We have all known seasons of exile, in one form or another.
Perhaps you’ve found yourself stuck in a geographical location, and every circumstance — no matter how hard you’ve tried to escape — seemed to hold you there. Maybe you’ve seen all your hopes, dreams, and plans go terribly awry.
Perhaps you’ve endured a season (or multiple seasons) of pain and suffering, whether in your body or from outside afflictions. Or possibly your exile has come in the form of watching material and circumstantial blessings slip from your hands like sand carried away by the wind. Whatever the nature and intensity of your storm, seasons of exile are characteristically similar in several ways. They are grueling, unwelcome, confusing, and often test our faith.
My own season of exile started about four years ago when I moved to New York City. Everything I’d expected and planned went rapidly downhill. My serious relationship with my boyfriend, my health, my jobs, my finances, you name it — it was as if my whole world were turned upside-down in the span of a month. I remember weeping on my apartment floor, begging God to relieve me of the pain he’d ordained for me to bear.
I didn’t understand my circumstances in the least. I felt entirely alone, not knowing what to do in my newfound state of apparent exile.
Bloom Where You’re Planted
I imagine the nation of Judah felt similarly when, in 605 B.C., Babylon arrived to capture and cart off its first group of exiles from Jerusalem.
Literal exile. Can you imagine?
In Jeremiah 29, the inspired prophet sends a letter to the elders of the exiles. God gives his exiles interesting commands, specifically about how to live faithfully during the difficult, confusing season of exile they were enduring:
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But 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 29:4–7)
What’s amazing to me is that, instead of simply saying, “Hang out until I relieve your burdens,” God explicitly commands his people to invest in their circumstances. “Bloom where you’re planted,” in other words.
Now, investing in your circumstances and seeking the welfare of those in your current situation may not be what you want to do. Everything within us screams, “This is not fair! This season is painful, and I want out.” The last thing I wanted while in New York was to continue investing there. I wanted a way out. I wanted escape.
We may not be planting gardens, taking wives, and building families, but the purpose of the Lord’s commands still stand. His goal may not be to remove us from exile, but to free us from captivity to a self-focused heart.
Four Ways to Live
How then should we live while in exile? Here are four things I’ve learned.
1. Live faithfully by participating.
Our first response to discomfort is to remove ourselves from it. This was probably why God commanded the Jews to stay put and actively participate in what he’d ordained for them. I think about all the opportunities I missed in New York because I was too busy complaining and fashioning my own plans—when all along God wanted to use and grow me in the midst of the storm. This means hardship is never wasted time, for it can be used in redeeming ways by the Redeemer. Live faithfully in exile by being an active participant.
2. Live faithfully by pursuing the Lord.
There is sweet fellowship with Christ in times of exile. Paul’s prayer was to know Jesus in both his resurrection power and in the fellowship of his sufferings (Philippians 3:10–11). Seasons of exile challenge us to pursue the only one who can satisfy when all else fails and changes abound. As we pursue knowing Christ more deeply, we, like Paul, can learn the secret of contentment in any situation:
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11–13)
3. Live faithfully by submitting to the Father.
In times of exile there is so much we cannot understand. God’s ways are higher than ours. Our suffering, then, is an opportunity to release our tight grip on “the way life should be” and yield control completely to the Father’s hands. As Christ submitted to the Father, becoming “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8), so we are given grace to humbly submit to the Father in our time of need.
Yes, God may send us directly into the storm to produce in us what we cannot for ourselves. But that is grace! There is profound peace in realizing he is Lord over every circumstance — and that we need only to trust him with our welfare.
4. Live faithfully by responding in Christ.
People are always watching us. And how we respond during exile reflects the true state of our hearts. We can grumble and demand our rights (“I deserve to be without pain” or “This just isn’t fair”), but such attitudes place obstacles in the way of helping others see Jesus clearly.
By seeking Christ during hard seasons and submitting to him anyway — even though we don’t understand his ways — we live radically different than the world does. We live in hope. As Paul declared, “We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry” (2 Corinthians 6:3).
Nothing without Him
As we invest in seasons of exile by pursuing the Lord and his work, we can rest assured we’re living out his will. Blooming where we are planted begins and ends with knowing Christ intimately, for our lives are nothing apart from him.
A lifestyle of worship and submission to the King of heaven is the only thing that will satisfy our souls, even when seasons of exile threaten to displace us. So in faith we echo David’s cry:
O God, you are my God; earnestly do I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (Psalm 63:1)