely. I never said that "we are just numbers" or "God does not care about the direction of the individual." I've read this article several times and have no idea where you are getting that. In fact you say such things while in my article I explictly say, "This is not to say, however, that God has no plan for us."

      You say many things I agree with. I also agree that the wise choice is different for each of us, and we should be praying to get wisdom. We both agree that there is not one soulmate. We both agree that things can seem good on paper and be out of God's will because you misinterpreted God's will. We both agree that we must have a personal relationship with God. So I don't really know how you read my article and got those things out of it as thinking they were disagreements...

      3. You seem to agree with my exegesis (i.e., what the passage means in its context) but disagree with my hermeneutics (i.e., the overarching way in which we interpret Scriptures). Please read this post to understand my hermeneutical approach (http://rebootchristianity.blogspot.com/2013/01/the-iff-principle-of-biblical.html).

      This is what you are calling my "legalistic" approach to Scriptures. What you really mean is not legalistic, but rather "literalistic." That is, I treat the Bible AS IT IS WRITTEN, not as I want it to be. If the Bible says something to a Jewish audience about their situation, I assume that this is exactly what is intended. I do not rip it out of its context and apply it to my choice of colleges today. And I don't think you should, either. This is a very, very very dangerous principle.

      To ignore context and apply passages to situations out of their original scope is the approach that has led people to use the Bible to justify witch-hunts and slavery and the Crusades and the counter-Reformation. We must be VERY careful that we do not treat the Bible as though it were written yesterday and to you personally. To do so is NOT a virtue! You must accept the Bible as God chose to write it, and be very careful about adding to His words.

      For that is what you are doing. When God sends a message to a people in a certain situation, and you take it as a commentary on YOUR unrelated situation, you run a serious risk of violating Rev 22:19. Be very, very, very, very, very careful about not adding what YOU want into the Bible. It is God's holy word...not your story.

      (part 1 of 2)

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    2. 4. To answer your question in the last sentence, yes, I am unapologetically "bent on finding Scripture to back this idea up," as you say--living a Biblical lifestyle means being bent on finding Scriptures to back up how we live! I will also send you Micah 6:8 for evidence of what I have said, and comment that neither Psalm 138 nor Phil 1:6 is really applicable at all here.

      5. As far as your question about trying to decide the wise choice, prayer and the book of Proverbs is very helpful for clarifying this.


      I know that this is a bit more pointed and blunt than my typical responses to comments. Partly this is because some of the things you say are dangerously wrong. Partly it is--if I am being honest--because being called an atheist for disagreeing with someone does not put me in the best of moods. So I apologize if this seems overly harsh. But I think your response reveals some dangerous Biblical hermeneutical principles that you use, and much of it seems not to be replying to what I wrote at all, but against some extremist straw man variety of the above.

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  3. I think it's a bit harsh and over-sensitive to delete my 'Christianised atheism' comment but it's your blog and thems the rules. I respect that. It's just I won't pretend I wasn't irate when reading your original post; not just by the content but tone. Those who brought it to my attention were displeased with it too. I concede I probably would have disagreed with the angle of it in any case but it might have come across better if it was expressed with more humility.

    I apologise for any offence caused but I was being frank according to how I perceived it. Your original post really had a feel of the Enlightenment 'Watchmaker God' theory that is the only concept of God Dawkins claims he could espouse, if at all.

    In regards to your literalistic comment, I would argue that if you were to read for instance Jeremiah 29 v 11 and take it at face value as the above term suggests, then there's no reason to doubt it's application in circumstances beyond its original context. This is partly what I mean about the principle of scripture. By this I don't mean customising it to suit one's own needs. I mean looking at the scripture in the context of God's word overall.

    Psalms and Proverbs are good as general guidelines and a starting point but if someone has a particular issue, for instance, they have a choice of two jobs, equally beneficial on paper, but God might want them in one place for a season rather than the other, then there'll have to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide them to God's preferred choice for that time. The scriptures might not be specific to that very circumstance, how could it be?

