4 Approaches to Counseling Exiles

Justin Lakemacher, Program Manager

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase ‘Identity in Christ’?

I would imagine most Christians think of something like the following: I’m a child of God. I’m adopted.  I’m forgiven.  Redeemed.  Justified.  Set Apart. 

And all of these glorious truths are indeed amazing aspects of our identity in Christ.  In Him we are chosen, adopted, forgiven, redeemed, and filled with the Holy Spirit.  And those are just the terms Paul uses in Ephesians 1 when he is reminding the church in Ephesus of who they are in Christ and all that they possess in Him.

As true as all those terms are, there is another aspect of our identity that’s often forgotten.  In Christ, we are also exiles (1 Peter 1:1).  An exile is a pilgrim or a stranger in a foreign land, removed from their home.  It is the idea of being homeless.  And in this sense, we are all exiles.  We have been exiles ever since the beginning of Genesis because when God created man, he created a home for man (Genesis 2:15).  Our home was the Garden of Eden and it provided all we ever needed.  Yet, Adam and Eve sinned and man was kicked out of their home (Genesis 3:23-24).  We have been in exile ever since the fall.

The exile experience is seen in counseling when we meet with Christians who struggle to follow God in a fallen world.  Being an exile has two primary effects.  First, exiles often find themselves uncomfortable.  Persecution has been a common way throughout the churches history whereby exiles experience discomfort but there are other ways.  Exiles are uncomfortable because as Christians, what they value is vastly different than what the world values.  In a culture that urges people to live for self, exiles are trying to take up their cross daily and deny self.  

The glorification of self seems to be the motto of the land.  This flies in direct opposition of the motto of our home land which is the glory of God.  Not to mention, when living for the glory of God, we may find ourselves in difficult situations such as standing up for what is right over what is popular, saying the hard thing that could cost a relationship but is the right thing to say, or even sacrificing time, money, and energy for someone else’s benefit.  These things make us very uncomfortable at times and counselees often struggle to grasp this reality and what it truly means to live uncomfortably as an exile.

Second, exiles have a longing to return home that remains temporarily unfulfilled.  If we are in Christ, we have tasted what our home is like but we aren’t there yet.  Revelation 21-22 gives us a glimpse of what our new home will be like but in the meantime, we still experience pain, suffering, sin, and death like everyone else.  This longing is hard to wrestle with for exiles because when we are in the midst of experiencing pain, it doesn’t seem like we are moving toward a new heaven and a new earth. It can feel like the exact opposite.  And while this pain testifies to the reality that we are not home, it doesn’t mean suffering while longing for home is easy.  Often times the suffering can be so intense, the reality of our new home is easily forgotten.

In these ways, exiles suffer.  Here are 4 approaches to help counsel Christians struggling to find their way home in a fallen world.

1.  Listen.  Being in exile is hard because the comfort of being at home is not experienced.  Have you ever gone camping for a time and been eager to return home by the final day?  Imagine a lifetime of longing to return home.  This is what God calls us to as exiles.  The first thing we can do for the exile is to listen.  We are called to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).  Living in exile is hard.  Give your counselee a listening ear and allow them the time to process through the difficulties of exile with another.

2.  Remind them they are not alone.  When we suffer, we are often tempted to feel we are alone.  The truth, however, is that we are never alone.  Elijah faced 450 prophets of Baal and defeated them in one of the most dramatic scenes in the Old Testament.  Yet, not long after he is afraid, alone, and even asks God to take his life (1 Kings 19:4) because Jezebel is seeking to kill him.  But notice God’s presence in the midst of all this.  An angel of the LORD comes to provide strength (1 Kings 19:5-8) then God himself speaks to Elijah and at the end of the conversation informs him that there will be 7,000 others who have not bowed to Baal (1 Kings 19:9-18).  No matter how difficult our exile becomes, no matter how painful the suffering, no matter how alone we feel, we are never alone.  God is with us.  Help our counselees see this gloriously strengthening truth.  

3.  Urge them to embrace life as an exile.  One of the temptations exiles face is getting too comfortable in their exile.  We have been away from home for so long, we are tempted to settle in and make the foreign land our home.  When Peter writes to the elect exiles of God he reminds them of the home that awaits them.  Peter writes that we have an “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:4-5).  The inheritance is waiting for us and God himself is keeping it safe!  The prodigal son demanded his inheritance early and it nearly destroyed him.  Our counselees will be tempted to do the same by forgetting they are exiles and falling in love with this present world and all of its comforts.  Urge them to embrace their identity as an exile and continue on the journey by reminding them often of where the story of Scripture is heading and of their eternal home.

4.  Help God’s elect exiles see the Elect Exile who will lead them home.  The truth about our exile is that we are so lost that we cannot find our way home.  We need someone to lead us there.  Jesus Christ is God’s Elect Exile who left his home in heaven and came to earth, living and dying as an exile.  After his resurrection, He went back home where he is sitting on the throne until He returns to lead his people home to be with Him forever.  We cannot escape exile on our own.  We must follow Him out.  Jesus told his disciples in John 14 that he was going to leave them to prepare a place for them that he would eventually bring them to be with him.   Ask them how God is leading them in their exile and help them walk in His footsteps. 

Above all, we must remember that the story of Scripture begins in a garden and ends in a garden.  The exilic period is only temporary for those in Christ.  He promised to lead us back home to be with Him and He will.  We are almost home.  Keep going and grab the hand of your counselee and help them keep going too.