Exile not Isle

Church de Diogène

If you’re coming at this Christian thing from a Western culture framework, you might have heard a little voice calling out to you from Jeremiah: For I know the plans I have for you. We in the West like to tattoo scriptures on our wrists, encircle them in floral print, and pin them to our mirrors on brightly colored note pads. I’m right there with you. But there’s something to this notion of a “Bible of comfort” that misses the point. Jeremiah 29 isn’t a letter of sunshine and rainbows. It’s a letter to the forgotten church, and a promise that all will be well long after they’re dead.

Chapter 29 has the chapter title “A Letter to the Exiles” (NIV). It is sent from the prophet Jeremiah to those living in exile (verse 1). The first portion addresses how these displaced people are to live in their new home. Despite the unfamiliarity, the seemingly sinful nature of the Babylonians, and the displacement, The Lord makes one thing clear: The people are to make themselves useful to the Babylonian people. They are to multiply. They are to remain in exile and not rebel against it. And then we get to verse 10 and 11:

This is what the Lord says: “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.”

Most Biblical scholars think that “70,” when used (often) in the Bible refers, not to an actual number of years, but to the equivalency of a lifetime. This means that, to the people Jeremiah is writing (and, indeed, to Jeremiah himself) God’s promises of a better hope and a better future will not be seen within their lifetime. Rather, God is addressing the people group to which those in exile belong. This makes sense within the cultural context of the day, as collectivists often think of their sense of identity in relation to those around them. God essentially asks those in exile to do all the hard work, and the only hope they have is that one day, after they’re dead, God will do something amazing.

Talk about a slap in the face. Even for a culture with an emphasis on the multi-generational family, respect flows upward, to the elders and ancestors, not downwards towards the kids. Many immigrant families know the cost of this mentality today. Oftentimes, they have to suffer more so that they’re children get a chance at a better life.

But what does Jeremiah offer those of us who don’t make these types of sacrifices, and what does it offer to us those who are currently suffering?

Too often in church circles, we produce Bible bandages. We tell each other that the Joy of the Lord is our strength. That God works in mysterious ways. That we should believe that one day this pain will be used for our good. That our suffering is merely a reflection of our inability to trust in God’s great plan.

It’s one thing to say these things to our children as they come home from school with tear-stained eyes, or to our friend who didn’t get that internship. But to say these things to our peers struggling with depression, to parents of dead children, and to spouses of adulterers, they offer little comfort. The truth is that maybe one day they will understand all this pain, why their child had to die, why their marriage had to end. But the more likely truth is that they won’t. The more likely truth is that you and I will have a million “why” questions on the day we go to meet our savior.

Perhaps the reason God gives us this verse in Jeremiah is not to platitude-away our sufferings. Perhaps God is trying to give us permission to not understand, to be angry, to question, but to do it all while trusting God.

If you’re suffering right now, I won’t waste your time or crush your spirits by saying that God has a plan in all of this. That that person had to die, that that relationship had to end, that that plan had to fall through. I won’t because I don’t believe that helps. Instead, I’ll tell you that you may never understand, that that pain will follow you for the rest of your days. I’ll also tell you that Babylon will fall, that God will crush it, that whatever your enemy looks like – death, disease, hatred – will be struck with famine and sword.

It may not be a comfortable one, but there’s a seat for you in the story of Jesus. A seat that exists despite your questions, your pain, and your very real fear.

Church de Diogène by Korbo. Used fairly under the Creative Commons 2.0 license. No changes were made and rights are retained to Korbo under the aforementioned restrictions and with the aforementioned permissions.

*All verses from NIV

Bryce Van Vleet is a psychology undergraduate based in the Pacific Northwest. He is a lover of words, terrible video-game player, and frequent drinker of soda and other sugary drinks.

The next Word Wednesday will be posted on May 16th. Keep an eye out for other features coming in the meantime!

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