Learning Through Lament: When God’s Plans Bring Pain

By: Esther Fleece

“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, ESV).

For years I loved this verse. It became my lifeline on a number of occasions. This verse encouraged me when deciding on a college to attend, and this verse helped me with patience when I was unsure about my which major to choose in school. I’m sure I still have the picture frame with this verse engraved that brought me relief as I packed my things and took a job on the other side of the country.

But as my life plans seemingly were not working out as I had planned, I found less and less comfort in these words. It almost became annoying to me to hear people quote the verse. Some things are easy to believe when the plans are working out well, and not so easy when the pathway is difficult.

A few career transitions later, a few horrible bosses later, and a few moves away from friends and family, these plans were beginning to hurt.

There was a shooting at my church that led to the death of two of my peers, a close friend killed in Afghanistan, countless friends diagnosed with cancer. Where did those “not to harm you” plans go?

A company lay off, the dwindling down of my savings account, years into the waiting. Where is this prosperity?

Yet as we preach prosperity, we serve a Savior, born into poverty, who died the most grueling death. Either God’s plans are not that attractive after all, or I was misunderstanding the plans. Either way, I hit my thirties knowing something needed to change. Either God’s Word was not comforting, or I was misunderstanding it, misapplying it, and taking His words out of context. Either way, I could feel my hope getting cut off. I needed help and clarity for my faith to survive.

La·ment

I am several years into my walk with God, but I am only recently learning the language of lament. I didn’t understand it before, and I’ve spent most of my prayer time “giving thanks in all circumstances.”

Lament is defined as a “passionate expression of grief” and I always wanted to avoid being a complainer to God. After all, I was thankful for many things, and I didn’t want to bother Him with the bad. He has enough on His plate, I thought. The phrase “someone has it worse than me” was in my thoughts daily, not realizing that this mindset was masking my true emotions. But life pans out to be a lot more difficult than we anticipate it to be. And as I began lamenting to God about the “plans” in my life actually hurting me, He began to draw near.

I couldn’t get Jeremiah 29:11 out of my head.

I know the plans I have for you, Esther.

Over and over this verse would come to my head. I would look up and just roll my eyes.

The plans will give you hope, Esther. He would gently whisper.

And I responded with a lament. “Your plans don’t bring me hope! Your plans are hurting me!”

As a sold-out follower of Jesus Christ, I didn’t know if I wanted His plans anymore.

Normalization

I found great company throughout the Bible. One of the most detrimental things we can do in a difficult season is to pull away from the Word of God. Scripture normalizes us, and it was normalizing my lament.

I began wondering if Joseph liked that his plan included slavery. It became clear to me that Jonah didn’t like the plans set before him. Even Jesus asked if there were any other plans, any other way, other than the cross.

God kept whispering to my spirit. Know the plans.

As I opened my Bible one more time to this familiar verse in Jeremiah, I asked God for new eyes of understanding for what I was about to read.

Trusting the Plan-Giver

When God says He knows the “plans” for us, the original Hebrew word is machashabah, or machashebeth. A more literal translation of this word, and a more used translation throughout Scripture, is the word “thoughts.”

God knows the thoughts He has toward us.

In Jeremiah 29:11, the “plans” are referenced twice, and both times, they mean “thoughts.”

God knows the thoughts He has toward you.

And His thoughts toward you are good.

This is not what I originally had understood the passage to mean. The “plans” as I understood them were prosperous, nice, and easy. I have put time, effort, and finances into figuring out those plans, going after those plans. I wanted to know those plans and pursue them. But this revelation would mean that my emphasis had been on all the wrong things.

God does have plans, but they are bound up in knowing His thoughts toward us. His timing, means, and often the end result are hidden from us. I wondered if God was thwarting my plans in order to destroy my shallow understanding of what my plans were. The changing of plans, or difficult plans, or lack of understanding of plans gives us an opportunity to retrain our minds in His thoughts toward us. We ought to hold the Plan-Giver in greater esteem than the path or plans.

As I dug deeper into the text, I found that Jeremiah was addressing the captives in Babylon.

Here I am, struggling just two years into waiting, and yet God was speaking through Jeremiah to prepare these captives to endure for 70 years. How does “His thoughts are to give you a future and a hope” hold up in circumstances like that?

As the Babylonians experienced captivity for 70 years, the good thoughts God had toward them were the very thing that gave them a future hope. Knowing God’s thoughts toward us matters.

His thoughts are good, and not evil.

We are not guaranteed an expected outcome or ending on this side of eternity, but we are guaranteed a future hope. I know we all want immediate relief, guidance, and direction. None of us want to feel like we are wandering aimlessly in the desert. But this passage in the correct context taught me something deeper. I wanted the ability to hold on to future hope just as these captives did.

Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers says the true wisdom of the exiles came in waiting for the future instead of trusting in delusive assurance of immediate release.

If God’s thoughts toward us are good, that must mean that even suffering and captivity can be for our best interest. Even in the direst of circumstances, we can look toward a future hope.

Turning Lament Into Praise

In Jeremiah 28, the false prophet Hananiah prophesied a false message, even in Jeremiah’s presence. It was a prophecy the people wanted to hear, and he put a time limit on their captivity: two years instead of 70. Who wouldn’t be thrilled to hear that? Even Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the LORD do so!” (Jeremiah 28:6, ESV).

It was not long after that God instructed Jeremiah to go back and tell Hananiah that he was persuading the nation to trust in lies (28:15). God lamented in Jeremiah 27:15 about the false prophets rising up. “I have not sent them, declares the LORD, but they are prophesying falsely in my name” (ESV). God took care of it, immediately.

Is it possible I have wrongly believed Hananiah’s wisdom all these years later—believing that deliverance would come more quickly, or that peace would come to me sooner, or maybe even that I would be prosperous here in this land? Surely these things may sound harmless, but if they are not from the Lord, they are destructive and the consequences are severe.

My entitlement surrounding God’s plans and timing was actually causing me to misunderstand His thoughts toward me. My desire to know the path and plan were hindering my ability to know the Plan-Giver intimately.

I prayed again, “God, even more than I want to know the plans, I want to know You. What are your thoughts toward me?”

Every Bible commentary I read on this passage indicated that God’s thoughts toward us are good and not evil. While I know this intellectually, I need to know this deeper at a heart level. This goodness-knowing is not only what helps us survive captivity, but what helps us to not lose hope.

This goodness-knowing will also turn our laments into praise.

The false prophet Hananiah prophesied an expected end rather than a future hope. Maybe the “losing of plans” is the very thing we need in order for our understanding of His goodness to grow.

His ways are too wonderful. I know that full well.

 

EstherEsther Fleece is president and CEO of L&L Consulting, Inc., where she helps new and established Christian ministries develop innovative strategies for non-profit sustainability, new business development, next generation outreach, marketing and communications, and relationship brokering. She is recognized as a trailblazer among Millennials, working for nearly a decade to connect influential individuals and organizations across generations to their mutual benefit. Esther is currently writing her first book, due out in 2017. You can follow Esther on Twitter: @EstherFleece.

Author: David Jones

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