The Glory of Longing

By Courtney Lott –

Original art by Sam Wedelich (www.samwedelich).

Three of my former youth group students got married in the last year. I watched each walk down the aisle, torn between two warring emotions. One part of me rejoiced in this creation of a new family, the two now becoming one. The other part, the selfish one I bury under an Instagram perfect smile, ached with longing for my own celebration.

Though relatively content where God has me, times like these often leave me feeling left behind. As a single 30 something, I hear the refrain like the tick of a clock saying, “You don’t want to die alone.” Though said by the well-meaning, it sounds as if I’m stuck on the spiritual JV team, a perpetual child who will never reach the super Christian status reserved for those tied together in a marriage covenant.

Longing gnaws through my blessed contentment straight to my core and threatens to morph into bitterness. It’s a unique kind of ache.  It’s the second reaction of a single person when their younger friends announce new engagements. It’s the quiet tears of a woman who longs to bear children. It’s the silent cry of gratification long delayed.

One of the problems of the pain of longing is how often we brush it aside. We consider it a low grade difficulty, lacking the sting of other louder wounds. It’s not so bad, we tell ourselves, it’s not as if I’ve lost something or someone, I have no right to feel this hurt. We reason that others have it much worse, that the ache of our unmet desires should be ignored. This attitude twists longing into its ugly cousin bitterness, compounding the problem and often closing us off from our community.

But in a way, walking the path of longing is a hidden blessing. Many of us have gotten the idea that God wants us to have our best lives now, that what he wants for us most is to be happy. We mingle Christian culture with U.S. culture to form a confused theology of the American Dream, wherein the ultimate goal is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But this is clearly not the norm we see in scripture. In fact, rather than promising earthly riches and comfort to his followers, Christ not only urges his disciples to consider what it will cost them (Luke 9:23), but promises that we will experience trouble.

“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Jesus does not say these things lightly as many of us do when we settle for easy maxims meant to brush aside chronic disappointment. He never trivializes the sufferings we go through. As our empathetic high priest, Jesus understands longing and pain personally. In scripture we see him weep over Jerusalem, walk without rest to bring healing to the suffering, sweat blood, and ultimately absorb the penalty we deserve for our sins on the cross. And all this he does for stubborn people, like me, who so often swing between hypocritical phariseeism and hedonistic liberty.

One of the most profound ways in which we imagine our savior is to walk within the ache of our longing alongside him. In the midst of our impatience and pain, we can look forward in hope to his second coming, when he will make all things right.

“The singular mark of patience is not endurance or fortitude but hope,” writes Robert Wilken, Professor of the History of Christianity Emeritus at the University of Virginia. “To be impatient … is to live without hope. Patience is grounded in the Resurrection. It is life oriented toward a future that is God’s doing, and its sign is longing, not so much to be released from the ills of the present, but in anticipation of the good to come.”

Living through longing guides me to prayer. When I’m happy, healthy, and comfortable, I have a tendency to forget my deep need for Jesus. Though intellectually I am aware of my utter dependence on him, I don’t feel it the way I should. Intense longing serves as an often painful reminder to stay constantly connected to the vine. It drives me to pray through the ache and re-center my focus on my heavenly father.

As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains.”

And this is not only true for ourselves, but for others in our community. When others come to us with their pain, our own longing allows us to empathize with, and pray for, them better. Empathy banishes the easy words, sweeping generalizations, and nonchalance making way for ugly cries of vulnerability. As two or more lift their voices to the Lord, he draws them closer to one another and to himself, a unity of the mutually afflicted.

Longing also teaches me how to exist in the already but not yet. I am redeemed but still struggle with sin, I am adopted, but not in my heavenly father’s immediate presence, I am in the kingdom but still in a world affected by the curse. In our culture, there is the temptation to pretend that once we are in Christ all our problems evaporate. We smile, recite easy answers when others are hurting, and swallow lament. But consistent longing chips away at this foolishness. It reminds us that Jesus wept even though he planned to raise Lazarus from the dead. It lifts our eyes from our feet to the coming of the new heavens and the new earth.

We groan in hope, longing with creation for the return of our savior. In Romans 8, Paul writes, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.  And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees?”

We all walk on thorns in this life, often carrying them with us until the day we breathe our last. But we don’t travel this way alone. Our Savior tread this path before us and continues at our side now. He lights our paths with moments of joy and beauty, reminders of his love, whispering to us through the delights of his creation and shouting to us through our pain. In his kindness he offers fellowship with other sufferers along the way. Let us join each other in our weeping, and fix our eyes on the glory to come.

Courtney Lott is the editorial assistant at Good News.

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