“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.” (Jeremiah 29:7)
In February, we moved to Mostar after five long years in Sarajevo, to work with young people and build a community where they can belong, believe in God and become the people they are created to be. In that sense, one could say that I am a builder. We came here to build something that does not yet exist, and that is greatly needed: an entity that will fight against the current culture that divides people and thrives on fear and stagnation. People need this; fear has encouraged isolation, which has created a place where young people have few opportunities for proper work and advancement. As long as these elements are allowed to persist, the entire country remains in danger of falling back into conflict and war.
So, when we think of the type of people we want to be while we are here, the above Scripture is especially relevant. We want to be the type of people who are passionately concerned for the welfare of the place where we live, even as foreigners. We want to be the types of foreigners that locals can be proud of, the kind who bring good things to the community, the kind who work to bring help and healing, not because we are better or more intelligent, but simply because our beliefs require that we do so.
Sojourners and Exiles
The theme of Jeremiah 29 is picked up in other parts of Scripture that describe how redeemed people should live in a secular context. Peter, writing to early Christians, said the following:
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:11-12)
We want people to see our good deeds. This doesn’t mean that we pray out loud in the streets so that our prayers can be heard by men — it simply means that we must work in such a way that the things by which people can identify us are things which are universally recognized as good.
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. (2:13-15)
So what we see is incredible. Peter opens this statement by acknowledging that his followers are regarded within their nations as “sojourners and exiles”. The implication is made, therefore, at the start that the readers have been done wrong — nobody is an exile by their own choice. However, the instructions he gives exhort his readers to behave in a way that is not common to exiles of any kind the world has ever known. For people generally do not work and live for the benefit of people who are not their people.
While acknowledging the folly of those who regard his readers as exiles in their native lands, his bidding is that believers would, through submission to authority and good deeds, silence the insults of their accusers and bring people to the place where they glorify the God of the very people they have marginalized.
So how are we doing with this?
I used to view Christianity as I think most people do: as a religion that is primarily concerned with abstention from sin. Personally, the story is about much more than that: more than mere abstention from sin, Christianity demands that one be completely transformed. And once one has been transformed by the work of God, it is unacceptable to look at the world and not work with all vigilance possible to bring the same brand of godly transformation to ever corner of the earth.
It is hard to say with certainty, what this means practically for any one believer. It does mean that all believers must be listening to the words of Scripture, praying and seeking direction as to how they must live. But in bidding readers to submit to authority and work for the welfare of their cities, Jeremiah and Peter show that the culture of the believer does not require them to separate from their communities, as exiles commonly do. Separatists cannot transform something in which they do not participate.
So, as we think of Mostar and dream about the things we might do, we find that we face problems that are not peculiar to us. We, like all true believers, must be involved. We must live passionately. We must be transformed and work for transformation.