The Story of Refugees We Know Well
I’ve seen the news. I’ve watched the debates rage on social media about our “right response” to the bloodshed, the homelessness, the great displacement of people, and the evil and pain that is happening in our world. I’ve cried as I’ve prayed for victims’ families and for the refugees traveling through Europe, looking for a safe place. Croatia, a country I once called home, has had more than 300,000 refugees cross its borders. Each day I encounter photos and snippets from friends there, talking about how they are living in light of this tremendous change to the country. How would I live if I were there?
There are a lot of posts across the blogosphere talking about how we should think about what is happening in our world. (Tim Challies mentions this one. Kevin DeYoung writes here in response to Trevin Wax’s article. There are many more.) It is good to read them and pray and consider. I do not pretend to have answers to all of the questions, but as Christians who look to the Bible for answers, we must also read there.
Ever since, sojourning is the life of God’s people; they dwell in a place for which they were not made, longing for a future home that has yet to come.
Refugees are not an unfamiliar concept to Bible readers. We see deep loss and suffering arising from the knowledge that there is a place where a person belongs, yet something keeps them from this home. From the beginning of God’s word, we see the theme of being shut out of the dwelling we have come to love. Adam and Eve were forced to live as strangers and scavengers, being cast out of the perfect home designed for them. Because of their own sin, they lived in a cursed land, alienated from God’s presence and the paradise they had enjoyed. Ever since, sojourning is the life of God’s people; they dwell in a place for which they were not made, longing for a future home that has yet to come.
We see this played out in the individual lives of God’s people, as well as the corporate whole. Abraham dwelled as a foreigner in the land promised to him, and Jacob and the whole people of God fled to Egypt in a famine, to be welcomed in God’s design by the previously displaced son, Joseph. In Egypt, the Israelites lived as foreigners and refugees among people unlike themselves, waiting for the day when they could return to their home. God did bring them out by his mighty hand and into their own land, but even as they entered and lived in the Promised Land, there were warnings of a coming exile should they disobey. (Lev 26:33; Deut. 28:64)
When living in their own land, God commanded his people to remember their lives as sojourners in Egypt and care for foreigners who sought refuge in Israel. God compassionately cared for his people when they were refugees, and he wanted them to display that same heart towards others. (Ex 23:9)
Even still, in the Promised Land, God’s people and their kings did not heed the warnings. They disobeyed and chose idolatry and unfaithfulness over and again. The Lord patiently warned and disciplined, but they did not change. The consequences of their sin brought the people of Israel into exile. They lost their land, their home, and, even more importantly, the place where they could worship God. God’s people had been cast out again; they had become sojourners and foreigners. Living in exile the people sang of their grief. (Ps. 137) Their hearts were broken, yet they held to hope that God would bring them back to their land and do something new in their hearts.
Because of God’s steadfast, covenant love, he did bring his remnant back, but the rubble of their old lives remained. Foreigners continued to rule the land God’s people called their own. The exile had officially ended, but it was still felt in their hearts. They clung to the hope of the new work God would do to create his kingdom with a new king, and in this kingdom they would finally find their place, never to have to leave again. (Ezek. 36:16-28, Isa. 9:6-7)
Finally, the king for whom they waited came, to free them from their exile, but they did not recognize him.
Jesus took the exile.
Jesus was that king. He experienced the refugee life in Egypt as a child; yes, he did flee with his family for safety. But, in another way, Jesus was not a refugee. He was the only person who was not fleeing from the consequences of sin in the garden. Rather, Jesus left his home to enter the warzone. He did not flee the famine of uprightness, the spiritual battle of evil, nor the consequences of sin. He ran towards it instead of away from it. By lowering himself to become man, he entered the battle, so that he could pay the penalty- the rejection and separation from God. When Jesus died on the cross, he took the alienation that we deserved. Jesus took the exile, which is why he called out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46)
Because of this, the people of God can finally go home. The refugees who wander in a corrupt, broken, bloody, evil world can finally be reconciled with God. One day they will return to the home for which they were made, a new heavens and a new earth with a river and tree of life resembling the garden from which they were cast out a long time ago. (Rev. 22:1-2)
So this is how Christians live today. We yearn for a world that we do not see, knowing that we are strangers, exiles -- truly refugees-- here on this earth. (Heb. 11:1, 13) We don’t love this world. When we’re seeing clearly, we know this isn’t our place. Everything here is passing away, and it’s not our home. (1 John 2:15-17)
So, Christians, you and I can, on the one hand, choose to read the news and look at the refugees as vastly different from us. They are living a very disparate life from mine as I sit in a living room, on a couch, with a cup of tea, and heat. They’ve lived through trauma, pain, and fleeing. The worldview most of them hold is very different than mine. Yet, on the other hand, they are visibly living out the spiritual journey of the people of God. In that way, they are not dissimilar to us. Their sojourning makes palpable what we have read in our Scriptures and what we believe about our spiritual lives. You and I are foreigners in a place not our home.
God’s reaction to refugees was compassion. He saw his beloved people walk this road in history, and he saved them, more than once. He called his people to show compassion to others with the same plight. And ultimately, God became man to do something about it – to save them forever. Jesus paid our punishment of alienation, so that we, the aliens, can go home to him. So we follow the example of our God—we see refugees as people in need of compassion and action. There are decisions that need to be made with wisdom. Yet as we make them, may we see these people through the lens set by our Scriptures- as people with whom we can relate and who are in need of compassion.