Sometimes wisdom for life can come from the strangest, most unexpected sources. When I was growing up, and even later as an adult, I genuinely enjoy the Peanuts comic strip. Remember the characters: Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Snoopy, Peppermint Patty and a whole host of other fictional characters, each with their own personalities.
In one particular comic strip, Charlie Brown is lying on his bed late at night. While he’s lying there, the caption reads: “Sometimes I lie awake at night and ask the question, ‘Why am I here?’ Then a voice comes to me that says, ‘We cannot answer your question now; we’re all out rollerblading.’”
A lot of us resonate with Charlie Brown’s predicament. We empathize with him. There are nights we too lie awake and ask ourselves penetrating and scary questions: “Why are we here?” “What is the meaning of life?” “What are these longings in my heart to know meaning, purpose, fulfillment in a lasting and ultimate sense?” What might it mean to possess bedrock answers to these questions. As Ghandi once quipped, “Surely there’s more to our longings than just to go faster!” Surely, there’s more to our longings than just to exist…even a rock can do that! Charlie Brown’s question is a scary one, but it is a good and necessary one too!
And, I think that if we listen to our hearts we intuitively sense that something’s not right, something’s missing. It seems that we live in a world that begs us to ask that question because the world is both friend and foe, kind and unkind to us. It alone contributes to our unease and desire to know the truth.
Our Longings and the Way We Experience the World
After all, the beautiful sunshine we enjoy so much can turn into scorching heat, even create a desert in some places. The gentle breeze that provides welcome relief from the heat, in one moment, can turn into a hurricane in the next. Beautiful waves lapping up on the seashore may provide some solace to our soul, but it is that same body of water that later turns into a tsunami. It’s not likely that anything in the world or the world itself will fill the longings for significance and security embedded within our souls.
It seems that even when we share in some of the gifts and rewards this world has to offer, our hearts long for more. It’s good to desire to provide for our families, to love our spouse and to see that our children get a good education. It’s good to desire meaningful and strong relationships with those whom we love. A rewarding career is better than a dead end job, with no viable future prospects. A good report from the doctor is a blessing when we receive it. We should want these things, but it seems that, whether we always get them or not, our hearts long for more. Nothing in this world satisfies. Perhaps the things of this world are only an echo sounding forth from another world.
There are times when we go further than wanting good things; we demand them and we define ourselves in and through them, and in relationship to them. We overinvest ourselves in experiences, relationships, things, and status, and in spite of the investor report, the stock goes down (or disappears altogether) and we suffer the setback. In these times, perhaps more than others, we know that we long for significance and security but that we’re pushing to get it from the wrong sources; there are times we demand from things in this world what they can never give us. An echo is just that, an echo. Do we want the gifts and not the Giver?
Our Longings through the Worst of Times and the Best of Times
Further, it seems that in both the worst of times and the best of times, the longings for more are stirred in our hearts. Last week I spoke with a friend who has invested 15 years of his life in the aviation business as a pilot. He’s put in thousands of hours and thousands of dollars to realize a boyhood dream. But, now, in light of COVID19, he’s facing serious setbacks, even the possibility of having to abandon his flying career altogether … all because of a tiny virus! Airlines are laying off thousands in light of COVID19 – indeed, in many industries people have lost their jobs, their businesses, their health and some have even lost their lives as a result – and the World Health Organization expects a spike in the number of cases of depression as a result. It is often during these times, when we, like Charlie Brown before us, lay on our beds at night and ask about the meaning of it all. Does my life matter? Where do I go from here? In short, our struggling heart attempts to navigate these gnawing questions when it can find no safe haven in this world.
But, our longings for more not only scream in our pain, sometimes they even scream louder in our successes. In an interview with CNN’s,Patrick Snell, the most highly decorated Olympian ever, Michael Phelps, openly discussed his battle with depression. The swimmer, who’s won 23 Olympic gold medals, said his first “depression spell” happened in 2004, but his lowest point came after the 2012 Games. Phelps said he sat alone in his bedroom for 3 to 5 days “not wanting to be alive,” and he knew he needed help.1
There are moments that our creeping sadness and bouts with various measures of disappointment and emptiness leave us feeling numb, longing for more, but losing hope that there is more. It seems that earthly goods, have only a relative value; they are like sprawling jungle bridges, promising to carry us across the gorges of life, but give way under the weight of unfilled longings.
