Jeremiah 29:11 is one of the most beloved verses in all of Scripture. It was a favorite of my mother-in-law, even on her deathbed. One can see why when one reads the verse. However, the context and original addresses of this verse are often forgotten.
Jeremiah speaks these words from the Lord and sends them to the Jews in exile in Babylon. These people were hoping to return soon to their homeland and specifically to their city, Jerusalem. They liked the prophets who told them what they wanted to hear: that the exile would end quickly.
Jeremiah was not one of these prophets. He did not tell the people what they wanted to hear. Yes, he said that the Lord would eventually restore them to the land of Judah, but it would be 70 years before that would happen. Some of the Jews living in exile would not survive to see the return to Jerusalem. Jeremiah 29:11 was a great promise to God’s people as a whole, that he was not giving up on them, that he had a good plan for them. However, it did not seem like a hopeful message to each individual Jew who heard it.
Sometimes, we too have a hard time hearing the hopeful word the Lord wants to give us, because we have another, a different, hopeful word we are wanting to hear. Really laying ourselves open to God, asking him even to reshape our desires, is a difficult exercise. Yet, like a dog that submits to his master who must remove a thorn from his paw, we must trust that our Master knows best.
The message of Jeremiah 29:11 was a hopeful message to each individual Jew who sought the Lord with all his heart. These were the ones who could count on the fact that God had a good plan for them.
Paul says something similar to us as Christians in Romans 8:28,
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
Paul does not say that all things are good, but all things work together for good. There are things in this life that are excruciatingly painful, that are beyond our understanding, that are hard to see any good in at all. However, Paul assures us that God is going to use seemingly evil things, and painful events, to bring about ultimate good, for whom? For those who love God, who are called according to his purpose, or as Jeremiah says, for those who seek the Lord with all their heart.
While it may be easy, at times, to believe that we have been called according to God’s purpose, if we are honest with ourselves and God, then we will admit that often we do not seek him with all our heart, nor do we love God as perfectly as we might. In such times, perhaps all we can do is confess our failure and trust in God’s forgiveness, trust that he will make us more like his Son Jesus who did love his heavenly Father and seek him with all his heart.
That is why Jeremiah 31:34 is a favorite verse of mine: “for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
It is hard to imagine that God would ever, or could ever, forget our sin. After all, we often do not forget our own sins. Rather, we often live plagued by guilt.
Perhaps that is when we most need to remember that this verse does not promise that God will forgive and forget. Rather the promise is that God will forgive and not remember. Forgetting is something we do as weak human beings. Our minds cannot retain a perfect memory of everything we experience and everything we learn in life. Our brains are like sieves, more so the older we get. Thus, we forget.
However, God, in his omniscience, does not forget anything. “To not remember” something is active, not passive like forgetting. When the Scripture says that God does not remember our sins against us, it means that once he forgives us, God will never bring our sins up against us, or even mention them, ever again.
As Corrie ten Boom used to say, “God drowns our sins in the depths of the sea, and then he puts up a sign that says ‘No Fishing!’”