Certainly Jeremiah 29 is often quoted for comfort and reassurance in the midst of various seasons of life. Christians seem to lean on it during times of stress and great trial, and rightly so. As I read it this time, the thoughts and questions it inspires relate to my present hopes about the way God is using place and purpose in my life.
At the time of Jeremiah’s writing, God’s people were in exile in Babylon. Their culture, their beliefs, their family and societal structures were being attacked and dismantled. Today, whether or not we are mindful of the fact, we ourselves are also in exile in a sense (1 Peter 2:11). Neither Earth nor the bodies we wear while we inhabit it represent our true home or state of being.
We are foreigners brought into a land where we will live only for a brief time, a contrast to the place where we will ultimately dwell for all time after we receive our resurrected bodies. Nonetheless, we often forget our true identity, and temptations to serve false gods like power, money, and success convince us that this world is our real and final home.
We wrongly put our faith in idols that the world marks with its value, even though they are not everlasting. We pursue human and Christian longings for lives full of meaning and wholeness, but we too easily replace God’s knowledge with what that looks like within our own, corrupted desires. So what do we do with our temporary status in the world God has called us into? How do we serve God in this place without being attached to the outcomes?
At this stage of my life, I don’t quite know where I belong. As is common for so many, I’m a couple years out of college – away from the structures that have defined life for so long, levels of school upon school and well-worn paths. And yet I haven’t been “at it” long enough to develop much in the way of new structure or paths. I’m floating. (And lest you think this is “navel gazing,” I recognize how good I have it. I’m simply noting the dislocation that is normal and common to someone entering a new stage of life.)
While by no means to the extent of the exiles in Babylon, in northern Virginia I feel like a stranger. The place where I was born has become less and less like a home – the friends and family I care about the most are not necessarily there anymore or never were – and I have no solid plan or knowledge of where I will be in seven months: where I will live, what kind of community I will have, and what I will be doing to support myself financially.
I hope to teach, so I pray that I will find a job teaching in one of the excellent schools in this area, and that requires researching school communities in order to better understand how they operate and how I can serve the needs of their students. It requires extending myself and pursuing knowledge of a place and group of people that are new to me. Middle school or high school? Public or private? Christian or secular? These are the questions currently spinning around in my head.
More than perhaps any other time in my life, I feel aware of the tension between pursuing my own desires and knowledge of what I think I want, and the knowledge that only God possesses in the plan He has for me. My prayer is that He will make my desires His and reveal them to me… and preferably soon. But ironically, they are never revealed in a single moment nor in their entirety, and even after the next step of the plan is revealed, I must continue to seek Him and to do so with all of my heart. As Christians, we all live in the midst of the even greater, extended tension that can be resolved only by God’s final fulfillment of our lives through the coming of His kingdom.
To review: we know we do not belong on this earth, but we are made with desires for community and for purpose, even though they can only be truly satisfied by God and by living in community with Him. Therefore, it would seem logical that God might command us to overlook our work here in the world and to live with our eyes above it, to remain faithful but to simply wait for the goodness that awaits us in His heavenly kingdom.
Yet that is not what He said to the exiles in Babylon, and it is not what He says to us now. Instead what he offers is a reminder, and a kind of renewal, of the cultural mandate: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; multiply there and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile…” (Jeremiah 29: 5-7).
One day God will gather us up as His people and unite us for all of time, but for now where He has put us, He wants us to be agents of goodness. Even though I do not know what tomorrow will bring, I have to trust that what is to come will be for good. Meanwhile, in our discomfort and vulnerability we grow to trust Him more, because along the way He reveals how promises of His provision and plans for our welfare counteract our human worries about the future.
The turn comes for me as I realize that we are called to seek the prosperity of our friendships, families, workplaces, and communities not for our personal gain or how they satisfy our worldly needs but ultimately as an effort to have earth more accurately reflect God’s kingdom. Wherever He has called us at this point in our lives, He wants us to look around at the people and places that surround us and love them and care for them. He may call us to live and serve there for ten months or ten years, and even if we do so loosely, He wants us to plant roots where we are and love our fellow exiles there.
How will we respond to this call today? Rather than as citizens of the earth, I pray instead that we may do so as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Where am I tempted to pull away from my community? Where am I overly-tied to it? How would God call me to love it, even though I live here as an exile?
Tim Hilliard works in youth ministry and is a member of the 2015-2016 Falls Church Fellows Program.
Images: FreeImages.com/Candice Courtney, John Watson, Jamie Woods