I remember these stories from the time I was a little boy. I can see in my fading memory a flannel-graph with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace. I can hear the melodies of a song by Russ Taff called “Not Gonna Bow,” which I heard at my first big concert I ever attended as a freshman in high school (This video may have been taken at the concert I attended). I can remember dreaming of one day being like Daniel, a man who gained respect and admiration from the watching world, while staying true to the One True God.
I have good memories of these stories. Probably the most familiar passage in Chapter 18 is a verse of prophecy/promise from 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 a hope and a future.
This may be the championing verse of scripture for what we refer to as the “prosperity gospel” – the idea that God wants to bless all believers financial success and physical health. After all, if God’s plan for us is to prosper us, it must be financially and physically right? Maybe.
The problem with taking a verse meant for one group of people and assuming it to be true to you, is that when it doesn’t happen the way you expect, you have to believe that something is wrong with you because God never breaks his promise. So if your company decides to lay off 1000 employees because of despicable practices of the CEO, something is wrong with your faith if you are one of the 1000. If you wake up tomorrow and you have cancer and three months to live, something is wrong with your faith because God wants to prosper you physically. This produces some very damaging results for those who end up like the apostles who were put to death for their faith, for Paul who was imprisoned numerous times for his faithfulness to God, for Mother Theresa who lived in poverty but served the poor and broken in poverty. For Sam, who lost his job in the downtrodden market last year. For Jane, who woke up one morning to discover a tumor on her brain.
Now, I believe that God does want to prosper us and not harm us, but not in the way that we Americans limit prosperity. Many people in our world would love to live at our “poverty level” in America. When my neighbor discovers a mysterious disease and he does not know the future, it feels a bit odd to quote this verse to him in the middle of his four-bedroom house with two vehicles in the driveway.
When reading the bible, on first glance, I want to my default questions to be “Who is promise to? What were they expecting? What actually happened for them?” Then once those questions are answered, I can move to how I can apply this to my life.
The promise above was written to Jews living in exile – having been banished from their country to Babylon. They had to feel like their God had deserted them. They had watched friends die and be left for dead. They were struggling under oppressive conditions in Babylon with a lot of harm and no hope or future. God steps in and sends these words…
“When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 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. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
This is a small portion of a larger letter for the people at that time, but imagine the hope that was whispered in their ears with these words. Hope when all is hopeless. A future where there seems to be no tomorrow. A commitment to being his people where they live currently leads to this kind of hope. They weren’t to sit around and do nothing while waiting for this promise. Read the whole thing…it’s pretty incredible.
Sorry for the tangent today, but this is something prevalent in our culture and I’ve seen the damage that our prosperity promises have caused for people. To be sure, as any father does, God wants the best for his children. But don’t confine our “best” to our definition of success here. God has bigger plans that that.