Exile is one of the big themes of the Bible. From Adam and Eve being exiled from the Garden, to the exiles of the Israelites in Egypt and later Babylon, to Peter’s letter to the “elect exiles” dispersed by New Testament-era persecution.
Yet for a long time, I never related to it. Exile is being absent from your home or homeland. But I’ve always lived close to where I grew up. Exile implies some sort of persecution. But in the Midwestern U.S., I still see very little persecution for Christian faith. (Merely being called weird or a Bible-thumper on occasion hardly counts as persecution, in my view.)
I realize now, however, my understanding of exile has been too narrow. Beyond physical separation and severe persecution, exile always includes a deep longing caused when our present circumstances are not what they ought to be. And all of us feel that.
We’ve certainly felt it during the coronavirus quarantine, when churches haven’t been able to gather in person, schools and many businesses operate online, and grandparents haven’t been able to hug their grandkids.
But how many of us also feel it because of a strained family relationship? Or a prolonged illness? Or a job lost—as tens of millions of people have experienced this year—through no fault of our own.
When we understand it this way, it’s clear we are all exiles. We live in a world broken by sin. And while sometimes we enter a situation of exile because of our own sinful actions, it’s at least as common if not more that the deep frustration of exile comes upon us due to the brokenness that mars all parts of this world.
Sometimes, frustration turns into fear. Fear of catching the coronavirus despite our precautions. Fear of losing a job despite our hard work and high performance. Fear of even losing our lives despite doing nothing to deserve it—as with the recent unjust killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. “Black Lives Matter” is, at least in part, a cry of exiles, longing for this world to be what it ought to be.
Life can be so far from what it ought to be that it feels like death, according to John Calvin. And yet we still have reason to hope. In his commentary on Colossians 3:3, which says, “For you died and your life is hidden with Christ in God,” Calvin wrote this: “Our life is said to be hid, that we may not murmur or complain if our life, being buried under the ignominy of the cross, and under various distresses, differs nothing from death, but may patiently wait for the day of revelation. … Hence there is no reason why we should be alarmed if, on looking around on every side, we nowhere see life. For we are saved by hope.”
I don’t know about you, but when I’m confronting the longing, frustration and fear of exile, I do plenty of murmuring and complaining. But also, after repeated providential promptings, I do plenty of hoping.
God allows His people to experience exile, but He always hears their cries and carries them through. We see it over and over in the Bible. We see it over and over in our lives. So we can trust Him to do it again and again. And we can hope that, one day, we will be exiles no more.