Thursday, August 19, 2010

And While I'm At It: Jeremiah 29:11 Edition

I figure while I'm on the topic of yesterday's post, I might as well get this off my chest too.

It seems to me that so often we read this very beautiful verse within the context of how we want to read it and how we've been trained to read it based on our culture:

"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." Jeremiah 29:11

Now, if you start to discuss culture when it comes to reading the Bible, people will shout "Cultural Relativist!" and throw things at you. Cultural relativism would be to say that some Scriptures do not apply because cultures have changed. That is very different from acknowledging that you come from a distinct culture that colors how you understand the world around you and the things you read.

Some people say, "I just read the Bible like it is. Period," as if those who try to understand culture are just being namby pamby. I believe very much in Sola Scriptura, but no one on this planet approaches Scripture alone. We approach it with a lot of baggage, history, preconceptions and misconceptions. Just look at all the Jewish people who understood prophecies regarding Jesus to mean he was going to be a political and military leader, based on their cultural values.

Those who argue that they "just read the Bible like it is," say this because they believe that they are "normal," that the way they think is neutral and the default. But there are 5 million 700 thousand people on this planet who would say that you are the variant and they are the normal ones.

In America, we are highly individualistic. I'm not going to beat up on individualism, becuase I personally love our individualism (though sometimes we take it too far). When I go to other cultures, the lack of individualism really bothers me and I can't wait to be back in America. In America, we emphasize individual achievement. We love to see someone work hard, have big dreams, and rise to success (i.e. American Idol).

Our extreme individualism affects so much: How we approach government (as expressed in our high value on personal freedoms and small government), how we understand time ("me time" is not a concept or a "right" in many other countries), and our ambitions (which tend to be focused on an individual and not the group).

We have been told our whole lives, "You can do anything you put your mind to." We have been asked our whole lives, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" And millions of us have read that we can have a purpose-driven life, that is a purpose driven by our own individual talents and inclinations.

So when an American reads, "For I know the plans I have for you..." we read it within this context. We read it and think, "God has plans for me! He wants me to have a good job and a good spouse and a good future." We tend to think of God's plans as relating to our individual circumstances in life.

Back up to when the verse was written. It was a prophecy given to Jeremiah regarding the future of the nation of Israel. They were in exile in Babylon, and were going to remain so for the next 70 years. But in this passage, God promises to bring them back from exile and to give them a future and a hope.

So we can see that this prophecy was not individually focused (it applied to the overall well-being of the Jewish nation) and it was not immediate (it was for 70 years in the future, when many who first heard it would be dead). This "welfare" plan that God had for them wasn't a quick or an easy one. They were going to be strangers in a strange land for several generations before it came to pass.

Fast forward: 2010, and Christians now read the prophecies given to the Jewish nation as promises to God's broader people, the Church. But few of us read the context of this original promise, instead contenting ourselves in taking it to mean God has good things in store for me, like financial security, a handsome man, and three kids.

If we were not just reading this verse how we want to read it, we would see that it was given to the nation of Israel as a view of his overall plan for them, not as individual promises for a good life. Today, most Christians believe the Old Testament promises to the nation of Israel translate to the Church. If that is so, then the verse refers to the plan for the whole Church, not necessarily to individual people. But because of our individualism, we tend to see the verse from the point of the individual, not as a a long-term plan for the group.

All this isn't to say that God doesn't have "good" for you, or even have an individual plan for your life. We can learn about God's character from this verse - that he wants our welfare not to harm us. But we can also see from the context, that his idea of good isn't necessarily our idea.

And that's why I think we have to learn to understand our own culture and that of others. When we fail to recognize that we are not unbiased by default, we become trapped in interpreting the Bible based on our own inclinations and biases.


Amber said...

Oh wait, I forgot to include my point....As with yesterday's post, the reason this matters is that we get caught up in self-focused thinking, rather than thinking of things above.

Aaron Armstrong said...

Excellent post, Amber. Glad to get your take on this verse.

It's funny, at my old church, about 3/4 of the staff had Jer. 29:11 down as their "life verse;" I always wanted to ask them why.

(Side note, if I ever pick a life verse, it'll be something completely arbitrary and random like Ezekiel 1:16.)