We have all known seasons of exile, in one form or another.
Perhaps you have literally been stuck in a geographical location, and every circumstance, no matter how hard you have tried to escape your environment, seemed to hold you there.
Maybe you have seen all your hopes, dreams and plans go terribly awry.
Perhaps you have endured a season (or multiple seasons) of pain and suffering, whether in the body or within your soul.
Or possibly your exile has come in the form of watching material and circumstantial blessings slip away from your hands like delicate sand to the winds of change.
Whatever way your storm manifested itself, these seasons of exile are characteristically similar in several ways: they are grueling, unwelcome, confusing and altogether a test of our faith.
My own season of exile started about two years ago when I moved myself to New York City. Long story short, everything that I had expected and planned went down the toilet. My serious relationship with my boyfriend, my health, my jobs, my finances, you name it--it was like my whole world got turned upside down in a matter of a month. I remember weeping on the floor of my apartment, asking God to relieve me of the heavy burden of pain He had ordained for me to carry. I did not understand in the least. I felt completely alone and did not know what to do with my newfound state of seeming exile.
I imagine the nation of Judah felt similarly when, in 605 B.C., Babylon took from it its first group of exiles. The ESV Bible commentary describes this period as a "politically tumultuous time" when the prophet Jeremiah "witnessed multiple deportations of Judeans to Babylon and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple." Literal exile. Can you imagine?
Jeremiah, in chapter 29, sends a letter to the elders of the exiles. The letter's content is from the mouth of the Lord God of Israel, to the people He sent into captivity. God gives the exiles interesting commands, specifically about how to live faithfully during the difficult, confusing season of exile which they were enduring:
4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 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. 7 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..."
What is amazing to me is that, instead of God saying, "Hang out until I relieve your burdens," he blatantly commands the Judeans to invest in their circumstances. Another way of reading this: Bloom where you are planted!
Now, investing in our circumstances and seeking the welfare of our current situation is probably not what we want to do...because everything within us screams, "This is unfair! This season is painful, and I want out!" The last thing I desired while in NYC was to continue investing in my time there. I wanted a way out. I wanted to flee.
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 in turning our hearts to Himself and His greater work.
Live faithfully by pursuing the Lord. There is sweet fellowship with Christ in times of exile. Paul's prayer in Philippians 3:10-11 is to know Christ in both His resurrection power and in the sharing of His sufferings. Seasons of exile challenge us to pursue the only One who can satisfy, when all else fails or changes around us. As we pursue knowing Christ more deeply, we learn to be content in any and every situation:
11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 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. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4).
Live faithfully by submitting to the Father. In times of exile, there is so much we cannot understand. God's ways are higher than our ways. Our suffering is an opportunity to release our tight grip on "the way life should be", and to place control completely in 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 and help to humbly submit to the Father. God may send us directly into the storm to produce in us what we cannot for ourselves. That is grace! There is so much peace in realizing that He is Lord over every circumstance, and that we need only to submit to Him and trust Him with our welfare.
Live faithfully by responding in Christ. People are always watching us. How we respond during exile reflects the attitude of our hearts. We can complain, grumble and demand our rights ("I deserve to be without pain" or "This just is not fair"), but that attitude places an obstacle in the way of helping others to see Christ clearly. By seeking Christ during hard seasons and submitting to Him, though we do not always understand His ways, we live radically different than the world. "We put no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry" (2 Corinthians 6:3).
As we invest in seasons of exile by faithfully pursuing the Lord and His work, we rest assured that 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 Lord and Ruler of our lives is the only thing that will satisfy our souls, even though seasons of exile threaten to displace us. We echo David's prayer:
O God, you are my God; earnestly 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...
So I will bless you as long as I live;
in your name I will lift up my hands (Psalm 63).