Hope and a Future

For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear 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 I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:10-14)

This is a well-known passage to most of us evangelicals, especially verse 11: “For I know the plans I have for you [or For I know the thoughts I think toward you]. . . “ It’s common to see this verse on paintings, photos, cards, and the like as a reminder. In the last several years, there’s also been a widespread objection to such uses of this verse. The objection? This passage was written to Israel in exile. The implication of this objection almost seems to be that it has nothing to say to us today. After all, it is found in the Old Testament. And we are living in the New Testament.

What to Do With It

Unfortunately, I voiced this objection myself for many years. Yet, isn’t all Scripture inspired by God? Isn’t all Scripture given for us, to teach us and train us? Yes indeed, for Paul reminded Timothy,

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

When Paul wrote these words, the only Scriptures they had were the Old Testament. Therefore, he attests to their validity and authority. Verse 17 is an important verse to remember here. It simply says that all Scripture is helpful in making the man (and woman) of God complete and equipped. Thus, to refuse to study and learn from the Old Testament is to be incomplete and not fully equipped.

If all Scripture is given by God for our training and maturity, then even the Old Testament must have things that we can and should learn. Even a passage like this with a specific prophecy to a specific group of people. Such is the case with this passage. It teaches us at least two things: God’s care for His people, and the fact that we are not home yet.

God Cares for His People

The first thing this passage teaches us is simply that God cares for His people. Israel had been sent away to exile because of their idolatrous ways and refusal to obey the covenant. They continually sought other gods and worshipped them. They adopted the practices of the nations around them, at times even including child sacrifice. God finally sent them away. Yet, as we read Israel was homesick. We see this in Lamentations and other writings. God must surely have felt much like a human father must feel when he has to discipline a son or daughter. In this passage, He promises to bring them back to the land He gave to their forefathers. Even though they sinned against Him repeatedly, God continued to show grace and mercy. He continued to tell Israel, through Jeremiah and others, that their time in exile would end. And then, you know what? He would judge the nation that mistreated them.

In fact, He cares for His people so much that He gave them another promise just two chapters later:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

God’s love was so great for His people that He provided a new way for them. A way for them to be able to live obediently.

So it is with us. Sometimes God disciplines us–not to punish us, but to train us in His ways. Discipline and discipleship are closely related words. He doesn’t discipline us because He is angry. He disciplines us because He loves us and wants the best for us. And that discipline will end. He will bring us back to Himself, if we are willing. Even in our pain, He cares for us, and He has a plan for us, just as He had for them. And He has graciously included us in that same New Covenant.

We Are Not Home Yet

The other thing this passage teaches us is that we are simply not home yet. We were created for a perfect world, to live with God in communion and harmony. We aren’t there yet. Often we are like exiles and strangers in a foreign land. Often the very pain we go through reminds us of this. As the song “Blessings” by Laura Story says,

When friends betray us
When darkness seems to win
We know that pain reminds this heart
That this is not our home

And because this is not our home, God promises us, just as He did Israel, that He will bring us home. He will complete His work in us.

So, when trouble is all around, when darkness closes in, go ahead. Hang on to that popular verse. Because it is true. God has a good plan for you. He plans for good and not evil, to give you hope and a future.

And He promises to take you home with Him.


Desiring to Do Good

With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thess. 1:11-12, NIV)

I’ve been studying the New Covenant a lot lately. Actually, for several years now. I’ve often asked (and been asked by others) two primary questions about salvation and the New Covenant. 1) How can one know he or she is saved? and 2) What is the fundamental difference between the Old and New Covenant? In this passage we have a key to understanding both questions.

What does Paul pray for here? He prays that the Lord would bring to fruition “your every desire for goodness and . . . deed prompted by faith.” In short, Paul is saying that the believers now have a new desire. A desire to be good and to do good. Now, we in the evangelical world often shy away from the term “good” (especially when it’s linked to “works”), because it’s often used in a vague way. Jesus said that only God is good (Matt. 19:17). Apart from Christ, no one has anything “good.” Indeed “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6).

The Foundation of Change: The New Covenant

But what about those of us who are in Christ? Are we no different? I suggest we are. The New Covenant says we are. I’ve written on this subject before and how the believer is changed, but here I want to focus on the effect of that change. We find the New Covenant in these passages:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31–34)

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. (Ezekiel 36:25–29)

In case you aren’t familiar with these passages or the New Covenant, here’s a brief background. These passages appear in the Old Testament. They were prophecies given by God to Israel and later extended to the Gentiles as well (more on this in a bit). When we take these passages together we come up with four important promises:

  • A new identity. Notice the Lord promises to give “a new heart” and to “remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” The heart, in Jewish thinking, is the center of the being, very core of the person. Whereas the old heart of stone was hostile to God, the new heart will be inclined toward Him, to love and obey Him. The person has been changed from sinner to saint.
  • A new status. The Lord also promises to “sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.” Whereas the sinner was defiled by sin, the one cleansed by God is totally clean. The person has been changed from defiled to clean.
  • A new motivation. Instead of obeying God just because the law said so, the Lord promised that Israel (and we) would now obey because the law is written on our heart. He says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” Again, the heart is the center, the very core of the being. So, now our motivation is internal. The very law of God is written into our makeup! We are changed from keeping the law because it’s what we do to keeping the law because it’s who we are.
  • A new relationship. Not only is the law written in our heart, but the believer also has the very Spirit of God indwelling him! The Lord promised, “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” As if the law written on our very hearts wasn’t enough, we are given the Holy Spirit to teach and encourage us. We are changed from us living in God’s presence to God’s presence living in us.

How do we know that these promises apply to all believers, not just Israel? Because God gave the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles on the same basis. We read this in Acts 11, after Peter visited a Gentile by the name of Cornelius and then reported back to the Jerusalem church:

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:15–18)

Then we read this, in Peter and John’s testimony before the Sanhedrin:

The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him. (Acts 5:30–32, emphasis mine)

The Holy Spirit is given to all who obey the Lord and respond to the gospel. 

New Desires and Old Desires

So, we see that one who is saved is changed. He really is the new creation that Paul describes in 2 Cor. 5:17. Along with the new identity, status, motivation, and relationship comes new desires. New desires to do good. To love. To serve. The question might be (and is) asked, “If that’s true, then why do we see Christians still sin and fail to live out that change?” It’s a good and fair question.

The short answer is, the flesh. We still have the flesh, with its desires intact. The desire of the flesh is primarily to live independently of God, to “do things my way.” That’s how we operated before Christ. So, the flesh wants one thing, but our new heart and spirit want another. As Paul puts it,

For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. (Galatians 5:17).

How do we distinguish between the desires of the Spirit (and our new heart) and the desires of the flesh? That is the question. We should first keep in mind the greatest commandments:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:37–40)

As one writer described it, these commandments tell us that we are to move toward God in loving obedience and service and toward others in love and self-giving service. Thus, anything that causes us to move away from those goals is to be resisted. This includes any desire of self-protection that would keep others at a distance. Anything, however, that seeks to move us toward God and others can be seen as a Spirit-led desire.

Many of our desires will be recognizable. We want to serve others. We want to share our faith with others. Maybe the neighbor down the street is lonely or needs practical help and we find ourselves wanting to help. Some of these new desires will no doubt surprise us. What Paul prayed for in our opening verse should be our prayer as well–that the Lord would help us fulfill every desire for good and every work prompted by faith in our life. Thus, we will both become good (according to His definition) and do good (by His definition).

Some choose to not move until God gives them a specific command, fearful of making a wrong step. This is not His way. He calls us to step out in faith, obeying the desires of the indwelling Spirit and our new heart. If we take a wrong turn in our lives, He is more than able (and willing) to bring us back to His path, teaching us along the way to listen to our deepest desires for Him.

Don’t be afraid to reach out. If you are a believer in Christ, embrace your new identity. Embrace your new desires. Pray that the Lord give you more and strengthen them. And then act on them. Then you will live out the promise:

But forget all that—
    it is nothing compared to what I am going to do.
For I am about to do something new.
    See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?
I will make a pathway through the wilderness.
    I will create rivers in the dry wasteland. (Isaiah 43:18-19, NLT)

The Fellowship of Suffering

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:10-11).

In the previous post (“Your God is Too Small”), I related my struggle to reconcile Jesus’ words about being His disciple (Luke 9:13; 14:23) and (also His) words about receiving for whatever we ask in prayer, which many in the prosperity gospel movement rely heavily on. I mentioned that to experience the power of the resurrected life, we must first endure our cross and the crucifixion of the flesh. In this process, our desires are changed to His desires.

There is, however, another part of the cross-driven life that we often overlook–and from a human perspective it’s quite understandable why we overlook it. We overlook the place of suffering in our transformation on the road to resurrection. It’s not a topic anyone enjoys thinking about. The truth is, though, that we all suffer–the just and the unjust, the righteous and unrighteous, the believers and unbelievers. For the one who follows Christ, his sufferings have a purpose. Says one writer about suffering,

God calls us to participate with Him in the process of our spiritual formation, but we do not initiate some of the most life-changing experiences in our journey. They are unexpectedly thrust upon us in the form of failure, loss, injury, illness, pain, exploitation, and unfulfilled desires. These painful experiences can shake our foundations and expose our deepest longings and weaknesses. Because suffering affects us deeply, it can also be profoundly transformative, giving us opportunities for knowing our inmost selves, deepening our experience of intimacy with God, and growing in Christlikeness.[1]

Even though our sufferings are not pointless, we cannot nor should we minimize them or try to give “pat” answers for the difficult questions that arise. But what we can do, and should do, is join the fellowship of suffering. As believers we can all relate to loss, pain, trials, and grief. Suffering not only unites us with Christ (as we share and identify with His suffering) but also unites us to one another. We are told to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15), in addition to rejoicing with those who rejoice.

