I have spent my life feeling like a wandering nomad with no permanent rootedness. This is largely a product of growing up overseas in a context where many of my friends were also away from their home country. When I was eight years old, my family moved to the Philippines, and I lived there until I was 16. Many of my friends also were not native to the Philippines, and so we developed a sort of collective identity as being visitors in a land not our own.
My Desire for Rootedness
When I moved back to the United States at 16, I experienced culture shock living in the county whose name was written on my passport. Technically, I belonged to the United States; experientially, it seemed that I belonged nowhere. I was a foreigner in my own country as well as in the one I had grown up in. I was caught between multiple continents, having familiarity with the culture of each but fully belonging to neither one. A simple question stumped me: “Where are you from?” Anyone who asked me this received several seconds of awkward fishing for a reply.
This tension created for me a deep identity crisis and sense of longing. Because I did not know where I belonged, I did not know who I was. Many of my friends I have made since returning to the US have lived in one place their entire life. When asked where they are from, they can name the specific state, city, or even street address that they have always known to be home for them. To me, this geographical stability was enviable. I longed for a definitive answer to the question “Where am I from?” I dreamed of what it would be like to have my life stably contained in one geographic locale – to have my elementary school, middle school, high school, life-long friends, family members, church, and house all within the same zip code. If this had been my experience, I reasoned, then I would feel fulfilled.
What This Longing Indicates
As I have reflected on this desire, I have become convinced that it is meant to point me to a greater reality – the hope of heaven. Our desires for belonging, security, permanence, and home are God-given internal arrows that should direct our gaze toward eternity. Every pang of homesickness I feel is a reminder that I am truly not at home, nor will I ever be this side of eternity.
After all, a Christian is, by definition, a visitor in a foreign land. 1 Peter 2:11 calls Christians “foreigners and exiles.” Comfortability in this world indicates we have not embraced our true identity and true place of belonging. This does not mean it is necessarily wrong to identify a geographic locale as home. But it does qualify how we view our earthly home and put it in perspective.
Abraham’s Land Pointed to Something Greater
I believe God’s promise of land to Abraham provides a helpful paradigm for how we should view our earthly homes. In the Old Testament, God promised Abraham, the father of Israel, a piece of land as eternal possession for himself and his descendants. In Genesis 17:8, God told him, “The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you.”
But we must let the New Testament inform our understanding of this promise. In light of New Testament revelation, we see that this promise of land was actually an earthly picture of a heavenly reality. It pointed beyond a mere strip of geography to heaven itself. Hebrews 11:9-10 tells us: “By faith he [Abraham] made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city without foundations, whose architect is God.” As Abraham dwelt in the promised land, he looked beyond it to an unending home in heaven. The land was a road sign on the way to eternity.
Romans 4:13 universalizes the land promise by saying that this promise to Abraham was that he “would be heir of the world.” The heirs of this promise are those who have faith in Christ (Rom. 4:16). Thus the land promise is expanded to include Christians inheriting the new heavens and the new earth (cf. Rev. 21:7). Similarly, Jesus says in Matthew 5:5: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” This is an allusion to Psalm 37:11: “The meek will inherit the land.” Once again, the theme of land is expanded and universalized as a symbol of Christians ruling over renewed creation for eternity (cf. 2 Tim. 2:12, Luke 19:17, Dan. 7:18).
Another way this expansion of the land promise is shown is through the use of the term “inheritance.” In the Old Testament, this term described Israel possessing the land (Num. 26:53, 32:18-19, Deut. 4:21, 38, 15:4). In the New Testament, this term is appropriated to speak of a Christian’s hope of eternity (Eph. 1:14, Col. 3:24, Heb. 9:15). The NT picks up on this OT vocabulary to point to our hope of heaven as the ultimate fulfillment of the land promise.
Implications for Us
This brief overview of the land promise has numerous implications; but I’d like to draw attention to how it should affect the way we view our earthly homes.
