14 Aug 2020

"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. Then you will call on 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 29:11-14

"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father's care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows."
Matthew 10:29-31

"Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." Luke 12:6-7

Aren't those verses nice? Shouldn't someone make a bumper sticker and a fridge magnet for each of them, so we can be comforted by how safe and happy and comfortable God wants us to be?

When life is good and easy and everything makes sense, a superficial reading of these verses can perpetuate a conviction that if we follow God, then he will always keep things good and easy and comfortable for us. He has plans to give us great, prosperous lives and protect us from harm. If he feeds and protects sparrows, then he would never let even one hair of our heads be harmed!

However, to those who are struggling with suffering that doesn't make sense--and suffering usually doesn't seem to make sense at all--this type of reading of these verses suddenly becomes problematic. We won't lose one hair from our heads? Besides the obvious objections from men with normal male-pattern baldness caused by aging, this interpretation doesn't ring true for anyone who has experienced serious injury or illness or the inexplicable untimely death of a loved one.

Back to Jeremiah 29, what is Jeremiah actually talking about? To whom is he addressing this passage? His people have been carried into exile, and they're hearing messages of false hope from false prophets who tell them what they want to hear. They want the exile to end now. They want their enemies destroyed and their nation rebuilt. The false prophets promise these things.
But what does God tell Jeremiah to tell them?
He tells them,
I do have plans, and they're good plans. I had a plan A where you were a great and prosperous nation and blessed the whole world with the knowledge of God. That didn't happen because you chose to turn away from that plan. I have a plan B for bringing all kinds of good out of this loss and destruction and disappointment, but don't listen to these lies that you want to believe. This captivity isn't ending in a few months or a few years or in a couple of decades. Get used to exile, because this is going to last 70 years! You're going to live the rest of your lives in Babylon, and your children and grandchildren will be the ones to go back and rebuild. So go ahead and have kids and marry them off so you'll have grandkids. I have good plans, but they're not the same as your own plans. Don't wish destruction on these enemies that destroyed your hopes and dreams, either. Your well-being is now connected to theirs.
Then he has some harsh words for the false prophets who tell people nice messages that they want to hear.

This chapter is not about how God plans out good and prosperous lives for us that are free from harm and difficulty and disappointment. Instead, this is about God promising to bring good things out of a situation that seems impossibly broken, a situation in which everything that seems to matter has been demolished and his people are scattered and nothing will ever be the same again.

Regarding sparrows, would these verses be comforting to the sparrows? Could sparrows quote these verses to each other to say, "Look, we can never fall to the ground, because the Father will always protect us"? Even a sparrow could probably observe that sparrows often fall, whether from disease or predators or excessively clean reflective windows. These verses don't say that if sparrows are very good sparrows and always stay in their Father's care, then they will never fall. It actually says that they are inside the Father's care when they fall. This is comforting and maybe unsettling, and leaves plenty of questions.

God knows how many hairs are on our heads--before, during, and after chemotherapy. He sees when a child's hairs turn from a healthy dark color to a sickly, rusty golden color from malnutrition. He knows and experiences the suffering that we face. He sees the sparrow as it falls and is with the little girl while she dies of malaria. The Bible doesn't say that these things will not happen. It says that God is present and knows when they do. It's not that he turned his back or forgot about that one bird or that one baby because there are so many endangered species now to worry about that he just no longer has time for sparrows, or the human population has just increased too much, and it has become too difficult to keep track of everyone. No, he knows each tiny creature intimately, and even when he doesn't intervene, he's keeping track--of individual sparrows and hairs and tears--and working out something amazing and perfect... eventually.

A few verses have the potential to be interpreted as promises of longevity and invincibility and protection, but the Bible has a lot more stories and examples and promises of God bringing good things out of terrible loss and destruction. It demonstrates God being with people in their suffering. He promises he will make it all right someday, but he doesn't explain to the suffering individuals in the story why it's happening the way it is or keep every bad thing from happening or make everything right in the way or in the timing that the sufferer would maybe prefer.

God tells us through this grand story and the many side stories and declarations within that he is present, aware, involved, and empathetic. He feels our suffering more acutely than we feel it ourselves. Finally, in the end, he will make it right. All of it. The end will be the beginning of something so good that all of the suffering in the world will seem like nothing next to it. That reality brings so much more comfort and hope than a bumper sticker promise.