Much of contemporary Christian resources on discipleship, ministry, and mission are centered on responding to a fast-fading reality. So many write, preach, and teach against a cultural Christianity high on piety, low on practice, which separated itself from the world, derided as too heavenly to be any earthly good. For many in past generations the distance between the culture of the Christianity of their youth, or their parents’ youth, or of the church they encounter in other places, and the reality of faith they encounter in Scripture, creates a deep sense of dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction, and the desire to define one’s faith and church practice against such unbiblical models of Christian expression, can operate like the gravitational pull of a nearby moon, hidden in the darkness but still influencing with an invisible force. A pull that has the potential to warp not only our current practice, but cause us to misread our current reality.
As the distance between conventional forms of evangelical Christianity and a rapidly secularizing Western culture grew, so did the desire to model and practice a faith that did not unthinkingly reject culture completely, or wall itself off in Christianized social enclaves. New approaches to cultural interface were explored. The paradigm of missiology was adopted. The lessons learned by missionaries in the two-thirds world were brought back to Western contexts, the practice of contextualization increasingly shaping local ministry. Best practices from the business and marketing fields were employed. As cultural Christianity appeared to fade, church leaders started speaking of a new divide: the gap between Christianity and—whatever you wanted to call it: modernity, secularism, post-modernity, post-Christianity—the social force that was moving away from the West’s cultural roots. As the reality of this situation grew, alongside a rediscovery of a missional posture, the Old Testament language of exile gained new resonance.
In the biblical story, the exile has several dimensions. It refers to the Babylonian and Assyrian conquest of Judah and Israel, respectively, and to the devastation wrought upon Jerusalem and the temple—the tearing out of Israel’s very heart. It refers also to the cultural displacement of those who were taken away to a foreign city, where they had to practice their faith in a foreign place, forever surrounded by powerful and seductive idols. There, God’s people walked a tightrope between faithfulness and cultural engagement, wondering if He would return to them with mercy.
These dimensions seemed to offer analogies to Western Christianity at the end of the twentieth century and into the beginning of the twenty-first. The mourning, the sense of lostness the people of God felt at the destruction of their land, the cultural dislocation—it seemed to gel with the passing of Christendom, the displacement of Christianity from the Western imagination, and the new social arrangement the church found itself in.
The analogy of exile not only seemed to offer solace, but also hope. The prophet Jeremiah, himself an exile in Babylon, encouraged the Jews in exile in Babylon with these words from God:
“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jer. 29:5–7 NIV)
This has become a keystone passage for many, including me, in order to navigate our current cultural challenges.
However, as Christian exegesis of Scripture informs us, the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament must be read through the lens of Christ: His ministry, death, and resurrection. There is nothing wrong with applying Jeremiah’s encouragement to our current situation, but without an application of how Christ’s work has radically changed the essence of history and the cosmos, we can drift into subtle errors. Not a dramatic theological error, nor a devastating heresy, but a nuance that can work against the flourishing of our ministry, mission, and discipleship.
A Second Exile
We are not in exile in the same way Israel was while living in Babylon. Babylon was a culture in the sway of the elemental forces, its entire culture built around a specific form of religious worship. Israel was the same, but shaped by temple and Torah, guided by God. The kingdom of God, still a hidden secret, was only hinted at, experienced in glimpses. The Messiah, the coming King hoped for, pined for, and prayed for, had not yet arrived. The Spirit of God, falling at times, but only on some, was sporadic and temporary in His visitations. The fundamental building blocks of the universe, the elemental forces, had not changed.
With Christ’s appearing, everything changed. The Messiah had come. The promises of the prophets had been fulfilled. The kingdom was now an open secret. The Spirit, now a constant guide and companion, became available to all who would bend their knee to Christ. The fundamental elements of the universe had irrevocably been changed. No longer is the temple the center of the biblical universe. No longer do the people of God pine for the Shekinah glory to return to the temple. Instead, as Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, the people of God, filled with the Spirit, have Christ as their cornerstone. God’s household, of which Christians are members, “rises to become a holy temple in the Lord…a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph. 2:21–22 NIV).
