can something be both as solid as stone and as hollow as an echo?
only one thing.
a human heart.
God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.
—King Solomon, reflecting on the paradox of our immortal hungers
and our limited understanding (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
Television commercials annoy me. They’re always telling me my car isn’t sporty enough, my breath isn’t fresh enough, my armpits aren’t dry enough, my investments aren’t secure enough, my teeth aren’t bright enough, my beer isn’t filling enough, and my insurance company isn’t cheap enough—and that I’ll be cooler, happier, hipper, more popular, pain free, and handsome if I just chew their brand of gum, use their brand of athlete’s foot cream, and their brand of squeezable soft toilet paper.
One night I saw a commercial for this really big, juicy cheeseburger, and I was sitting there thinking, Man, that looks good. I oughtta just slip out and go get one. So I grabbed my shoes and was lacing them up when another commercial came on from a different restaurant chain telling me how much saturated fat that first commercial’s burgers had. I stopped lacing up my shoes. Man, that’s nasty.
None of the commercials have to convince me that I don’t have enough joy, peace, freedom, love, friendship, or satisfaction in my life. The advertisers just take that for granted. In fact, they put a magnifying glass up to my longings and then offer me solutions both of us know won’t work. That’s the kicker.
And the worst part about it is that I keep watching their commercials. I keep buying their stuff. I keep hoping that maybe they’re right after all, that all these deep nagging desires will finally go away if I use their product—that happiness really will come from a can of shaving cream or a tube of toothpaste.
If this world of chalupas and dandruff shampoo is all there is, how come I have hungers that none of those things ever seem to satisfy? The mystic Sundar Singh wrote, “Thirst is an expression of our need for water and a sign of hope that somewhere there is water that can satisfy our thirst. Similarly, the deep longing in our soul is a clear sign of hope that spiritual peace exists.”
We don’t feed a hungry man sawdust or give a thirsty man a pillow. That’s not what he needs. So why do we try to fill our hunger for the mysterious, the spiritual, the eternal with cognac, ecstasy, reality shows, affairs, and chicken fajitas?
We tell ourselves that this meal, this promotion, this drug, this one night stand will finally make us happy. But they don’t because they can’t. It’s the wrong food. We’re feeling our way around a dark room, groping for a happiness that’s always out of reach. If only we would take the time to turn on the light, we’d see how empty the room really is. We’re looking in the wrong place.
Jesus once said, “People need more than bread for their life; they must feed on every word of God” (Matthew 4:4). If we’re not feeding on the words of God, a great big part of our souls will be starving. Most people never devour the life-giving words that would help them to finally be born. If we never nourish our lives through a spiritual connection with God, we’ll remain achingly hungry for mystery, transcendence, and a real relationship with the almighty.
The ancient Israelites had soul longings too. They longed for a return to Eden just as much as we do today. And because of God’s promises, they tied their longings to the coming of a great deliverer: “In that day the heir to David’s throne will be a banner of salvation to all the world. The nations will rally to him, for the land where he lives will be a glorious place” (Isaiah 11:10). They longed for that glorious place. Yet the Old Testament is the tragic record of how they tried to fill their soul longings time after time with the wrong kind of food.
I dreamt, and in my dream an angel appeared to me, hovering just out of reach.
“Tell me about your world,” she said.
“Well, it’s a good world,” I said. “A wonderful place, actually, where healing can be found in even the deepest of our wounds . . . and yet . . .” “And yet?”
“Yet it’s a painful and pain-filled world where scars appear on the souls of even the greatest of our saints.”
“Your world is a mystery!” said the angel.
“And have you tried to be good? To make your world a better place?”
“Yes,” I said. “Of course. We’ve tried over and over. And we’ve failed. Over and over. So we tell ourselves that trying to be good is good enough, even though we know it’s not. And we tell ourselves to feel good, even though we know we are not good.”
“So you live an illusion?”
I paused. “I guess so, although I’ve never really thought of it like that.”
“Has it worked?”
I shook my head. “No. But we don’t dare admit it. Instead, we tell ourselves that it’ll most certainly work next time . . . if only we try harder.”
“But even your saints are failures?”
“They’re the ones most aware of their failings and the first to admit them. The rest of us claim we’re good even though we’re not. And our saints claim they aren’t good even though they are. We think of the saints as holy, but they see themselves only as unclean and in need of healing.”
“So, your sickest spirits think they are well and your healthiest souls know they are sick?”
“I guess so.”
“You live in a puzzling world, indeed!”
“To us it doesn’t seem puzzling or mysterious. To us, it seems normal and dull and tiresome—”
“Yes. And sad. Very sad.”
“Isn’t there any hope for your world?”
I didn’t know what to say. “We hope there’s hope, but we’re not
sure. This much we do know: any hope won’t come from within our
world or from within our hearts because—”
“—even your saints have stains on their souls.”
“Yes. Even our saints.”
And then, we were both silent for a long time. I didn’t want to open my mouth again. Everything I told her made me sadder.
Finally, with a flutter of light, she was gone. But before she left, she touched me with the tips of her wings, and my heart still burns with the memory of her, even today.
Here’s what I’ve discovered about myself: my hunger for the eternal is maddening when I leave God out of the picture. Without God in the equation, I’m left only with a confusing pile of piercing longings and nothing real to connect them to.
I think even those who’ve never heard of Eden long for it. If we knew that “happily ever after” were only true in fairy tales, we’d give up hope. But instead we tell ourselves there must be more to life. There must be! This hope for a brighter future and a better tomorrow is what compels us to get up in the morning and keeps us from committing suicide at night. And yet in this world we find disappointment after disappointment. We bite into the chocolate bunny over and over again and find it’s hollow each and every time.
Jesus once said, “My purpose is to give life in all its fullness” ( John 10:10). And we long for that kind of life, for his words to be real—as real as a cup of espresso or a stack of clean laundry. We want our soul’s hungers to be satisfied. We want God’s whispered promises to come true.
The Old Testament tells the saga of the Jewish nation, a longing nation. A nation of people just like us with longings as old as Eden and as fresh as the dew on Easter morning.
touching the unseen
you seem so far away from me today.
just out of reach.
or maybe i’m the one who’s out of reach.
out of touch.
what is it in me that makes you so hard to see?
i need new eyes. spiritual eyeballs that look past
the bills that need paying
and the car that needs fixing
and the e-mails that keep coming
to see what lies beyond.
eyes that can see in the dark.
and through the dark
i’ve been looking
in the wrong place all this time—
in myself rather than in you,
within this world rather than
beyond it where the kingdom
of God resides, where you live,
and secretly smile at my shortsightedness—
i’m glad you’re so patient.