In this season of life and my own slow-going maturity in faith, I’ve been thinking a lot about spiritual exile. Honestly, it’s not fun; it emphasizes the not-yet part of the Christian’s “now-and-not-yet” hope. The prospect of enduring indefinite years away from our true home – not to mention finding any sort of fullness along the way – is wearying. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, it struck me today that quarantine (or any intensity of social distancing, self-isolation, etc.) is a sort of exile-within-an-exile. The weight of our spiritual exile is intensified by this earthly scale model.
Both exile and quarantine are characterized by separation. Exile separates you from your home, or from the land that has been promised to you. Psalm 137:1-4 captures the despairing grief of Israelites taken from the promised land into Babylonian exile.
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?”
Quarantine, ironically, traps you in your home and separates you from the outside world. It bars you from friends, family, and familiar comforts.
Both are uncomfortable, even painful – but as a result, both can be refining. They strip us of our coping mechanisms and leave us no option but to keep our nose to the grindstone. They force us to cling to God and remember that our ultimate hope is for the future. In the case of quarantine, there’s hope that, even though no one really knows what’s going on right now (or even if they’re infected or not), everyone will be able to gather together again eventually. Across the country yesterday, online church services were held with the expectation that this method of connection will not be permanent. For now, though, our services are stripped of bells and whistles, and something purer is being tested. In our spiritual exile, we have an even deeper refining to endure and an even greater hope to focus on. (Some experience of this now-and-not-yetness keeps us going, though I can’t articulate it yet. We must persist in longing, even as it borders on despair.)
Both exile and quarantine have – I think – a purpose. Part of that purpose is simply the refining process: it forces us to “keep the main thing the main thing.” Throughout history, humanity has sought out idols to worship and prioritize over the Lord. When speaking about the Babylonian exile, God speaks (through the prophet Isaiah) against the idols the people had set up, mocking their futility. He reminds His people that He is all they need; He made them, He swept away their offenses, He redeemed them.
The purpose extends beyond us as individuals, too. Quarantine is for the protection of those around us just as much as it is for our own health, if not more so! Similarly, our exile is repurposed so that, in a foreign land, we can reach those who might come to know Jesus. (Another ironic reversal of infection).
In exile, individuals – prophets, like Isaiah – stood out from the crowd as they spoke the word and wisdom of God to the people. They called out the sin and foolishness of the people, and were consistently rejected and ridiculed for it; prophets weren’t very popular. In quarantine, with fake news and false confidence abounding, we’ve seen huge numbers of people dismissing knowledgeable voices, prioritizing their own convenience over guidelines imposed for the purpose of public health and safety. Without attentiveness to wisdom (and willingness to share it, when necessary) the purpose might be missed altogether.
Both quarantine and exile contain opportunities for creativity in worship, exercise, growth, and so on. They keep us from stagnating in faith, in relationships, in habits good or bad. As I mentioned earlier, quarantines and social distancing have already opened doors for churches to put on services in new ways, overcoming obstacles and finding improved methods of doing things (some of which may even last after quarantine ends!). These weeks even present a chance for us to pursue old passions and new talents. (Case in point, I’ve written two blogs in the last week, with several unpublishable pages beside. Just don’t ask me about homework.)
Exile is much the same. Daniel, for example, resolved within himself to remain committed to the purity God commanded. (As a result, we got a diet that trendy Christians still follow today!) Some of the strangest stories in the Old Testament occur in Daniel, and they may not have occurred if Daniel hadn’t gotten creative. They definitely wouldn’t have been possible without his passion for prayer, his identity as one who prays (Dan. 6:10). He remained committed to the “main thing” throughout his exile.
One day, hopefully sooner rather than later, this period of social distancing and the threat of coronavirus will end, and we will gather again with a renewed appreciation for the value of community and everything we had been cut off from. But it’s not wrong to take time to acknowledge the weight of our present exile. Perhaps this season will give the Church language to express the now-and-not-yetness, and permission to truly feel it. Because even when we can sit down together in coffee shops and raise hands in corporate worship again, we will still be in exile. How much deeper is that exile than this quarantine, and how much greater will the joy be when it is finally over?
“As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul thirsts for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?”
If you're a Spotify person, have a playlist for exile. (And another for your corona-vibes.)