Judith M. Dinsmore
At one time, “homesickness” was chiefly a medical term, the English translation of a disease called nostalgia, from the Latin nostos, “homecoming,” and algia, “pain.” Coined in 1688 to describe a strange physical ailment that had been almost instantly cured upon the patient’s return home, nostalgia was last written as the cause of death on a death certificate in 1918.
Homesickness has plummeted in serious use since then, banished to kindergarten classrooms or maybe freshman dorms. Our travel-loving, globalist culture does not seem to have time for it; we are encouraged to be at home in every corner of the world. Maintaining a vital connection to just one seems to be either narrow-minded or wimpy—or both. Never a bragging right, homesickness today has become downright shameful.
As a Christian, the shame can be compounded: shouldn’t believers, of all people, be the least homesick for an earthly home since they live in hope of a heavenly one? Paul instructs us to set our minds “on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). Aren’t these emotions of homesickness just one more shackle of a sinful existence?
Not necessarily. We are bound neither by our culture nor by our emotions. Easy-breezy mobility is no virtue, and homesickness need not be a vice. We can be both homesick and holy.
There should be no shame for the Christian who has a home and loves it. Nowhere are we called to dwell and delight in each inch of earth—that is God’s job, and we couldn’t if we tried. Despite technology, we are stuck in the here and now, limited by time and distance. Yet, here and now is always where God works; he is not just “over there” or “back then.” As we seek to obey God in the day-to-day details, he reveals himself in those very dish rags and dental appointments.
Through common grace, his hand is visible in the leaves about the yard, in the conversation of neighbors, in the cheer of the local library. Through special grace, he is found where we worship, where we celebrate communion, and where we pray. We train ourselves in habits, specific to that place, that serve him. We respond to needs in the name of Christ. Our affections and responsibilities swirl around one place, one neighborhood, or one city. Small wonder, then, that the people around us and the place we’re in become precious. By seeking God’s presence, we grow a home.
Then, for some reason or other, we move. That affection becomes a source of pain rather than joy: “Everything here is unlovely,” we might think. The responsibilities we assumed can haunt us: “How are they doing without me?” Most frightening, the very thing that makes home so good, the presence of God, can make homesickness so terrible—where is God, here, anyway?
Homesickness can drive us to God; it can also drive us away from him.
Homesickness can come as grief, boredom, fear, frustration, depression, or any number of expressions, depending on your personality. But all of these forms of homesickness, no matter what the particular cause, can sidetrack you. They distract you from your calling, suck away joy, and frustrate you. That is because homesickness, while in itself not a sin, can quickly turn into discontentment. (Uprooted, Rebecca VanDoodewaard, 20)
For me, homesickness manifests as an overwhelming conviction that everything is wrong—I am in the wrong neighborhood, living with the wrong people, going to the wrong church. I took a wrong turn. I’m adrift. And I’m stuck.
This homesickness is far more than missing a special someone or being wistful for days gone by. It’s a deep-seated displacement, and its tremors can put hairline cracks through the structure of my days.
Author Jen Pollock Michel suggests that displacement is our society’s “low-grade fever.” We aren’t living the life we expected to. In her book Keeping Place, Michel demonstrates how many of the defeated expectations of Christians revolve around home: “We pine for marriage and stay single. We want children and birth barrenness. At our tables too many of us find loneliness instead of company” (199). We may have a home, but it’s not a refuge. We may have a home, but when we return, it is no longer familiar to us and we are not familiar to it.
Discontentment responds to such difficulty with doubt rather than trust. Like every sin, it longs to usurp God’s throne, to overthrow his will and set up an alternate kingdom where our own will rules. And like every sin, discontentment also displays just how weak we are to accomplish our desire.
Morning after morning we wake up to find God still on his throne and us still in our not-home. But yet he shows mercy.
Christ, in his human nature, also had to submit to being in one place, at one time. Born-and-bred churchgoers know an inordinate amount about one little corner of the world—its emperors, its people groups, and the construction of its stables. The choir of angels showed up in one field, not many. Christ came to the Near East, not imperial China, precolonial Africa, or primitive America. He grew in one woman’s womb; he served supper in one room. His body rested in one tomb.
Although Christ was tied to one place, that place was not home. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” Christ warned those who would follow him (Matt. 8:20). Yet Christ was not adrift; although homeless, he did not wander. Steadfastly, he set his face toward Jerusalem. “I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me,” he said (John 5:30). And his Father had a plan. It was no accident Christ arrived where he did, when he did. And when he left, he promised, “I go to prepare a place for you” (14:2).
In Rosaria Butterfield’s latest book, The Gospel Comes with a House key, she records how she and her family befriended a reclusive and standoffish neighbor across the street. A year later, the neighbor asked her why she bothered. “God never gets the address wrong,” she said.
We, too, must submit to where we are born and where we are brought. That means that we may not live where we want to live—but God never gets our address wrong. It is no accident that we are where we are. Regardless of how alien our lives may seem, there was no “wrong turn.” In fact, it might be this very alienation that ties us to Christ. Obeying his commands for the here-and-now allows us to both home-make and be properly homesick.
First, in everything give thanks. When homesick, I pine for particulars: a friend’s conversation, the sound of the wind around the corner of the house. To counter discontentment, I’ve found that I must then cherish particulars, “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20). It’s no vague battle to make a new home; God is in the details. He delights in sparrows, and so must I—not to mention new walking trails, a new friend’s homemade soup, or a rearranged room.
Second, keep the house of God. Sundays make me grumpy; on this day of rest, I cannot busy myself with tasks and a great deep of discontent opens up. The people in the pews next to me only remind me of the family and church family that I am not with. Yet, on Sunday, I also have the privilege in public worship of doing exactly what I need to do most: walk into the presence of God. The stakes are high. This of all days, then, is not the day to submit to my will, but God’s. And he wants me in church, with a joyful heart that’s trusting in him.
Third, think twice before leaving a home; count the spiritual cost. Uprooting yourself will affect you spiritually, for better or worse, because it will change your habits and your relationships, these earthy means of knowing God. Especially if it is your first time, expect to pour time and energy into seeking God in a new place.
This human limitation of being stuck in one place at one time is not easy, but it has driven me to worship God for one undermentioned incommunicable attribute: his omnipresence. Although he is physically now at God’s right hand, Christ’s presence fills this earth. And this is a great comfort to me. He tenderly watches over the people and places I care about but cannot care for. Because when I yearn for them, I am, in the end, yearning for his goodness found in them. And some day, they will be one: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev. 21:3).
In the new heavens and the new earth, when God dwells with us and we with him, place will no longer cause sickness and distance will no longer separate. All I need will be within arm’s reach.
The author is managing editor of New Horizons. New Horizons, January 2018.