    '...We must be VERY careful that we do not treat the Bible as though it were written yesterday and to you personally...'

    I disagree. The bible is contextual AND personal. I think the point is to know when a scripture refers to a broader context and when it can be applied to the individual. The two are not always mutually exclusive.

    '...For that is what you are doing. When God sends a message to a people in a certain situation, and you take it as a commentary on YOUR unrelated situation, you run a serious risk of violating...'

    I am sorry but you are not the final theological authority. You do not know me or anyone else well enough to decide what is related or unrelated. I don't see how God wanting good for us as expressed in Jeremiah 29 v 11 is not relatable to every situation. Of course what we consider 'good' at the time might differ from what God sees as necessary for us but the principle stands as He is a loving father. It is important to understand historical context but there is a danger in over-intellectualising the bible. This sort of approach is probably what led the Pharisees to be so legalistic. We are suppsed to use rationale and intellect-these all came from God after all- but, like anything, you can take it to the extreme. Why can't Jeremiah 29 v 11 apply then and now? What's wrong with thinking God's ultimate plan for us on an individual level AND as a body is for good and to bring us to an expected end?

    I used Phil 1 vs 6 and Psalm 138 v 8 to emphasise my point that God has a plan for each of us that He'll perfect in time. Our salvation is the basis of it but I believe it encompasses other things in regards to our character, our gifts and ministry, to whom we are called to reach and when.

    '...I've read this article several times and have no idea where you are getting that. In fact you say such things while in my article I explictly say, "This is not to say, however, that God has no plan for us."...'

    I apologise if I misread you on the latter but my comments came from the general tone of your article and remarks such as...

    '...“God has a perfect plan for YOUR INDIVIDUAL life and nothing bad will happen to you unless it’s part of that plan.”

    Do you see how, well, arrogant that is? How disrespectful to God and His word?...'


    To be continued...

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  4. In light of the above I reckon I am justified to think you didn't believe in God having a specific plan for an individual. What I found 'arrogant' was this assertion. I don't see why it's 'disrespectful' to God to believe He wants you to be at certain places at a certain time for His purpose. If you disobey it might not throw things out of sync completely but it would interfere with God's will.

    Another comment of yours that suggests you are against the idea of God having a specific plan for our lives...

    '...Some of you now, as you read this, revolt against it. You want God to have a specific plan for you, John Q. Public...'


    and...

    '...With a very few exceptions (Paul, David, John the Baptist…you know, exceptions rare enough to warrant including in the Bible!), God does not have this grand and detailed step-by-step plan which leads you to Great Glory and Wonderful Achievement....'

    It depends on what you mean by 'grand and detailed'. These men might have been exceptional in what they were called to do but the way God directed their steps is not necessarily unique to them. They didn't always get every detail from the outset. David for instance wasn't to know how long it would take for him to become King although he was aware that God had destined it for him.

    So now perhaps it looks as if I wasn't arguing against 'a straw man' and you are being revisionist in your most recent reply in which you said...

    '...I never said, "He doesn't have specific plans," as you claim. What I said is that there is no perfect set of "must-do" steps that if not followed perfectly will screw up your life completely. ...'

    If that's what you meant than you should have used less emotive language and been more clear. Believing in a plan for you is not the same as following 'a perfect set of 'must dos'' in every situation. However there are some decisions that are more critical than others to your destiny especially when it comes to whom who marry for example.

    '...We both agree that there is not one soulmate....'

    No we do not. What I said is that I don't believe EVERYONE has a soulmate. I do think, according to God's purpose for an individual, there are some people who are destined to marry a particular person because their futures are inextricably linked. That's not to say it's the case for everybody but there are exceptions. God's plan might still go ahead but not in the fullness He would have originally wished. I am sure there were other prophets apart from Jonah God could have sent to Nineveh when he reneged on his mission but the Almighty refused to budge from his first choice. It might not always be that way. God can raise up a David to replace a Saul. It just depends on the individual's relationship with God and the particular plan.