Paul often spoke of the church as the Body of Christ. In the body, when one part is hurt or injured, the rest of the body not only compensates but sends aid to that part. So it is with the Body of Christ, the church (1 Cor. 12:26). In the midst of the community of grace, the fellowship of suffering is where we find the most transformation. As we encourage, we are encouraged and transformed. As we wrestle with the difficult questions of “why?” we come, both individually and as a community to a deeper understanding of God’s goodness and the fact that “this is not the way it’s supposed to be.” The same author, speaking about suffering, says,

While we have the great promise of Romans 8:28 that God may redeem suffering by bringing good out of it for those who love Him, it is not what we want, nor should want, and it is not what God wants or originally intended. . . . [Our sufferings] remind us that we are human, that we cannot know all that we are desperate to understand, and that we desperately need God. As we grapple with doubts and questions that arise out of our own suffering, we are changed in the process and are given an opportunity to incarnate the gospel for our generation. As others witness our struggles and faith in adversity and see God’s sustaining grace bringing light to dark, painful places in our lives, they receive hope that God can be trusted in their own broken lives.[2)

What does it mean to “incarnate the gospel”? It means that we live out the very gospel. Jesus learned obedience by what He suffered (Heb. 5:8). And so we too learn obedience and the deepest form of trust by suffering. And at the end of the tunnel we find that unshakeable faith that God really is that good, and the unspeakable joy that He is with us in the midst of the darkest nights. 

[1] Dallas Willard, Keith Meyer, et al. The Kingdom Life: A Practical Theology of Discipleship and Spiritual Formation, p. 172.

[2] The Kingdom Life, p. 172-173.

Your God is Too Small

When the disciples saw [Jesus curse the fig tree], they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matt. 21:20-22).

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. . . . If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple (Luke 9:23; 14:26-27).

If you’ve read much of this blog over the past few years, you know that I have an inherent bent against what many call the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel. I’ve taught against it. I’ve written about it. (See “Blessings for Here and Now” for an example.) After reading much of this writing some might conclude that I am anti-faith or that my definition of faith is merely on the level of intellectual assent. But, that’s not the case.

I’ve wrestled with these issues for a long while now. Recently, they’ve begun to come to the forefront of my thinking as I think about faith and discipleship while writing my current book. The reason that so many (including myself) struggle with these issues–and why so many tend to go to one extreme or the other–is that both of the above statements were said by Jesus, and they are both true. It’s a case of having to hold two (seemingly) contradictory ideas in our heads at the same time.

If I have faith I can have anything I ask….

To be Jesus’ disciple means to deny myself and take up my cross….

I can have all I ask as long as I have faith….

I must take up my cross and deny myself….

How do we understand these two ideas? The first thing we need to remember is that Jesus often spoke in terms of a perfect reality. If we have faith, we can indeed have whatever we ask in His name. Now, we need to remember that the idea of “in His name” isn’t just tagging our prayer with “in Jesus’ name.” No, it means asking for things in His authority and according to His will and character. But, getting back to the point. While Jesus often spoke in terms of a perfect reality, we do not live in that perfect reality yet. That’s something we often forget. Even our faith is stained with the flesh and sin.

What needs to happen, then, is our faith needs to be purified. How does that happen? Through death to self. As we deny self and take up our cross, we are transformed. The flesh is crucified. Sin is progressively done away with. Our faith is strengthened. Do we not see that in older mature Christians, who have a vibrant relationship with Christ, who routinely have prayers answered?

It’s just that their prayers are not our prayers.

The one who has matured, who has died to self, does have the very resurrection power of Christ living in them–as do all who trust in Him for salvation. The process of sanctification has changed their desires, however. They no longer lust for things of this world. They know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God will provide all they need. They further know that His blessings are not for them alone but for the sake of others. 

We often want the power of the resurrection without going through the cross. To quote a popular commercial, “That’s not how this works!” We need the latter to experience the former. How do I know this is true? First is the very example of Jesus. Second, it is the exact opposite of how the world thinks.

Those who seek the blessings of this world without submitting to the cross serve a very small God. They want the “miracle” and “breakthrough” of stuff and things without the deeper and bigger miracle of being transformed into the new creation. Seeking the blessings of this life is putting God in a box, limiting who He is and how He operates. 

Those who seek the cross-driven life, choosing the path of death to self discover something interesting along the way. When they get to that place where their faith is strengthened, where they can truly say, “Mountain be removed from your place and cast into the sea,” their desires have been changed. They no longer care about the blessings of this world. They only care about Jesus, and making Him known to as many people as possible. And when that is the desire of our heart, we can be sure that God will indeed give us all we need to make that happen.