Adjusting Our Longings Downward Probably Won’t Work
But, what if we adjust our expectations downward, as many encourage us to do. Well, it might be a good idea, on occasion, to adjust our expectations downward, especially as we encounter certain of life’s inherent disappointments. You didn’t get the raise you hoped for, well that happens. Not every bride’s dream of an outdoor wedding, filled with the scent of beautiful flowers, lit up with sunshine and permeated with a nice cool breeze will be realized. Some days are diamonds; some days are stones. Adjusting our temporal hopes downward in connection with earthly goods can be a safe and sane procedure. But, such sanity does not erase or do away with our persistent, embattled, and much more profound yearnings – yearnings for significance and security – of which, incidentally, a beautiful wedding is only an echo, the reality itself is not likely to be found in this world alone.
At the end of the day, whether through mild or major depression, whether through the regular ups and downs of life – even when we adjust our expectations downward – it seems that our deepest longings for meaning and purpose, significance and security, are not likely to be met by anything in this world. Stacie Orrico, a popular and very talented young singer, songwriter, and occasional actress sings, “There’s gotta be more to life than chasing down every high to satisfy me… I’m searching for something that’s missing”. She’s right. Something is missing. She goes on:
I’ve got it all, but I feel so deprived
I go up, I come down and I’m emptier inside
Tell me what is this thing that I feel like I’m missing
And why can’t I let go?
I’m Not Always Sure Why I Feel This Way
A number of years ago, when my daughter was a smidgen under one year old, my wife and I, along with our little precious bundle, boarded a Delta flight to head across the US to Los Angeles. It was a hot day in May and a long-time, dear friend of ours was getting married. We were thrilled to be part of the whole event. The flight was relatively seamless – as all good flights are – but our descent, well….that was another matter entirely.
As we began our descent into the LA area, there were thunderstorms circling about and our descent felt more like a crazy ride at Six Flags. We were bumped violently up and down, side to side; many people were expressing their concerns. They clenched both their teeth and their seats. We were all in danger of “woofing our cookies”, so to speak.
I was particularly concerned about my daughter. She was obviously quite agitated and began to cry with deep gasps; she was visibly distressed. As we continued our descent, the rapid changes in pressure left most people grabbing their ears. My daughter was no different. She cried louder, all the while incessantly grabbing and pulling on her ears for some relief.
Now, about 5 rows up, an older gentleman angrily blurted out, “Shut that kid up!” Now, to be honest, I get it. It’s a rough ride. It’s unnerving. Sure. Who wants to be thrown violently around and then have to listen to a screaming child? Who wants to listen to a crying baby when they’re about ready to woof their cookies? But, as an adult in these circumstances, you know two very important things this little one does not know. You know why you feel the way you do and you know that it will all be over soon. She knows neither the first thing nor the second!
And I think this is the way most of us feel as we face the unmet longings of our hearts. We don’t always know why we feel the way we do and we don’t know how long it will last. Something’s missing, as Orrico says.
But, perhaps our unmet longings – symptomized in part through our perennial disappointments with the world as we experience it, be they mild or severe disappointments, and the demands we put upon the world and all that is within it to satisfy us – perhaps these unmet longings are actually signs of God’s presence, not His absence. Perhaps He is silently and tenderly – lest we come apart at the seams – opening us up, making us aware and willing – however painful the process – to face the realities of living in a broken and fallen world, where we want the gifts without the Giver, and where we habitually seek pure water from broken cisterns, cisterns that cannot hold the living water our souls crave. We are thirsty with a God-sized thirst, but it may take us a while to realize that. The danger is that if we continue to demand of the world what it cannot possibly give, we will miss the thing that is missing. In our hunger we may belly up to the world’s fair and unwittingly miss out on the divinely prepared and freely offered buffet.
