To long for things is characteristic of being human. It is in our nature to reach into the future, to envisage that things will be different from how they are now, to imagine our possessing of things, qualities and attitudes that we do not at present have—even to be people that we are not yet. This sense of longing often focuses on key issues, things of central importance to us:
- The longing for a place to call ‘home’, a place of settlement and security
- The longing for intimacy, for the sense of connection with another, a longing to know and be known. Although this longing, a misplaced form, is often behind the sexualisation of our culture, it is an impulse given by God. It is remarkable that, in the second creation narrative in Genesis 2, even though God has provided the human creature with everything he appears to need—including relationship with God himself—it is still ‘not good’ that he is alone.
- The longing for significance or purpose—a desire to stand out from the crowd, or perhaps to make a difference in the world, to leave a legacy. If we were not here, would anyone notice? Would it make a difference? This longing is often a driver, particularly for men, of ambition in the workplace.
- The longing for freedom. When we have a sense of being trapped, by our situation, our background, our personality, we long to be able to break free and redefine the boundaries of what is possible.
- Lastly, the longing for spirituality, for a connection with the transcendent. We want to feel connected with something beyond ourselves, of greater significance than the limited horizons of what we can now see or know.
We all experience this sense of dissatisfaction with what is now, and desire to reach into the future of possibilities.
The Psalms form the praise-book of the Bible, and Psalm 37 explores some of the dynamics of this longing, this desire, this sense of dissatisfaction.
Trust in the LORD and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the LORD
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him and he will do this:
He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
your vindication like the noonday sun. (Ps 37.3–6)
God promises to ‘give you the desires of your heart.’ But this idea raises two problems for us. First, it cannot simply be the case that God grants all our longings as they are. Is God’s role is fulfil our whims and wishes? What if they conflict with the desires of others? Second, and more seriously, despite our best intentions, we are aware that our desires are often misplaced and ill-informed, twisted by our wounds and stunted by our short-sightedness.
Our dog Barney loves to ‘help’ with the gardening, and yesterday he ‘helped’ me mow the lawn. He is very protective, always lying in doorways, and making sure we are all safe, and he clearly thinks the mower is some sort of threat to me. So he does a funny ‘dance’ in front of it, barking repeatedly. He also likes to chew things—and the mower has a very attractive orange cable on it which Barney clearly desires to chew! When Barney has the cable between his teeth, he is a bit like us with our desires and longings. They have great power, and can change and shape the world. But handled in the wrong way, they hold great danger—and when they are not channeled aright, they can harm us and those around us. If I granted Barney his desire, he would be very much the worse for it!
Oscar Wilde once commented:
There are two tragedies in life. One is not getting what we want; the other is getting what we want.
When we look at the story of God’s people in the Old Testament, we see entwined like threads running through it the twin themes of covenant and kingdom. The theme of covenant signifies God’s commitment to his people, and his invitation to them to be committed to him in mutual intimacy. The theme of kingdom signifies God’s rule over his people, his sharing of his power and authority with them, and his invitation to them to submit in obedience. By the time of the start of the New Testament, when Jesus arrives on the scene, these two themes had led to a series of expectations, of longings on the part of his people. They hoped for:
- Freedom from the rule of the Romans
- Recovery of their identity as the people of God
- Restoration of holiness through obedience to God’s commands
- Distinctive significance as a nation ruled by God alone—not as an insignificant corner of a global empire
- At the heart of all this, the transcendent presence of God in his restored temple.
These longings are the particular expression of the kinds of things we all long for—in this sense, the story of Israel is actually our story, the story of all humanity in its longings and hopes. You can hear this sense of longing, of expectation and of hope for change on every page of the New Testament. At the start of Luke’s gospel we hear Mary’s heart burst with praise:
My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1.46–53)
And in the same chapter we hear Zechariah declare:
Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel, who has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour, born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets God promised of old to save us from our enemies,from the hands of all that hate us,
To show mercy to our ancestors, and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham: to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life. (Luke 1.68–75)
We have the same sense when Jesus bursts on the scene proclaiming the ‘The time is fulfilled—the kingdom of God is at hand. It is close enough to touch—if you will reach out and receive it’ (Mark 1.15). And at the end of his ministry, as he breaks bread, offering it to them as he offers his broken body, and blesses the cup, he declares ‘This is the new covenant in my blood’ (Luke 22.20). In Jesus, there is a new sense of the presence of God in power in his kingdom, and a new sense of the presence of God in intimacy in his covenant.
And yet Jesus does not fulfil any of the longings of his people in the way they expected. The freedom you need, he says, is not from the external power of the Romans, but the internal power of sin and evil. Your identity as the people of God is no longer found just in the yoke of the law, but in relating to me. The restoration of holiness will not come with obeying the letter, but in receiving the promised Spirit. Your significance will not be in breaking away from the empire, but in being the light to the world which was always your purpose. And the transcendent presence of God in your midst will no longer be found in the temple, but in my own presence as the Temple, the glory of God, amongst you.
This reinterpretation of longing for the nation is found in detail in Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in John 4.4–29. Here is someone who has no place in the community; the only reason she is drawing water in the heat of midday, rather than in the cool of the morning, is that she has been ostracised. Here is someone whose attempts at intimacy have foundered—though in a culture where only men can divorce women, she is likely more sinned against than sinning. She has no security, no freedom, no significance. Their conversation begins in almost comic fashion; Jesus offers to meet her deepest longings, ‘living water’ which will quench every thirst, but she cannot understand the offer, let alone accept it. The answer to all her longings—the ones she can name, and the ones she is hardly aware of, is sitting in front of her, and she does not yet realise it.
Eventually, the conversation moves on from her to questions of spirituality and transcendence. Many people see this has the woman offering a smokescreen to disguise her personal needs—but I am not so sure. It is here that she articulates her deepest longing—to connect with God—and here that her eyes are opened, and she recognises who Jesus is. We can see the depth of engagement and connection in her final response:
Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. (John 4.29)
Jesus is constantly meetings people’s longings—but they are longings they barely knew they had. I read this testimony online this week:
I had a kind of itch inside. I knew I needed something spiritual, but didn’t know what it was. I started exploring various different kinds of faith. Buddhism, paganism, Islam… Christianity would have been the last on my list, because it seemed to be a bit uncool. Really, there was a bit of social stigma about it – a prejudice – that is very prevalent in the liberal left world in which I had inhabited. But hey, I like to swim against the tide. Often that’s how you get to the truth.
When I first started going to church, and reading the gospels, I knew that there was something about Jesus that I wanted. I started seeking, and asking, and knocking. And as Jesus promised, I found. And what I was looking for was love – and the love of our Creator.
You can’t really describe spiritual experiences, you have to know it for yourself. But all I can say is that my worldview changed into one where love was the real meaning behind the universe, and the source of it all was God. Jesus is the visible image of God – how we can understand God and his love for us.
We need to allow Jesus to meet our longings, because we cannot do it ourselves. We cannot do it with religion—which is why the religious leaders hated Jesus. We cannot do it through politics—which is why the political leaders conspired against Jesus. We cannot do it by our accumulation of wealth—which is why the wealthy walked away from Jesus’ offer of life. And we cannot do it through violence, through our own force of will. The Greek of the New Testament incorporates a Latin word, sicarii (‘dagger-men’) to describe what we would call terrorists or assassins (Acts 21.38); Judas Iscariot may well have been one of them. Jesus included the religious, the political, the wealthy and the violent amongst his closest followers—and taught them a different way to see their longings fulfilled in him. It’s the same invitation he extends today.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matt 11.28–30)
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