(The following is my own modified translation from Jeremiah 29, following closely the NRSV. NKGCV => New Ken G Crawford Version)
This text, I believe, is both central to our understanding of God’s call upon the church, and terribly misunderstood by congregations and especially when applied to individual lives. I invite you to read the text, and then I’ll explain why I think this is true.
4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord. 10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.
11 For surely I know the dreams I dream for you, says the Lord,
dreams for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
Again, v 11 “For surely I know the dreams I dream for you, says the Lord,dreams for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Those familiar with this passage typically know it with the word “plans” where I have translated “dreams.” The Hebrew is “Machashabah” (thought, device, plan, purpose,invention) from “Chashab” which can mean “to plan” but also means imagine, consider, think upon, recon, and esteem. “Plan” is an unfortunate and limiting translation because of it’s concrete and specific connotations in our modern culture. We think of building plans, schematics, of a plan for a trip or event, that has every detail clarified and managed. By implication, then, this would suggest that God’s intentions toward us are similarly concrete, specific and managed town to the last detail. Two problems with this, biblically speaking: 1) The text is about “The People of God”, not about an individual or individuals; and 2) the scripture simply does not support the notion that God has every detail thought out in advance. If that were true, then our task would be to discern and follow every micro step in our journey. At any point in time there would be one and only one right and perfect place and way to be in the world, everything else would put us outside of God’s perfect will and plan for us.
Certainly there are times when the Spirit does seem to have a concrete and specific intention in mind for us, individually and collectively. Those moments appear in scripture as well – and they are the exponential exception, not the rule. Take the story of David, for example. We have dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of days accounted for in his life. This leaves the vast majority of days unaccounted for. This does not mean God was absent (“Where can I flee from your presence?” Ps 139:7) but rather that God’s presence is more like the wind that blows, as Jesus suggests (John 3:8). Some will counter with “All our steps are ordered by the Lord” (Prov 20:24). I would submit that we hear Proverbs in light of Psalms “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a Light to my path” (Ps 119:105) and understand that God’s Word and Spirit are leading and guiding us in the way of righteousness, but not micromanaging our choices along that way. Each day may present us with multiple good and right options for living our lives. Righteousness comes in fidelity to God’s spirit i the choosing, and in our commitment to the choices we have made, recognizing that each “Yes” also brings multiple “No”s. My yes to my wife means my no to that kind of intimacy with all other people. My yes to my children means my no to pursuing my own interests (and even what call I think God may have placed on my life) at their expense.
What of these dream then? How and when do they come? The context gives us those answers. God says, “Bloom where you are planted. Bless those around you, even if you see them as your enemies. For your blessing hangs directly on your willingness and actions to bless others.” So, while I am waiting for God’s dream to be revealed and fulfilled in my own life, I am to be faithful to the call of this larger context from Jeremiah 29. I am to to as Micah 6:8 direccts “Do justice together with God. Love mercy together with God. Walk humbly together with God. This is the whole of what God requires of you.” (NKGCV)