Living Well in Exile

Mar 09, 2011 |Rachel Starr Thomson

We're in a world where we don’t belong.  

Every year at the end of the Passover Seder, when Jewish people around the world remember the deliverance from Egypt and the thousands of years of captivity, exile, return and exile again that have since ensued, they close the ceremony with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem.” For many years those words were a poignant expression of longing by an exiled, often persecuted people.

Exile is an acute form of suffering, though not one we often talk about; it is estrangement, unsettledness, a knowledge that what you have is not your own. An exile cannot go home and yet can never entirely settle away from home. And though most of us have not been forced out of our homes, there’s an exiled spirit inside every human being. Our first separation from God came when Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden; in some ways, I think we’ve been trying to go home ever since.

Christians are in a unique position. We feel the pain of exile, too: exile from a perfect world, from a life where mortality hung over no one’s head, where strife and illness and sin did not exist. But we alone have a hope of going home someday. In the meantime, we live here, doubly estranged because earthly society will not accept us either — ironically, because of our hope — and trying to live as best we can in a world where we don’t belong.

The New Testament epistle we call 1 Peter has a strong sense of exile about it: Peter wrote to Christians, both Jewish and Gentile, who were suffering persecution for their faith. His advice is potent. He tells us how to live, how to think about living, how to survive exile with our souls intact and how to live well in it.

First Peter 4:7–8 is a succinct capsule of advice on living well in exile: "The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins."

An Exile’s Perspective

Exile is ultimately the suffering of transience. We suffer because things change, because we can’t hold back time, because we can’t settle. But from transience, the exile also gains perspective, and when you’re going to live forever, perspective is a wonderful thing.

“The end of all things is at hand,” Peter declares. Sometimes I think I should write that down and tape it to my bathroom mirror so I can read it many times a day. All things are ending — my mortal life, your mortal life, death, suffering, sin, this evil world, tyranny, abortion, cancer, rebellion, witchcraft, my career, your career, my bank account, family life — the end of all of it is at hand.

And when it all ends, we will be left with one thing and one thing only: Christ.

That perspective is a bit frightening, but it’s also liberating. (If it frightens me more than it liberates me, maybe I’ve gotten too comfortable in exile!) An “all things are ending” perspective will help us focus on eternity in all areas of our lives, remembering exactly how transient all our worries, pains and sufferings actually are.

On the other side of "the end," our eternal home waits.

An Exile’s Mindset

The ESV as quoted above commands us, “Therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded.” When I was young(er), I thought that when the Bible said to be sober, it meant that we had to be solemn, sad and bored. When I got a little older, I realized that to be sober is the opposite of being under the influence. Sobriety means to be in full possession of your senses, not controlled by some outside addictive force, able to think clearly and act wisely.

Living well in exile demands sobriety, both when we face suffering and when things are going relatively well. For us that means many things besides avoiding the controlling influence of drugs and alcohol. It means becoming strong in Bible knowledge and holding a biblical worldview; it means avoiding media or Hollywood influences that confuse our understanding of the world. It means developing the self-control to live for eternity and not just for right now. It’s a mindset that keeps perspective and is always ready to act for Christ.

An Exile’s Practice

The KJV urges us to be sober and “watch unto prayer.” Clear-minded people who are driven by eternal perspective can and should take prayer seriously. Does the world scare you? Pray for it. Do you long to see others saved? Pray for them. Do you want to know Christ more? Pray that He will reveal himself to you. Prayer is not just something we should do when we feel like it; it’s work; it makes a difference; it glorifies God, and we should make a committed habit of it.

One of the characteristics of people in exile is that they lack their own resources. They don’t own land; they can’t tap into generations of family relationships or even use the culture's strengths. They are dependent on others to help them, and so are we.

I'm thankful the One we depend on is infinite and owns all the world’s resources. He knows that all things are coming to an end, but in the meantime, He is in control — and He will both orchestrate and outlast the end. When we pray “Thy kingdom come,” He listens. And He acts.

An Exile’s Heart

Peter sums up his capsule of advice to the Jewish exiles of the first century by saying, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” Have you ever noticed how tightly knit first-generation immigrant communities tend to be? They need each other, and they know it.

When Jesus commanded His followers to “love one another as I have loved you,” He was sharing His heart, but He was also giving them a survival plan. The persecution and change they were about to face would be intense. Jesus was deepening their exile in one way even as He alleviated it by reconciling them to God. In this world, they were walking away from everything they had ever known, from the religious systems they had always honored, from the acceptance of their own people. If they didn’t love each other, cling to each other and give each other everything they had, they wouldn’t last. The church wouldn’t last. It would die under the pressure.

I suspect Peter thought of Jesus’ words when he wrote his epistle and also that he remembered how love had held the earliest church together in Jerusalem and throughout the world. Church looks different now; a handful of desperate Jewish believers have turned into millions of Christians from more people groups than I know of. And yet we’re all still exiles. And we all still need each other.

The heart of an exile is love toward the body of Christ, love toward other exiles. The church is a community that will, with God, outlast the end of all things. We’re going home, home to be with Christ in a post-resurrection world. Until we get there, we need each other. We need to cover each other. We need to support, to pray for, to build each other up.

The sufferings of exile are real; they’re part of life here, and we can’t avoid them. But eternal perspective, sobriety, prayer and love for one another can carry us through our sojourn here with grace, helping us live and love well in exile to the glory of God.

Copyright 2011 Rachel Starr Thomson. All rights reserved.

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