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It’s not about us

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Jeremiah 29:4-14

Smart people can make some dumb predictions:

  • In 1943, the chairman of IBM said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
  • Decca Recording Company rejected a musical group in 1962 with the assertion, “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” The group was named the Beatles.
  • Irving Fisher, Economics Professor at Yale University, said, “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” The year was 1929.
  • Charles Duell, commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents, said in 1899, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”
  • The head of IBM once said of a proposal, “I don’t know what use anyone could find for a machine that would make copies of documents.” The inventor was forced to found Xerox.
  • The chairman of Digital Equipment Corporation said in 1977, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

Who of us can really see the future? Who of us thought two Sundays ago that the next day would bring the Virginia Tech tragedy? What will happen tomorrow where you live?

On a day when we honor and pray for our graduates, what kind of society are we sending them into? Is there an overarching purpose to this apparently random, chaotic world? If there is, how can they know it? How can you?

God promises his chosen people, “I know the plans I have for you–plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” But he sent the Babylonians to destroy their temple and take them captive. They’re going to be enslaved in this foreign, pagan land for 70 years. How can this be? How can God have a plan to prosper and not harm them, and allow this?

How can God allow the tragedy at Virginia Tech to take the lives of 32 students and faculty just like our graduates and their parents? How can he allow you to face cancer and heart disease, divorce and death and grief? How does this promise work in a fallen world like theirs and ours? How can we find God’s will and purpose in the midst of such struggles as we all face?

Learn about the purpose of God

Let’s examine God’s answer to our question. Our text gives us five life lessons, each of them crucial to our problem. Our text begins: “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord.”

Here we learn lesson one: God has a plan for our lives.

Over and again, Scripture declares that fact.

  • James taught us: “You ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that'” (James 4:15; cf. Ephesians 6:6, Hebrews 13:21).
  • The psalmist prayed, “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God” (Psalm 143:10).

Whatever your decision, question, or problem, know that God has a plan and an answer for you today.

Lesson two: God knows his plans for us, but we do not.

“I know the plans I have for you,” he says. But we do not. No one in the Bible gets a five-year plan.

  • The Bible says, “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (Hebrews 13:8).
  • When Moses agreed to face Pharaoh, he didn’t know there would be a Red Sea in his future.
  • Joshua knew nothing about a flooded Jordan River or fortified Jericho when he agreed to lead the nation.
  • When Daniel started the day in prayer, he didn’t know he would end it in the lion’s den.
  • The fishermen who left their boats to follow Jesus didn’t know they would lead the global Christian movement.
  • When Paul followed the Macedonian call and baptized Lydia in Philippi, he didn’t know he was bringing the gospel to the Western world.

Whatever your problem or decision today, know that you don’t know the answer. Refuse to trust your human wisdom, education, or experience. Tell God that you don’t know the right plan, and that you need his. Develop the reflex of praying first, always.

Lesson three: God’s plan is for our best.

His purpose is “to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you hope and a future.”

Forty-three times by my count, God’s word promises that God loves us. He so loved us that he gave his Son for us (John 3:16). He proved his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). Nothing can separate us from his love (Romans 8:35-39). He longs to be gracious to us and rises to show us compassion (Isaiah 30:18).

He is a perfect Father, and he loves every one of his children perfectly and unconditionally. No matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done, he loves us. Even though the Jews’ sins and rebellion have landed them in Babylon, he loved them. Even though our sins and failures have caused us guilt and him grief, he loves us. He has a plan to prosper and not harm us, to give us hope and a future. All of us.

Decide now that you will follow his plan, whatever it is, because it is best for you. And then you will know it.

Lesson four: his plan begins today.

It is a flashlight in the dark, showing us enough to take the next step but no more.

God has a plan for where and how they should live: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce” (v. 5).

He has a plan for the families they should have: “Marry and have sons and daughters” (v. 6).

He even has a plan for the country which has enslaved them: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (v. 7).

Even in Babylon, he had a plan for them for that day. They could not know his purpose for the future unless they were willing to obey his purpose in the present. I can’t learn calculus until I learn arithmetic. I can’t drive to Waco until I learn to operate a car. Lance Armstrong started with training wheels. As Oswald Chambers said, we must be of use to God where we are, because we certainly cannot be of use to him where we are not.

Are you in his will this morning? Is there unconfessed sin in your life? Are your dating relationships pure? Your internet use? Your late-night television habits? Your language, and finances, and taxes? We must be close to God today if we would hear his voice tomorrow.

Lesson five: God’s plan is for his Kingdom.

God blessed the Jews because they were his children, but also because they were a means to a larger end. He blessed Israel so he could use Israel to bless the world. He prospered them in Babylon so he could return them to Palestine and through their nation bring the Messiah for all peoples.

As prosperous as Babylon might be, it’s still a foreign country. You and I still live on foreign soil. God’s word calls us “aliens and strangers on earth” (Hebrews 11:13; 1 Peter 2:11). Our best day here cannot compare to our first day in Paradise. Every day we live, we must live for eternity. Our decision we make must be framed by the prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

When last did you make a decision based on what would most glorify God, bring people to serve him as their King, and build his Kingdom on earth? That was the last time you sought his plan in line with his purpose.

Trust the redemption of God

Now, how can this plan to prosper us be reconciled with the Babylon where God’s people found themselves? With the Babylon which is our fallen world today?

The key lies in the redemption of God. The Bible never promises that bad will not come to good people. Quite the opposite, in fact. Jesus warned his followers, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Jesus was crucified, Paul beheaded, Peter crucified upside down, every apostle but John martyred, and John exiled on Patmos. A million Christians died in the first centuries of the faith simply for following Christ. God never promised that his plan to prosper us and give us a future meant temporal health and wealth.

Rather, his present plan is a means to our eternal good: “‘Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to 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 will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile'” (Jeremiah 29:12-14).

God will redeem their Babylonian captivity by using it to draw his people back to himself. In Babylon as they had not in Israel, his people would “come and pray to me.” They would “seek me with all your heart.” Then he would return them to their land, and through them one day bring the Messiah for all peoples. He would redeem the pain they faced in Babylon by using it to draw them to himself.

We’ll speak more of this next week when we consider Romans 8:28. For now, let’s remember a statement I’ve made often in the last year: God’s holiness requires him to redeem all that he permits or causes. God is redeeming the tragedy of Virginia Tech and 9/11. He stands ready to redeem cancer and heart disease, divorce and disease and death. I don’t have to understand all the ways he is, to know that he is. I don’t have to understand aerodynamics to board an airplane, so long as the pilot does. God stands ready to use bad times for good purposes, always. In Babylon then, and in Babylon today.

Conclusion

Where does this promise find you today? Are you a graduate or someone else seeking God’s purpose and direction for your future? Are you struggling with a hard place and wondering why? Perhaps a word of advice may help.

Many years ago, I was part of a worship planning meeting on the Monday after an especially powerful worship service on Sunday. We were all discussing the reasons why the service had been so moving, and looking for ways to make the next week’s worship experience equally successful for those who came. Then one of my best friends in the world, a man who had helped us start that service years earlier, smiled and said something I’ve never forgotten: “It’s not about us.”

He was so very right. Life is not about us. This is Babylon, not the Promised Land. We are subjects of the Kingdom, servants of the King. When we surrender our lives, plans, and agendas to his purpose, asking only how we can serve Christ as our King and help others make him their King, then we find his “good, pleasing, and perfect” will. Then we walk in his purpose each day.

We must lose our lives to save them (Matthew 16:25). We must surrender them to live them. We believe that he is redeeming all that he permits or causes. When last did you submit completely to the plans of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? When next will you?