God used a piece of real estate as a physical shadow with spiritual substance. The land did not find ultimate significance in itself; it pointed to a greater spiritual reality. By application, I believe our earthly homelands can function the same way for us; they point us to a homeland beyond this world. When you relax at your house, feeling safe and secure, let it point you toward a more eternal source of security and safety. When you identify a certain town as your hometown, remember it is your hometown only in a limited and qualified way. When you are away from home and feel homesick, let that homesickness take you beyond the desire for your earthly home and fixate your gaze on your true home.
Below are a couple of concrete applications of this truth.
1. Be careful about becoming overly attached to one place.
God does not always keep us in one geographical location. Sometimes, he desires to use us in various places at various stages of life. To be open to whatever way God desires to use us, we should hold any attachment to a particular place lightly. It is not wrong to appreciate your hometown or current place of residence, but let your allegiance to that place be qualified by allegiance to God’s will and your ultimate home in heaven.
I believe it is wise to avoid thinking that the town you grew up will always be your hometown. It seems better to me to adopt a more fluid definition of “home” that is based on people rather than on places. On this earth, “home” is where you know others and are known. You do not have to grow up in a certain place for it to be home. Rather, you can create a home any place you go. This flexible understanding of home frees us to focus on relationships and be more willing to be uprooted if called to do so by God.
2. Let spiritual commonality with others take precedence over geographical and cultural commonality.
If we identify more closely with others from our hometown than with Christians from around the world, that indicates we have let earthly bonds take precedence over spiritual bonds. There is a tendency to have allegiance to the culture, customs, landmarks, lingo, sports teams, and foods that are unique to one’s hometown. These cultural commonalities bind people together and create a sense of individual and collective identity. Thus Chicagoans are united by their love of deep-dish pizza, Italian beef, the Bears, and the Blackhawks.
This is not inherently problematic, but these cultural commonalities should not be more important to us than spiritual bonds with brothers and sisters in Christ. Do you identify yourself first and foremost as a member of your town/city/state, or as a member of the transnational body of Christ?
This applies differently to different people. If you live in your hometown or home country, do you fear making friends who are from places and cultures foreign to you? If you live a town or country you consider home, you have a great opportunity to welcome strangers and foreigners. Leviticus 19:33-34a is instructive for us: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself.” While the Mosaic Law is not directly binding on Christians, the principle is nonetheless applicable to us. God has a heart for those who are in a foreign land. God’s people are to be welcoming and receptive to strangers and foreigners. By showing such hospitality, we emphasize that spiritual commonality is a deeper unifying bond than geographical commonality.
If you live in a land you consider foreign, take this opportunity to recognize that you have family all over the world. Do not let the cultural and geographical differences dissuade you from investing relationally in a biblical community. Find a church home where you can know others and be known by them. By investing in relationships where you are, you can create a new home for yourself based on people and the memories you will come to share with them.
3. Shape your lifestyle by your identity as a foreigner in this world.
Our conduct should be informed by our identity as aliens and foreigners in this world. As 1 Peter 2:11 says: “I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” We live here on earth, but we are members of another kingdom; therefore, we must live in accord with its values. If we feel at home and comfortable in this world, perhaps it is an indication we are far too in love with it. We should not seek to insulate ourselves from society, for this would make it impossible to be salt and light. But even though we are citizens of a country, state, and town in this world, that citizenship is secondary to our true citizenship in heaven. May our attitudes, thoughts, and conduct reflect where our true home really is.
Beale, G.K. “The Relationship of Israel’s Land Promises to the Fulfillment of Israel’s Restoration and New Creation Prophecies in Christ and the Church,” in A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011.
Martin, Oren. Bound for the Promised Land: The Land Promise in God’s Redemptive Plan. New Studies in Biblical Theology. Downers Grove: IVP, 2015.
Pollock, David and Ruth Van Reken. Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Revised Edition. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2009.