Comfort and Hope in Affliction

“ For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer. 29:11)

One frequently hears the words of Jeremiah 29:11 quoted by people to encourage others who are in despair. They quote the text as though it is intended indiscriminately to apply to all people in general. However, one must take the context into consideration in order to grasp the true meaning of the text. Then we come to see that the promise is intended as a means of comfort and hope for God’s believing people.

The situation appears to be something like this. God’s people are in captivity in Babylon because of their sinful disobedience to the worship and service of Israel’s God. They ran after some of the gods of their heathen neighbors, and, therefore God sent them into captivity. God cannot tolerate infidelity in worship on the part of his people because he alone is God. As he says through the prophet Isaiah: “I am the first and the last; apart from me there is no God” (Isa. 44:6). And the prophet Jeremiah makes it very clear that the people’s sin is the cause of their affliction, for he writes, “when . . . [the people] ask you, ‘Why has the Lord decreed such a great disaster against us? What wrong have we done? What sin have we committed against the Lord our God?’ then say to them, ‘It is because your fathers forsook me,’ declares the Lord, ‘and followed other gods and served and worshiped them. They forsook me and did not keep my law’” (Jer. 16:10–11). So the question is, Is there any word of comfort and hope for such a people in captivity to the great nation of Babylon? The prophet Jeremiah gives answer by sending a letter to the captives showing them how to prosper while in captivity. Granted his answer differs from that of the false prophets; yet it is the true word of the Lord that Jeremiah brings to them.

Jeremiah’s answer indicates that God is still on the throne and rules all nations. Thus, God has set a termination date for the end of their captivity and then intends to bring them back to the land of Israel. In the meantime, they should make themselves at home in Babylon and carry on life in a normal manner: working, marrying, raising families, and even praying for the city to which the Lord has led them into exile. Jeremiah’s advice was taken to be a betrayal of Israel’s cause, and therefore some of the false prophets labeled him a traitor. Nonetheless, Jeremiah remained constant in his message and charged the false prophets of prophesying their own dreams and desires rather than the Word of the Lord.

Jeremiah’s message was full of comfort and hope, both for the present and the future of the exiles. For the present, he assured them that if they followed his Word from the Lord, they would prosper along with the city of their captivity. For the future they would have the hope of returning to their own homeland, since God’s word is that I “will bring you back to the place from which I carried you” (Jer. 29:14). The fulfillment of this comfort and hope depends, however, on the proper attitude of God’s people. It is important for us to take note of this point. Otherwise we may easily misapply the words of Jeremiah as many mistakenly do today.

The fulfillment of God’s word through Jeremiah will take place when God’s people “will call upon 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 I will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile” (Jer. 29:12–14). It is fair to say that the comfort and hope that Jeremiah preaches is meant for God’s believing people. Those who repent of sin and seek to do as the prophet proclaims shall surely have comfort in their affliction and be filled with hope for their future. This same truth applies to believers today. In our trials and afflictions we should continue to pray for our rulers who are in authority over us, our neighbors who live among us, and seek to live according to God’s law. If we continue to seek the Lord and seek to do his will, then God assures us: “I will listen to you” and “I will be found by you” (Jer. 29:12, 14), The message is dear: obedience to God’s will is the God-ordained way of experiencing comfort in affliction and being assured of hope for one’ s future.

And what a comfort is ours! We have a Savior who “has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood” and “watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven: in fact, ail things must work together for my salvation!” ( Heidelberg Catechism, A.1) Surely, a believer is comforted to know that whatever events come to him in life, all are under control of a loving Savior and sovereign God. Thus, the believer experiences the presence of God in every situation. The awareness of God’s sovereign control over all things in life is the reason that many believers have been able to endure persecution, and even death, for the cause of Christ. Even today many Christians are willingly suffering and dying because they will not deny their relationship to Jesus Christ. We Christians in North America are often unaware of the extent of persecution against fellow believers in other countries today. Yet, according to Open Doors World Watch List 2018, “215 million Christians experience high levels of persecution in the countries on the World Watch List. This represents 1 in 12 Christians worldwide!” (p. 4). This figure is startling. One can hardly imagine that in this twenty-first century there is still such extensive oppression of Christian believers. Their only comfort under such a painful situation is to know that they belong to Jesus Christ. As fellow believers we should be much in prayer for them, encouraging them to remain faithful to the Savior.

Beyond the comfort of belonging to Christ, such persecuted believers can be encouraged by the knowledge that their present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18). Further, they can embrace the words of the apostle Paul: “and we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). In addition, they can be sure of the truth that “those he [God] justified, he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). Thus, believers rest in the assurance that God is on the throne and all events in their lives will “work together for their salvation.” When this life is finished, believers can rejoice in the presence of God himself. As the Scripture makes plain, “We are confident . . . and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8)

Are any of you suffering today in some particular way? Maybe you have lost a loved one, lost your well-paying job, are suffering from accidental injuries and much physical pain, or even mental distress. How can you cope with such trials? The answer is that we must trust in our sovereign God and Savior who always has our eternal welfare in mind. Trust him to work out your salvation in the midst of all situations. And keep your eyes focused on Jesus, who has already “entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence” (Heb. 9:24). In this way, we can experience the same comfort and hope that our fellow believers are experiencing in dire persecution in other countries of the world.

May God grant that we may embrace the blessed gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and seek to practice his will in life, for the Scripture teaches us that “godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8).

Dr. Harry Arnold is a retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church and lives in Portage, MI. He is a member of Grace Christian Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, MI.