This is a post-elemental forces faith. Thus exile cannot be the same. We cannot simply sit back and wait for God to end our cultural exile, aiming to flourish. The victory is won, the game has changed. A new era is here. As heavenly citizens we exist in a kind of exile, but in a different epoch, thus deserving of a different missional posture. Yes, we are called to flourish, but we are called also into a spiritual war against the powers and principalities, now humiliated on the cross by Christ. There is a key nuance here: flourishing needs a fight against the flesh. We find meaning not in the promises of the achievement culture, or the mirage of the “end of history,” but in the battle against that which is not God, a conflict that takes on a personal dimension as we battle the flesh within.
After the cross, a new border is erected in the world, between the flesh, which is passing and which resists God, and the Spirit, which reflects God. A time in which Christ has won the ultimate victory upon the cross, but the forces that oppose God wage their insurgency before His return. Their insurgency will fail, yet it still carries the potential to do great damage. Sin is still active in the world, we live in the damage wrought by the flesh upon our social fabric, we live with the internal damage done by the flesh upon ourselves. The damage done by sin in our world means that we cannot have it all. Salvation yes, but all earthly benefits, no. The kingdom is not a means of getting around this, of having fully satisfying lives in which we get to feast from the full fruit of earthly creation while around us sin destroys and damages. The earth still groans, waiting for release from the effects of sin. It waits for its exile to end, for history to reach its end. The limitations, blockages, and difficulties of this exile point us toward God, reminding us that our only solace can be found in Him.
When positive emotions become the pinnacle of personal growth, a tyranny of feelings is quickly established. Compounded by the belief, communicated from Disney children’s movies to self-help literature, that a life free of negative feelings and painful emotions is eminently possible. This belief is confirmed by contemporary parenting styles and dominant educational practices that insulate the young
from the painful realities of life, the sting of disappointments and consequences, and the limiting reality of a broken creation. Thus when limitations and difficulties are encountered in early adulthood, faith can be approached as a panacea to the experience of negative feelings. As something that will assist the individual in the achievement of ever greater levels of positive and rewarding feelings.
However, life in the Spirit, as described by the New Testament, is a very different proposition than the accruing of positive emotions and feelings. God’s salvation plan is a far broader canvas than the simple inflating of individual emotions. Instead our eternal exile aligns us with the reality of the kingdom of God in a profound way.
The kingdom is the area under the rule and reign of God. We do not build this reign, instead we submit to it. “Whether men ‘receive’ that rule is another question,” E. Stanley Jones cautions. “If they do not receive it, then all the worse for them, for the kingdom then operates in self-frustration and self-destruction. Men hurt themselves if they do not receive the kingdom.”3 Jones’s insight is a powerful one. The kingdom is both good news and bad news. Good news to those who grasp their own wretchedness and spiritual need. Bad news to those who wish to preserve their own individual autonomy. Observing Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels we see again and again that those who grasp their own weakness, who come to the end of themselves, who realize their own limitations, are the ones who are close to the kingdom. Those who understand and experience the exile of this time find themselves close to the kingdom.
“God did not and does not come to the self-sufficient,” writes R. Kent Hughes, noting that “Christianity began and always begins with a spirit of need—spiritual destitution.”4 Shaped by the achievement society, and the non-places of our world, which form us to believe an unlimited life is possible. Experiencing the gap between this promise and the reality of our lives, we can force ourselves to greater levels of exertion, or collapse into a fatigued funk, or cycle between both. Googling life hacks, or retreating into passivity, all while the anxiety grows within. Thus we can reach the end of ourselves, but instead of being close to the true kingdom of God we can recoil in fear, fearful of giving up our expectations, shaped by the achievement society. Instead of examining the validity of our own expectations, we live in the thrall of anxiety, illustrating the incompatibility of kingdom living with the life script of the achievement society.
During the Babylonian exile, the prophets warned the people of God not to succumb to the worship of idols, to bend their knee to foreign gods. The injunction against idol worship is still there in the New Testament; however, on the other side of the cross, it is not just idols, but heresies, deceitful philosophies, false teachers that the believer must be wary of. Now freed from the elemental forces, and experiencing the liberation of the gospel, Paul warns the believers in Galatia to not “use your freedom to indulge the flesh” (Gal 5:13 NIV).
This is more than a simple descent into the realm of obvious sins such as lust and gluttony. This is a warning that, though freed from sin, the flesh must still be continually crucified. The flesh being any mindset, action, and attitude that is not led by the Spirit. Paul elucidates further: “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, is that you are not to do whatever you want” (Gal 5:16–17 NIV). Living by the Spirit, then, in a world of flesh, is our exile.