By Don Neuendorf, Senior Pastor at St. Paul, Ann Arbor
“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.…” (Philippians 4:12)
I have longed for so many things. And wishing for things, I have often made myself unhappy. Watching the cold grey clouds, I long for warm summer breezes. Seeing sickness and sin and sadness, I long for God to repair all things. But even when I see good things I long for more.
I experience a wonderful day with my wife and children and I long for it to never end–but it always does, and it can never quite come again. We try to preserve it in amber with photographs, videos, music, but it’s never the same.
I see photos of days I once enjoyed and I long for them to come again. (As I get older I’m experiencing this kind of longing more and more.)
I have often thought that if I were REALLY a Christian, then I wouldn’t want so many things. If I really loved Jesus, then I would sacrifice myself–I would sell all my belongings and give the money to the poor–I would live a spartan life, like a monk or a hermit, and devote myself only to Jesus.
If I were REALLY a Christian, then I wouldn’t want so many things …
Where in the world did I get such an idea? It’s strange, if you think about it, that Christians should think that being Buddhist would make them better Christians. (If you want to know the high-fallutin’ academic way of talking about this, it’s called Manichaeism–the idea that spiritual things are good and material things are bad, so that we should live without material things as much as possible.)
Our misunderstanding comes from thinking that the material things around us, and even our own bodies, are bad things. We think they are bad things because we have discovered that they are not good enough things–that is, no matter how much we pursue them, no matter how much we collect them, they can never satisfy us.
They are lousy substitutes for God. (That’s why the Bible calls them “idols,” a word that means the form or shape of something but not really the thing itself.)
Having lots and lots of money fails to make us happy. Having perfect health fails to make us perfect people. Having lots of sex somehow doesn’t keep us from being lonely. Gaining lots of fame and having many people who want to be our friend still does not satisfy us. Need examples? Point in any direction.
But of course, who ever said that these things were *supposed* to be substitutes for God?! That’s not why they were created. And make no mistake, all these things were created by God himself and they’re included on the list of things that he said are “very good.”
Money, health, sex, fame, food, art, beauty, all the good things that people want too much are good things that God made.
So what is our problem? Our problem is that we want them to be something else than what they really are. All these things were created to be a reflection of the One Best Thing. They are all intended to remind us of the Very Greatest Gift. The One Thing for which we live and were created. They all point to our eternal oneness with God through Jesus.
C. S. Lewis, in a sermon titled “The Weight of Glory,” put it this way: “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
“They are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
God has given us wonderful things, and those who know him through His Son, Jesus Christ, enjoy even more wonderful things in our relationship with Him. But we will never be completely satisfied, never be filled up, until we are at last where He created us to be … with Him and in Him forever in heaven.
Recently, our youth talked about an illustration that Martin Luther once wrote, about how we come to worship carrying an empty sack, empty because we are sinful and broken and alone, and God fills up our sack with his grace, with forgiveness and life and peace.
Realizing just how amazing this is, one student expressed his frustration. “It makes me want to know how I can ever pay God back for all that He’s given me!” (paraphrased)
Of course, we never can. He knew that just as well as you do. But there is a beautiful truth in this. Even in receiving God’s grace there is a sense of incompleteness. A sense of now … but not yet. We were created for the Garden of Eden. We were designed for being in God’s intimate presence, being joined to Him forever.
In fact, God describes it this way, just as a husband and wife “become one flesh,” we were created to be the Bride of Christ, to be totally enveloped in His love forever, and we will never be really and truly satisfied until that day.
So what do we do today with this sack full of God’s love? Well, what do you do when you find your “one true love?” You just love them. You love them so much sometimes that it hurts because you can never quite explain or express it.
After being married almost 36 years, I have to say I am more frustrated than ever before that I cannot ever fully express the love I have for my wife. Sinful and flawed as it is, it is still too great for any gift to match it. Except the costliest gift of my whole self.
That’s what we do with this sack full of God’s grace and love that we receive in our worship. We live in it. We rejoice in it. We breathe it in, like a person inhaling the scent of a field of flowers. We gaze at it like a person seeing a mountain sunset.
We savor it like a person who takes the first bite of something wonderful. We long for even more of it because it always points us toward the day when this love will be even more perfect.
We long for even more of it because it always points us toward the day when this love will be even more perfect.
And while we are doing all these things, while we are rejoicing in the love that Jesus has given us, we cannot help but share it with all around us. It overflows from us like the grandparent who just has to show pictures of his grandchildren, or the cook who eagerly passes out samples of her favorite dish, or the artist who joyfully pulls off the cover from the masterpiece of her career.
I used to wish that I did not wish for so much. Now I see that I should spend my days longing for the right things. Longing for, and eagerly anticipating, the very best.
Editor’s Note: This blog was originally published on the pastors blog at St. Paul Lutheran Church and School, Ann Arbor at http://church.stpaulannarbor.org/finding-a-deeper-longing/. Used by permission.