“Emptiness and Longing”

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

Psalm 63:1

Augustine once wrote to God in The Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” East of Eden and under the sun, we all feel a painful longing for the transcendent, on the one hand, and a frustrating sense of inadequacy of earthly things to satisfy that longing, on the other.

David felt this longing and rightly turned to the only one who could satisfy him (Psa. 63). When we feel this same sense of emptiness and longing do we know where to turn? We discern our inward wretchedness and conclude rightly that we cannot cure it. We know we each have an appointment with death that we cannot escape. The question is, what do we do in the face of such sober realities?

Far too often, in order to get through the day and avoid despair, we divert ourselves from thinking too seriously about such matters. What is behind our constant need to be entertained and stimulated by technology and hobbies every spare moment of the day? Why can’t we sit in silence and rest alone with our thoughts? This propensity to constantly check our phones and be entertained is more than silly and frivolous. These are attempts to escape despair, boredom and anxiety through diversion, further highlighting our profound need for something this world cannot offer.

This idea, which Blaise Pascal and C. S. Lewis explored extensively, has been summarized by a “God-shaped vacuum.” We were created to live lives of freedom, peace, joy and satisfaction all under our Creator’s loving authority and in his perfect presence. But in our broken world in which we are out of sync with the One who made us, there are only traces of this joy left. These vestiges of earthly goodness cannot fulfill us. The presence of legitimate human desires, such as hunger and thirst, indicate that satisfaction for those desires exists. But, to paraphrase Lewis, if we find within us a desire that this world cannot satisfy—a spiritual thirst—then we must look beyond this world for satisfaction.

The writer of Ecclesiastes observes that “[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecc. 3:11) We long for this “eternity.”

Though God is transcendent, “he is actually not far from each one of us.” He has placed us within his creation to “seek after him and perhaps feel [our] way toward him and find him.” (Acts 17:27) He provides evidence of his goodness in the gifts he gives every day: “he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” (Acts 14:17) These gifts were meant to be enjoyed but also to act as signs pointing to their divine source. The thing about earthly appetites is that once one is satisfied another will come to take its place: “All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied.” (Ecc. 6:7)

This inability of earthly things to fully satisfy us points us toward heaven. However, this feeling of inner emptiness is no post-dated check only to be cashed at some point in the distant future in heaven. God came down from heaven to earth so that we could begin to experience eternal life and spiritual renewal here and now: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (Jn. 5:24) Jesus came to both purify and satisfy our desires. He fills our emptiness “with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19; see 2 Tim. 2:20-21) and satisfies our deepest longings with his steadfast love (Psa. 16:11; 81:16; 90:14; 145:15).