Oh, the Places You’ll Go: Basic Instructions for Exile by Evan Koons

It’s graduation season again—the time of year when countless wide-eyed young men and women will don funny hats and flowing gowns. They’ll walk across stages and collect hard-earned pieces of paper (permission slips, really) that grant them access to a new world of challenges and mysteries and socio-economic status.

In the world of Christian education—from countless podiums across the country—one verse, I’m certain, will ring out. It is, perhaps, the winningest verse in all of Scripture.

It quells fears, instills confidence, and promises a bright future—Jeremiah 29:11.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Christians love this verse. It has all the ideas and values we crave: prosperity, safety, security, hope, longevity. It’s the verse we most associate with the book of Jeremiah.

How do I know?

As you can see, 29:11 is the most searched verse in Jeremiah. And I find this unsettling.

We need to step back and see the bigger picture.

The Bigger Picture
The bigger picture of Jeremiah 29 is this: it’s instructions for living (and dying) in exile. It’s instructions for exile!

Jeremiah wrote this letter to God’s chosen people as they were being shackled and carted off to Babylon for the rest of their lives. How this tidbit of information fails to make into our graduation ceremonies, I have no idea. (Well, actually I do. But more on that later.)

First, let’s imagine what a graduation ceremony would like if we applied this perspective . . .

We are in a gym or sanctuary or field house or wherever it is kids matriculate these days. The place is packed. Beaming parents are snapping blurry pictures on their cell phones left and right.

A valedictorian, yoked with a multitude of different colored ropes and sashes, medals, pins and buttons, each with its own Latin name, stands before the class. He or she pontificates on 1) adversities overcome, 2) changing the world for Jesus, and 3) the wisdom of Dr. Seuss.

To close, he/she offers the class the blessed assurance of Jeremiah 29:11:“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

“Future,” he/she says, “here we come!”

There is much applause. The valedictorian’s mother is openly sobbing on her neighbor’s shoulder. She’s proud, yes, but she also knows she’ll never have to pay for private education again. She cries even harder.

And as the room settles once more and people start eyeing their programs, the crowd begins to feel the oddest rumbling under its feet. It seems to be intensifying. The principal glances back at the sound guy. The sound guy is chewing on a Snickers bar. He just shrugs his shoulders.

Soon, the entire building is quivering. Explosions and screaming can be heard outside. The faint smell of smoke creeps in through the vents. People start to panic. Before the superintendent can ask everyone to remain calm, the back doors burst open. A horde of foreign, angry, heavily-armed troops storm the place. They break through walls. They repel from the ceiling. They make googly-eyes at the crowd.

It is then, over some PA system blaring from a helicopter high above, that everyone learns the awful truth: all of them—and especially those wide-eyed students with all aspirations—are being shackled and taken away. Resistance is futile. Any and all opposition to this new authority will result in, but may not be limited to:

  1. Chopping you and your family into tiny pieces and blowing up your house.
  2. Burning you alive in a giant fireplace.
  3. Locking you in a pit full of hungry lions.

The helicopter starts to pull away, but stops. The voice on the PA returns, “We’ve also destroyed all your homes and churches and basically everything you know. So . . . there’s that, too. Welcome to the rest of life.”

And with that, the helicopter lifts into the evening sky and disappears, with most of your freedom in tow.

The Real Dire Reality

That’s a more accurate picture of Jeremiah 29. That more closely resembles the dire reality surrounding our beloved Jeremiah 29:11. Somehow, we’ve forgotten that Jeremiah 29:11 is written in the midst of unspeakable calamity.

Why do we fail to recognize that? I think it’s because we fail to recognize that all of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, not just Jeremiah 29:11, still applies to us today.

Sure, our passports and birth certificates tell us one thing, but Philippians 3:20 tells us another: our citizenship is in Heaven. And don’t get me wrong, every square inch of this world belongs to God and His Spirit dwells in us, but we are not yet fully home. Exile is the time in between. We see through a mirror dimly (1 Corinthians 13:2).

A fully renewed Creation in the presence of God is our home. And he is not here like that, right now. But He will be. That’s ultimately what we were created for, complete and eternal union with Him. Until that day comes, we are strangers in a strange land. We live and die in exile, in the midst of calamity. We live and die in Babylon. Welcome “not home.”

This is an unnerving perspective. It should be an unnerving perspective, one of heart-ache and sorrow. It’s the type of perspective that led the Psalmist to lament, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land?”

Feeling the Tension
And I wonder, do we feel that tension today? Do we feel the longing to be united with Christ, to know and fully be known? Do we feel the homesickness, the dis-ease, of being barred from our home? Or, could it be that we’ve come to embrace this world and a culture that preaches happiness, safety, and security at all costs—a culture that flees from all forms suffering and discomfort?

Our preoccupation with Jeremiah 29:11 leads me to believe that this is true. We desperately want to make our home, but before our home is ready.

So, what has been our song in this foreign land? What have we been up to? Greg Thompson, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, says Christians generally respond to exile with one of three strategies: fortification, domination, and/or accommodation.

Fortification is all about protection. These are the Christians who hunker down in their own Christian bunkers with their own Christian friends and their own Christian thoughts and Christianly wait until Christian Jesus comes back.

Domination is all about getting out into culture and condemning it. These Christians are on mission to fight the world and take it back in the name of Jesus.

Accommodation is all about waving the white flag. These Christians don’t want to hide. They don’t want to fight. They just want to blend in, drink really good beer, and get about the business of the day. Unfortunately, in blending in, these Christians lose the reality that they are “set apart.”

Faithful Presence
There is one more way, however, to sing God’s song in exile. It’s not found in any five-step plan, it isn’t a repeatable formula or process, and there are no guarantees for success. Its beginning isn’t in some hideout; its end isn’t with a Christian as the President. It requires no lessening of our faith. It’s something James Davison Hunter in To Change the World calls the practice of “faithful presence.” Where do find an example?

It’s a much lesser known passage also from Jeremiah 29, found in verse seven: “Also, 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.”

Simply put, we are being called by God to spend the remainder of our days serving our captors, working withthem (not fighting them or conforming to them or fleeing from them—but serving them) and compromising nothing. It’s rooted in the belief that all of our vocations (family, work, public service, education, art, and more) matter.

Why? That’s another question for further discussion.

But as for the “future”—as for what living a life of “faithful presence” might look like—who knows? God does (Jeremiah 29:11). We don’t—and we don’t have to.

One thing is for certain, though: in that future, if I typed “Jeremiah” into Google, Jeremiah 29:7 would top the list.