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. (Jer. 29:11)
I have a fairly large deadline looming just ahead of me. In May, I graduate from a seminary with an MA in Biblical Studies, and if I’m honest, like many others who are searching for employment, I’ve got some anxiety about the future. See, my two passions are leading corporate worship and Old Testament biblical teaching, specifically the roots of corporate worship. But, I have two giant strikes against me:
First, the ministry job market, much like everywhere else, is tightening its belt. Rather than hiring full-time faculty and staff, schools and churches are hiring more adjunct and bi-vocational ministers in order to reduce salary expenses. Second, in case you haven’t scrolled down to see my picture, I am a woman (hear me roar), which means my job market has already shrunk significantly simply due to my gender. Many well-meaning friends and professors suggest that I continue on to get my doctorate, and while that is an option I have considered, the question remains: having that additional certification would open a few more doors, but how many more doors? After spending a ridiculous amount of time and money, will I still find myself wrestling with these same issues, and will there still be many churches/institutions who refuse to hire me based on my gender? Probably.
So, I see two choices for myself: either walk away in frustration, choosing to settle for employment unrelated to the Church, OR figure out a way to navigate the tensions of being a woman in a predominantly male field while still keeping my spiritual, mental, and emotional sanity. Which brings me back to the Jeremiah passage, provided at the top of this post. I rely heavily on this passage when I find myself in anxiety-riddled circumstances. Not in the often-misused sense of, “Oh, sugar, the Christian life is cotton-candy, puppy dogs, and rainbows! If you just ask Him, he’ll give you whatever you want!” You know what I’m talking about – this passage is the Hallmark greeting card of the Christian response to any difficult circumstance. However, the actual context of this passage has the capability of bringing more peace and perspective than the sugarcoated version.
First, if you haven’t read the broader context of Jeremiah, I suggest you read chs. 26-29. Not only will you get the bigger context of Jeremiah 29, but you’ll also see some good ‘ole UFC-style prophet sparring – a yoke gets broken, opposing prophecies are pitted against each other, there is some sarcastic wit exchanged, the good guy wins, and the bad guy loses. Seriously – if you haven’t read the broader context of Jeremiah, stop what you are doing and go read chs. 26-29.
So now we come to the familiar passage in chapter 29 – there are some Israelites who are already in captivity, and these exiles desperately want to know when the LORD will rescue them. Unfortunately, they have resorted to listening to anyone who will provide an optimistic future: sorcerers, false prophets, magicians, and witches. Jeremiah is faithful to the word from the LORD as he sends them this letter (bold and underlining mine):
4 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” 8 Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD.
10 This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. 11 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.
Now I don’t know about you, but the first time I read this passage in its context, I was floored. 70 years in exile? Praying for those who opposed/oppressed them? Perhaps dying in a strange land? This is not “your best life now.” This is not Plan A, B, or C. Or D. This is not something that will have a quick or easy fix. This is absolutely the opposite of what the Israelites likely imagined their lives would look like, where they would live, where they would raise their children, where they would die. What THIS IS, is a total change of perspective – a nuclear bomb exploding all expectations. But, in the midst of shattered expectations, it is important to point out that YHWH was still there with them, still encouraging the Israelites to find ways to work and prosper in spite of their circumstances, and reminding them they are part of a much bigger plan for national and global restoration (vv. 12-14).
While I am not so arrogant as to suggest an absolute correlation between the frustrations in my job search and the Israelites in captivity, I do think we as women who desire to work in some sort of “ministry capacity” can find sustaining encouragement in this passage. Our “jobs” may not always look as we initially imagined. We may have to creatively find ways to “prosper in the land.” Some of us may even find ourselves working alongside those who disagree with, object to, or flat-out oppose our place in ministry. And like some of the Israelites in captivity who never returned home, we may never see the long-term impact of our faithful work. But YHWH is still with us. He sees and knows the desires of our hearts, and the passions He has placed in us. He is encouraging us to continue our work, reminding us that we, too, are part of the much bigger plan for restoration.
Does knowing this truth and having this encouragement cure my frustration and anxiety over finding a job in a field that oftentimes scrutinizes on the basis of gender? Nope. But it does help me, in the midst of circumstances that are beyond my control, to regain some perspective. To be reminded that what I am doing, the opportunities I have, although they may not look as I initially imagined, are part of the much bigger plan for kingdom restoration.