If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you’ve probably heard or read these two passages of scripture as uplifting and encouraging:
For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. ~ Philippians 4:13 NLT
For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. ~ Jeremiah 29:11 NLT
In countless places, these verses are cited as a way to tell Christians that they can “do anything with Jesus’ help” or that “God has good things planned (soon)” for us. While I firmly believe that God loves us, wants good things for us, and gives us strength, when we look at these verses out of context it leads to all-too-human perspective rather than thinking in terms of God’s eternal plan. It makes me want to go all Inigo Montoya…
Let’s look at some context. In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul has just said in verse 12, “I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little.” So Paul is basically saying that he can go with the flow, even enduring suffering, with the strength that Christ gives him. Not quite the message we get from the bumper sticker.
In Jeremiah 29 — outside of the fact that Jeremiah has been prophesying for years that God was going to cause Babylon to destroy Jerusalem, take some into exile and slaughter everybody else — in verse 10 he has just said, “This is what the Lord says: ‘You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again.'” So… God’s plans for Israel’s future, in which they should have hope, include the destruction of Jerusalem and 70 years of exile. Again, not exactly a greeting card message.
So where’s the hope? Where’s the encouragement? The key here is to keep an eternal perspective. God ALWAYS keeps his promises. It’s just in His timing. He will be with us. He will give us strength to endure, but He does not promise that we won’t have to endure anything. In fact, Jesus tells us that we will suffer for following Him. Here’s the weird part: if you’re doing it right, if you’re following after Christ with your whole heart, you get joy. JOY. In the midst of suffering, exhaustion, tedium, pain, humiliation… even when we don’t understand it and wonder where God is… the Christian who keeps their eyes on Christ and the kingdom of heaven has a deep wellspring of joy that cannot be taken away or explained.
If you have it and you know what I’m talking about, you may find who thinks it is inconceivable that you can have joy in the midst of suffering. Just tell them, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Remember, death cannot stop true love, all it can do is delay it for a bit. 🙂