For I know the plans I have for you.

23 February 2018

4th of June. I woke up at 4:30am, much earlier than usual, from a dream that left me with the kind of unease that I dreaded for the longest time. Distressed, I called on God and asked Him what the dream was for. Was it a message of hope, or a cruel reminder of a future that had just become next to impossible? It had only been a week since His love found me, I had yet to know and receive Him, and yet I was already on the verge of a crisis of faith.

I pulled the earbuds out on my way to church; the Christian music I grew fond of just wasn't cutting it. I tried hard to wear a smile and please God for the rest of the morning despite my glaring unbelief. "At least I went to church today," I thought, harkening back to my previous life where going to church was merely a matter of routine - a feel-good activity, so to speak. Once again God felt distant, and I was slowly consumed by guilt, as I had been the day before. What could have been a special lunch at the nearby city center turned into a vicious guilt trip as everything within my sight reminded me of what I had lost. "Lord, where are You?" I whispered as I walked with my head down for the next half-hour until I figured out I couldn't stay there any longer.

I arrived at a mall, at another city center several kilometers away, at around 2pm. I was hungry, and figuring out that good food would somehow lift my spirits up, I waited in line at a katsu restaurant; after all, Japanese food has always been enjoyable for me. The guilt trip continued as I ate cup after cup of rice alongside slices of breaded pork and a mound of shredded cabbage that I drenched in mayonnaise. Food had been my go-to comfort activity for years, but lo and behold, not even the food could cut it. It was a delicious meal, filling and enjoyable, but woefully ineffective. I just had to do something else. I just had to pray.

I set out to look for a quiet place where I could pray. There was a chapel above the mall, but masses were scheduled hourly so there was barely any time for quiet prayer. Fat chance looking for a sanctuary in the middle of the city, I thought as I left the mall. I decided to use the walk as a time for prayer anyway, and amid the sea of buildings and cars I called out to God.

"Lord, I'd like to thank You for the delicious food I just had, for which You have provided, but this is much too heavy. Perhaps this is what I get for running away from You, for disobeying You, for taking Your gifts for granted, for being a wretch of a man…"

After several minutes I spoke less about the guilt I had and began asking God about the dream. "What was that for? Are you telling me not to give up, that there's hope?" I could not wrap my head around the idea that He would leave me a sliver of hope despite what I have done. I asked question after question until I reached the end of the road - roughly 4 kilometers from my starting point.

I had a brainwave as I headed back - perhaps I was talking too much and listening too little. I began asking God to speak, expecting something inexplicably supernatural to happen in the next several minutes. Would it be a booming voice from heaven, like when Jesus was baptized? Would I be struck with a blinding light, like Paul, and somehow find the answer in the resulting sea of white? I didn't know; all I wanted was for God to speak. I realized I was being tempted to walk away, to disembark from the journey I began a week prior. But God couldn't have sought me simply to punish me. I kept inviting Him to speak; "Through It All" played continuously in my head as I tirelessly walked past store after store.

I was about to cross a narrow road when a black vehicle drove past me. At the rear window was a decal that looked like a Bible reference. "Jeremiah 2…" I couldn't make out the chapter and verse numbers; it could be 26:1, 26:11, 28:1, or 28:11. Another black vehicle drove past mere seconds later, this time with a decal that read "Powered by Jesus." I was intrigued. God must be speaking, I thought. I decided to head back once more. Upon crossing the road a jeepney with a large "IN GOD WE TRUST" banner in front of it sped past me.

I was walking down yet another row of stores and restaurants when I got a text from my mother. My sister, who was sick for the almost the entire week but seemed fine the previous day, was once again having a high fever. I lost it.

"Seriously, Lord? I've spent all day bothered by my own problem and now this? I know I deserve punishment but this… I mean, have I really gone so bad to deserve this? Do you even love me still?"

I stopped praying. I stopped thinking. I just… stopped. I decided to just head back to the mall, have my dinner, buy a thermometer for my sister, and head home. It was getting dark, after all. I had become unlovable, I thought, and I had to deal with it. Yet I was intrigued by the Jeremiah reference; I took out my phone, launched the Bible app, and tried to figure out which verse it was. 26:1 didn't seem to make sense, and neither did 26:11, 28:1, or 28:11. I bothered to try 56:1, 56:11, 58:1, and 58:11, until I realized that the book of Jeremiah only had 52 chapters. I was clueless. I thought of it over dinner as I ate. Having had dinner and dropped by the drugstore, I decided to go home. It was around 7pm, and I expected heavy traffic on the way home. I was much too tired to switch between modes of transport so I figured out I'd just take an Uber. I got a driver after a short wait, but he seemed confused and circled the adjacent block again and again, seemingly unable to figure out how to get to the mall's driveway. He arrived more than 15 minutes later.

I listened to random songs as the vehicle drove toward the highway. This is my life now, I thought, and I just had to deal with it. Traffic was not as heavy as I expected, and billboard after billboard flew past me as I wallowed in my misery. I'm no stranger to the sight of so many billboards; I've lived in the city all my life, and I've plied the same route countless times.

And then, either before or after crossing the Pasig river, one of those billboards caught my attention. It was one of those electronic billboards serving lame video ads, but at that moment not much was on it but these words:

I CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH CHRIST WHO STRENGTHENS ME.

Philippians 4:13

I looked to the left, and there was another billboard with the words "KNOW GOD'S PLAN." Above it were the words "READ THE BIBLE." I thought, "well, yeah, I've started attending Bible study. I'll keep going."

After a quick stop at the service station, the vehicle sped in the direction of Eastwood City, where I spent the morning and early afternoon. I remembered the awful guilt-trip experience, but yet another billboard beamed with these words:

DELIGHT IN THE LORD AND HE WILL GIVE YOU THE DESIRES OF YOUR HEART.

Psalm 37:4

I began thinking, "God must be talking to me." I looked around as I headed toward Katipunan Avenue. The electronic billboard at Ateneo has been a familiar sight and I've paid little attention to it, but at that moment it was showing prayers and Bible verses. As the vehicle stopped, these words were on:

Lord, thank You for the gift of another day to love, to serve, and to live according to Your will.

I closed my eyes for a few seconds. "Lord, I know You're speaking to me right now. Go ahead; I'm listening."

I arrived home after that half-hour trip, and upon settling I remembered the Jeremiah verse I couldn't figure out. It must be a popular verse, I thought, so I took the phone out of my pocket and fired up Google. Just as I finished typing "Jeremiah 2," suggestions came up. I clicked on the first one, "Jeremiah 29 11." I looked at the results and saw these words:

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord…

I dropped the phone, stood up, and looked up in awe. The guilt, the gloom, and the confusion all seemed to vanish right at that moment. God had just spoken, and nothing in the world mattered to me more than the fact that He listened and He answered. He held onto me even as I could no longer hold on to Him. I spent the rest of the night in prayer and worship. "Lord, now I know that You have a plan for me; I'll trust in You now." I began the day confused, depressed, and feeling crummy with all the guilt, but I ended it with a kind of joy I would not get anywhere else.

I called onto God. He heard me, He listened to me, and He answered.

"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.

Jeremiah 29:11–13

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