    '...Partly this is because some of the things you say are dangerously wrong...'

    Thankfully scripture encourages us to trust in God and not in man. I'm not looking for your theological approval and that's not what will get me to heaven. If 'dangerously wrong' translates as 'different from my opinion' then guilty as charged and happily so!

    God will direct my path as I look for Him in His scriptures. If any of what you said is founded on truth I'll come to that realisation soon enough. Otherwise I am not missing out on anything.

    'Work out your OWN salvation with fear and trembling...'

    All the best to you Michael. I wish you well and no ill will. We are both passionate people. Unfortunately 'passion' can sometimes come across as hostile in print.

    Shalom x

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  5. Tolita,

    First let me just say: you are my sister in Christ, and thus let us not let our disagreements come between us. I thank you for not wishing me ill will, and I wish none to you.

    Although to be honest, your last statement is a bit wrong: I am not actually a passionate person. :-) In fact, generally I am accused on this blog (and in real life) of being too DISpassionate. You just happen to have found one of the very few buttons that set me off. I know you probably were not meaning it to come across as what you said, but remember that when you call someone an atheist you are saying that you think they are going to hell; when you say that they teach atheism to Christians, you are saying that they are guilty of one of the things that really angers the Lord (Jam 3:1, Luk 17:2). So just tread lightly with that accusation, okay?

    Obviously we disagree on, well, a lot of the above. I don't really see much value in continuing to go point-by-point. I will just make a few final comments and then we can move on:

    1. While we disagree on (many) of the details, the real issue here is a high-level question of how you and I approach the Scripture. I understand your approach quite well because I used to have it! But as I've grown in Christ, I have changed this approach--and perhaps for you it will be a similar pattern. This blog is in large part dedicated to the concept that we get rid of the culturally-based interpretations of the past century or so (such as the one I address in the original post), and instead get back to what the Bible directly said. If you disagree with that, then this blog probably isn't going to be for you! But if you're willing to put in the time and are open-minded, I suggest you start with clicking on the tag "Biblical Inspiration and Hermeneutics" and read the things I have written there. Afterwards, read one or more of the Bible study series I've done (Pentateuch, Romans, Matthew).

    If what is in there is not for you, then reading this blog isn't going to be all that useful or healthy for you, and I wish you the best. But if you are open-minded, I do encourage you to take some time to read my recommendations above and pray and see if the Lord doesn't change your approach.

    2. The severe irony in your comments is that you actually accuse me of exactly what I am arguing AGAINST. You say that I am setting up a theological standard or doctrine...no, I'm not! That's actually the point! Please re-read the post and my IFF link above, and you will see that I am arguing AGAINST building a theology based on verses out of context. I'm saying that our default interpretation of Jer 29;11 (or ANY verse) must be, "What did God inspire this verse to say WHEN HE INSPIRED IT?" I am saying that it is very dangerous to take a verse out of its context and apply it to your situation. Is it definitely not applicable? No...but you better be very, very careful with it.

    My point is that we should read the Bible as it's written. Jer 29:11 is God giving reassurance to the captured Jews that He will not abandon His covenant to them, even if they abandoned their side. If I were to say how this verse applies to us today, it is: "If you are in slavery (e.g., literal slavery or to a slavery of sin), do not despair: God has not forgotten you and will still uphold His end of the covenant."

    In other words...when He gives you a phone book, don't use it as a science text. When He gives you a house plan, don't use it as a car manual. Read the works AS HE CHOSE TO INSPIRE THEM, or else you are writing your own Bible.

    That is what I do here...so if that is not a good fit, then no hard feelings. If you'd like, I can suggest some other blogs more up your alley. But I do really hope you will, before leaving, read the links I gave above and prayerfully consider what they say. It has made a world of difference for me, and I am closer to the Lord than I ever was when I was in my prior state. I think the same could happen for you.

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