Longings Fulfilled – “Rivers of Living Water”
And we are not the first generation to fix our hopes, longings and sense of identity itself in the wrong places. Pascal saw the same things in his day, the 1600’s, and so also Jesus in His day. We are not the first generation of people to wrestle with restlessness, unmet longings and thirst in our souls. We’re not the first generation to unwisely stake our hopes for meaning and purpose, significance and security, on things that cannot possibly deliver. Jesus spoke into the hunger of the human heart on many occasions and in different ways. We find a poignant example in John 7:37-39. Let’s take a look at what He has to say.
Now it’s important to understand the context of Jesus’ words in John 7:37-39.
7:37 On the last day of the feast, the greatest day, Jesus stood up and shouted out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and 7:38 let the one who believes in me drink. Just as the scripture says, ‘From within him will flow rivers of living water.’ ” 7:39 (Now he said this about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were going to receive, for the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.)
He proclaimed this message during a significant feast of the Jewish people, the Feast of Tabernacles; it is sometimes referred to as the Feast of Booths (Hebrew = sukkot), Now the feast itself commemorated Israel’s 40 year wandering in the wilderness on the Sinai Peninsula. At the feast, worshippers remembered God’s presence with “the wilderness generation”, how He protected them and provided for them. And all the worshipers praised God for His continued protection, presence and provision for His people. The people were thirsty in the desert and God provided.
Now Jesus knows that it is not just the wilderness generation that thirsts; everyone thirsts. So, standing up, He addresses them all – and us too – and summons us to come to Him.
Let’s take a closer look at a few things in this passage.
First, we must recognize our thirst if we are to become aware of Jesus’ offer to satisfy it. Jesus says, “if anyone is thirsty”. But, coming to grips with our thirst necessarily engages us in confessing that we have sought to satisfy it in the wrong places. Yes, it is true that God created us with pure affections and longings for Him – longings that are meant for Him alone, and that are not meant to be collapsed into the pursuit of things. But, we have corrupted our longings by inordinately setting those affections that belong to God alone on the things of this world. Each of us has broken the very first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Our sole pursuit of the good life, money, power, sex, status, security, and “temporary highs”, as Orrico sings, as well as a virtual constellation of other things, engages us in idolatry and the decimation of the first commandment. This is a challenging reality to accept about ourselves, but we are indeed guilty before God, not because we want certain things in life, but because of the way in which we go about securing them for ourselves, what we try to achieve by possessing them (the fulfillment of our longings for significance and security), and the corruption of our souls as we exchange God for them. For this exchange we are liable to God’s just hostility toward us, yet Jesus is graciously offering us the opportunity for pardon and to have our deepest thirst satisfied, if we will recognize it, admit it, and turn to Him for rivers of living water.
Second, if we desire to have our thirst quenched, we must come to Christ, the One who will cause rivers of living water to flow from within us. Jesus is not telling us to “go and try harder”, “maintain a stiff upper lip”, or even to “find a way to make life work”. He’s not telling us to give it a little more “elbow grease” and things will be fine. He’s not even saying “be more religious”, after all, He was speaking to a large crowd of worshippers at a religious feast! No. None of these is the point. He is calling us to Himself! He died on the cross to forgive sins – including corrupted longings – and He rose from the dead; it is this resurrected and exalted Jesus that summons us today, just as He called out to those at this feast.
Third, Jesus graciously offers meaning and purpose, significance and security – the fulfillment of our God-given, deepest longings (i.e., our thirst) to anyone who will come. No matter where you’ve been, what you’ve done or where you’re going, He welcomes you. All are welcome, because in reality, all are thirsty!
Finally, notice the manner in which Jesus uttered these words. He stood up and shouted out. He wants everyone to know that there is hope for our deepest God-given longings, there is water in the desert and that it can be found in Him and in Him alone. How has God been shouting in your life? Are you listening?
What if our deepest longings for meaning and purpose, significance and security, are actually God-given, but that we have corrupted them? What if we have demanded more from the world than it can possibly provide? Maybe the longings of our hearts cannot be satiated by other people, experiences and things, and perhaps for the first time we are becoming aware of that fact. Could it be that we are beginning to see our longings as signs of His presence – a sign that clearly points to a greater reality, Christ Himself, who offers us rivers of living water, if we would only come, admitting our thirst?