Seek the good of the city, even in bad timesWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)
This well-known verse from Jeremiah is one of the classic biblical texts that support social involvement on the part of Christians. Rather than withdrawing from the surrounding culture, believers are to be active in civic life, seeking the well-being, at every level, of the society where God has placed us.
It’s curious, however, that we often overlook a key part of this verse: “where I have sent you into exile.” God spoke these words to his people, not when they were enjoying prosperity and privilege, but when they were strangers in a strange land.
It’s relatively easy, at least in theory, to seek the welfare of a city that loves us and listens to our voice. But what about when that’s not the case? How are followers of Jesus to obey this command of our Lord in the post-Christian Western cultures of the 21st century?
The city where we live
When God says we’re to seek the good of the city, we need to be clear which city he means. God originally sent this message through Jeremiah to the people he’d exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon. They expected their exile to be brief, but God told them they’d be in Babylon for 70 years, living among the people who’d destroyed their homes, families, livelihood and system of worship. Instead of isolating themselves or rebelling against the dominant culture of their captors, they were to engage in social life, pursue jobs, get married, have children, seek the good of the city and pray for it because their own well-being was tied to it.
Exile, both literal and figurative, is a common metaphor for the experience of God’s people throughout Scripture and throughout history. We’re described as aliens, foreigners, sojourners in a land not our own. This was true of Abraham in Canaan, Israel in Egypt, the early church in the Roman Empire. It has remained true of the church in every cultural context since then, right up to our own.
But in the West, the church has grown accustomed to cultural privilege over the centuries, to our voice being heard and our beliefs carrying weight. We’ve taken this for granted for so long that we’ve forgotten we live in Babylon, not Jerusalem. And as our position of privilege has eroded over recent decades, we’ve grown fearful and defensive, engaging in cultural warfare or else retreating into our spiritual bunkers.
We should make no mistake. None of our cities or societies are stand-ins for the city of God. They never were, and we shouldn’t expect them to behave as if they were, for our convenience. Nevertheless, God continues to care for them, and for the broader culture they represent. He expects his people to seek the welfare of the communities where we live – and of the wider world – and to pray for them, because our welfare is tied to theirs.
A broad view of shalom
The Hebrew word for welfare that Jeremiah uses is shalom, most often translated as peace. The word encompasses a range of meanings that includes wholeness, completeness, harmony, tranquility and prosperity. To seek the welfare of the city, then, is to seek its shalom, and everything that implies.
God’s people are to be exemplary citizens, engaged in civic life, using our time and our resources to help our communities thrive. Since our Lord commands us to love our neighbours, it goes without saying that we should be great neighbours. We need to build relationships with people who don’t share our beliefs, make friends with them, be ready to help them as the need arises. On a broader level, we shouldn’t shy away from engaging in cultural activities with discernment, celebrating what’s good and critiquing what isn’t, always ready for gracious, intelligent discourse with those who may disagree.
More than anything else, as followers of Jesus, we’re called to represent our Lord and make him known by our words and by our lives. Jesus said we were to be salt and light, bringing the knowledge and the taste of our God to the world around us. As ambassadors of Christ living in exile, we do our city the greatest good by sharing the hope of the Gospel with it and praying for it. This is especially so during difficult times, when our city may not welcome us or our message with open arms.
A tale of two cities
In France, a series of religiously motivated terrorist attacks in recent years has led to new legislation that will place stricter limits on all religious freedom across the board. Among other things, there will be tighter controls on how churches raise money and increased surveillance of what they teach.
This apparent overreach has been a legitimate concern among France’s evangelical and Protestant leaders. They’ve maintained dialogue with their government, advocating for a more moderate position on the restrictions. Most notably, however, they’ve taken a stance against any sort of fearmongering or victim mentality.
“Should we be afraid? No,” says Clément Diedrichs, general director of the National Council of Evangelicals in France. “In Jeremiah, it is said that we must look for the good of the city where we are, and this town isn’t Jerusalem. It’s Babylon. I think a lot of Christians would prefer that we were in Jerusalem instead of Babylon. Many evangelicals would like to still be in a Christian society that protects us.”
