For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." Jeremiah 29:11
I’ve heard this verse many times. It usually gets pulled out when people are going through hard times.
I wonder if other people view this verse like I used to. When hard times came, a part of me held on to this verse like a lifeline to keep me afloat.
The other part of me thought this verse was utterly ridiculous.
I think about my friend who trained for the Olympics for years. She put a strong effort in the finals of her race for the 2012 Olympic Trials, a race she had been training for and looking toward all season.
Yet she missed the top three and was unable to represent the USA at the London Olympics.
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How was that supposed to prosper and not harm her?
I think about the worst night of my life. In 2011, I was an assistant track coach at Central State University and we were on our spring break trip in Florida.
Our last night there, one of our athletes went missing. All through the night, rescue squads searched for her. The following morning, we learned she had drowned at the complex where we were staying.
How was that supposed to give hope and a future?
Situations like this made it clear my definition of “prosper” and “not harming” were different than God’s.
A Common Misunderstanding
After my athlete died, I experienced a slew of emotions. I was angry at God for allowing it to happen. I felt guilty because I didn’t notice she was gone. I became impatient with my athletes and “Why?” was a question that constantly plagued my thoughts.
As athletes, we expect pain in our sports. We willingly put strain on our muscles because we know the pain will pay off. I can’t count the number of times I’ve said, “Pain is just weakness leaving the body.”
Yet pain outside our sport is unacceptable. We can't believe this pain will somehow benefit us.
Ironically, Jeremiah wrote these words to God’s people who were in exile. Not only were they exiled, but it was God who sent them there.
It is often believed that as a Christian, our life will be all rainbows and butterflies. But when we turn to the Bible, we see that is not the case for any follower of Christ. It was not even the case for Christ Himself while He was on earth.
James makes it clear in his book that we will face trials (James 1:2) and Peter tells us not to be surprised by the trials that come our way (1 Peter 4:12). Although they faced many trials, these disciples of Jesus had the bigger picture in mind.
Sometimes trials are of our own doing; sometimes they’re the work of Satan; sometimes they’re just an effect of living in a broken world. Regardless of the source, they're always an opportunity to know God better.
So What Does Prosperity Mean to God?
True Biblical prosperity comes when we are in a relationship with God, when we are walking with Him and getting to know Him better.
If we look at the Bible as a whole, not just pieces here and there, we see God constantly calling His people into a relationship with Himself. Instead of shielding them from hard times, He draws closer to them in the midst of trials.
Time and time again, we see Christians then and now enduring hardships joyfully. It's not because they enjoy pain, but because they believe everything is going to be okay. They may not know when or how, but they trust God and have a peace knowing He sees beyond the pain.
We hope and long for what we consider “good” things, but God has a hope and a future full of great things. Our finite minds cannot fathom the things God has in store for us in heaven.
Seeing the Details from a Different Perspective
What if we imagined our lives as a puzzle?
As we go through our lives, God gives us pieces of our puzzle. Sometimes He gives us a piece that fits nicely with the other ones we have. But sometimes He gives us a dark piece that doesn’t seem to fit with the others.
We try to make sense of it, but the fact of the matter is we can’t see the full picture of our lives. We don’t hold the puzzle box. God does.
The Bible gives us a snapshot of the unfolding plan of God and our lives are small pieces of a much larger puzzle. As we understand that, we realize we have a loving God who has a long term plan to prosper us and not harm us. He is our hope and our future.
So when we’re given a piece that doesn’t make sense, we trust God that this piece wasn’t given to us by mistake—it was given to us because it is necessary for the bigger picture.
Learning from Trials
My friend experienced a new piece of God’s character - His protection.
It turned out she had a partially torn Achilles tendon and had she continued to race, she would have torn it completely and she would not be able to run any more. She would not be preparing for the 2016 Olympic Trials.
Her relationship with God is stronger today than it was four years ago.
I experienced a different slice of God’s character. I saw His compassion through His people as they stepped up to care for me and my other athletes.
In experiencing that compassion, I was able to extend it to the other athletes as I listened to their pain. This opened the doors to many spiritual conversations.
My relationship with God grew stronger.
I don’t know if that was one of God’s intended outcomes of her death. I know some of her family and friends have unanswered questions and have struggled with the reality of her death.
Over the years I’ve tried to stop asking God, “Why?” Instead, I strive to ask questions like, “What are you trying to teach me?” or “How can I use this to bring you glory?”
I may not have all the answers, but I serve a God who does. As I anticipate the trials yet to come, I will remember the words I once heard, “When faced with the unknowns, I look to a God who is known.”