Choosing The Right Exile

There’s a theme that keeps emerging in my discussions with other Christians. More and more, we are talking about exile. Every time our culture mistakes evil for good, we feel more like sojourners.  

Exile is an unfamiliar idea to me. I grew up in a comfortable Christian family in a safe, rural setting where I always felt right at home — where my family’s way of life was the dominant one — where my religion, race and class were not disadvantages. As such, I never paid much attention to the lessons of exile in the Bible. I knew the children of Israel were captured by the Assyrians and Babylonians, probably because they broke covenant with God. So, lesson learned: be good. Now let’s turn our pages to the New Testament.  

But there is more to learn from the prophets of exile. Too often, we treat the books in the middle of our Bibles like the states in the middle of our country: we fly over them and never seem to land anywhere. God has given us those writings for a reason. But I also think we can learn the wrong lessons from prophecy. We can be tempted to long for a return to the wrong homeland.  

The exilic metaphor seems to gain momentum in church circles each time our agenda suffers a loss. When our religious liberties are threatened or immoral conduct is condoned, we find solidarity with the Israelites who lived among the barbarous pagans, and we long for our nation to return to the way it was before that offense. We wax nostalgic about the days when it was more comfortable to be a Christian, when our morality was normalized, sin was condemned, pastors were respected, and church attendance was expected. When you couldn’t get abortion on demand, pornography on your phone, a car on Sunday, or a bottle of wine at the grocery store. Oh, to live in 1952! 

The danger in this thinking is that we may come to think of 1952 as our home — that we may, in fact, think of any earthly nation as our home. When the writer of Hebrews created his “Hall of Faith” in chapter 11, he ended it with this idea.  

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

The truth is that Christians are not exiled from the 1950s, nor from Constantinian Rome, nor from any place where our faith has been popular. Christians may have felt safer or more comfortable in a more Christianized America, but we were never meant to feel at home there. Our exile did not begin with Nero or King James or Roe v. Wade. We have always been in exile. And our exile will not end when we elect the right politician or pass the right laws or grow our churches to the right size. It will end when we are welcomed into a better country — a city God has prepared for us.