“It is not the apocalypse,” echoes François Clavairoly, president of the Protestant Federation of France. “We are absolutely not in an atmosphere of fear.”
“We’ll find a way to carry on serving the Lord,” adds Etienne Koning, pastor of Saint-Lazare Church in Paris, “taking good care of our people by faithfully proclaiming to them the unaltered and life-changing Gospel, serving and loving our neighbours just as they are . . . never giving in to bitterness or hatred, always building bridges and relationships, in order to bring Christ to our nation.”
Gerard Kelly, a British expatriate who pastors a church across the Channel in Normandy, cites the vital role of prayer. “We need to pray for vibrant churches so that when laws like this come up, people don’t see the evangelicals as a sort of weird, fringe cult thing,” he says. “Instead, they see people they know as neighbours.”
Evangelicalism is much smaller in France than in North America, much less of a cultural influence. Yet it appears to be doing far better at avoiding the alarmism, the polarizing politics and the culture wars that have plagued its North American cousin. It has no illusions about which city it lives in, and has focused on keeping the Gospel of Jesus the main thing.
“When the church is strong and rich and powerful, it forgets missional engagement because it doesn’t need to. It stops engaging creatively with its neighbours and becomes complacent,” adds Kelly. “God solves complacency by allowing exile to happen – because we were never meant to be separatist.”
Our true citizenship
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he was greeted with shouts of hosanna and the expectation that he’d come to liberate Israel from its Roman oppressors. But Jesus had made evident all along what he declared to Pilate on the eve of his crucifixion – his Kingdom is not of this world. Within a week, the disillusioned citizens of Jerusalem had turned against him. Rather than shouting hosanna, they were shouting for his death.
Factions of the church in modern Western culture have made a similar critical error to those citizens of 1st-century Jerusalem. After generations of favoured status, we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of ourselves as a Christian society, almost as an extension of the Kingdom of God. And now that our society has moved into a post-Christian phase, we’ve become obsessed with regaining political and cultural influence. Jesus has become a means to an end, rather than an end in himself.
How can we free ourselves from this mindset? How do we begin to seek the welfare of the city with grace and humility, rather than trying to force it to conform to our world view? We can begin by reminding ourselves that we’re exiles in this world and that our citizenship is in heaven. Our Lord has commissioned us to make disciples, not to reshape our socio-political landscape. He invites us to set our thoughts and our affections on the things that are above, where Jesus is – on the beautiful, eternal city he has prepared for us to share with him.
Just four verses after God’s command in Jeremiah to seek the welfare of the city comes this promise: “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).
It’s a popular verse, very often quoted out of context as a guarantee of a happy and problem-free life. But that’s not the point at all. The promise is linked to the command, using the same word for welfare, shalom. As exiles, we’re encouraged to seek the shalom of the city, even in the worst times, because we’re assured that God will bring us out of exile into his shalom, giving us a future and a hope in his presence forever.
Sources and further reading
Melody Copenny, “The way you love your city matters to God,” Cru, accessed April 27, 2021.
Tom Hobson, “Seek the welfare of the city,” Patheos, July 5, 2018.
Tim Keller, “A theology of cities,” Cru, accessed April 27, 2021.
Alex Kocman, “What seeking the welfare of the city means,” Abwe International, April 23, 2019.
Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon, “Seeking the peace and prosperity of the city: The politics of Jeremiah 29:1,4-7,” Political Theology, October 7, 2013.
Kami Rice, “As French senate tightens church controls, Christian advocates avoid fear,” Christianity Today, April 15, 2021.
Bruce W. Winter, “‘Seek the welfare of the city’: Social ethics according to 1 Peter,” Themelios, Volume 13 Issue 3, April 1988.
Danny Wuerffel, “Seeking the welfare of the city,” Tabletalk Magazine, December 1, 2015.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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