I have spent my twenties hungry.
And I have spent my twenties disappointed.
I have lived the past decade with knowing I have hope for the future so wild I can’t conceptualize it.
But I have lived the same decade with a heart that says, “only a man can take away the ache.”
Twenty-nine, I decided, was the year this would all change. On my birthday, I opened my arms and declared that instead of holding on to the dreams that hadn’t come true, I would say “yes, and” to each unexpected plot point He wrote. My prayer was this: “Show me, Jesus, on the heart level, what it means that you are the bread of life” (John 6:35).
I was weary of the longing I had for a human relationship. I was weary of hoping for something I might never have. I was frustrated that the state of my heart contradicted my belief that Jesus himself was better than any of his gifts. And I was fearful that this longing had crossed the line from desire to idolatry, that maybe it always had.
“Everything which he sends is needful; nothing can be needful which he withholds,” John Newton said. Or in Tim Keller’s paraphrase, “God only gives us what we would have asked for if we knew what he knows.”
These words are balm at the moment of hearing. For just a second, the camera pans out from my own small story and I see flashes of his glorious work that are usually dimmed by myopic self-centeredness. Not only do I unclench my fists in surrender, but a solid joy is the answer to my prayer: it points me to the stories of his faithfulness, and with a full stomach, I know that he has always been the bread.
But the mundane so easily erodes the revelation. There is a pang when I enter the church alone though I know the families will welcome me with open arms. There is an ache at the online conference when children join young mothers on screen.
My first response to these situations is to scorn myself for my weakness, to endlessly “should”:
“You shouldn’t feel this way.”
“You should be past this.”
“You should be satisfied in Christ.”
But the “shoulding” only pushes me closer to the precipice of despair. The “shoulding” is not working.
A curious thought has taken shape, one that counters all the “shoulds.”
What if this disappointment is actually a blessing?
My decade-long quest for human love has utterly disappointed me. Again and again, I have returned from my search empty-handed and more ravenous than before.
Charles Spurgeon says, “The heart…cries, ‘O that someone loved me, and that I could love someone whose love would fill my nature to the brim.’ Men’s hearts are gluttons after love, yea, like death and the grave they are insatiable. They hunt hither and thither, but are bitterly disappointed; for earth holds not an object worthy of all the love of a human heart.”
“Earth holds not an object worthy of all the love of a human heart.”
On my darkest days, this truth becomes clear. In the moments of greatest want, I know that no person could heal the deepest, most vulnerable parts of my heart. And though it is painful, this might be the blessing.
Early in my twenties, the ache found its articulation in the words of C.S. Lewis. Lewis wrote about the concept of “sehnsucht,” a German word for desire that has a vaster definition than the English one, one that points to our desire for union with our Creator:
“Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of—something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through…. Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it—tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest-if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself-you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, “Here at last is the thing I was made for” (The Problem of Pain).
This “sehnsucht” points to a promised intimacy yet unfulfilled. It is what Randy Alcorn calls “nostalgia for heaven.” But it’s easy to misinterpret what the sehnsucht points to. In each pursuit of human love, I have looked for someone’s sehnsucht to join with my own. True fulfillment would be to have a man squeeze my hand in understanding, look at me with the kindest eyes, and say “I know.” As Shakespeare wrote, it would be the “marriage of true minds.”
You don’t have to look too far though to see that even in the best of marriages, husband and wife don’t always understand each other, even with the best of intentions. Human love is defined by impediments, whatever Shakespeare might say. A husband may seek to love his wife, but he will only ever “[have] an inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which [his wife was] born desiring.” A wife may study her husband with the utmost care but will always fall short of entering the deepest parts of his heart.
This is all very disappointing.
It’s especially disappointing in a culture whose untiring liturgy is the chant of happily ever after.
But what if God were to heal our heavenly ache with human love? What if he brought a man into my life and said, “Hope, this man is the bread of life. Now you will never go hungry, and now you will never be thirsty.” Wouldn’t that be the ultimate cruelty? To numb our desire for the real thing with what is only meant to be a faint reflection of it? Wouldn’t it all be a lie?
For years, I’ve questioned why God hasn’t taken away my desire. I would certainly be more efficient for the kingdom, I’ve told him, my Americanness taking center stage. If Jesus is truly the bread, then why doesn’t he take away this hunger, or at least compress it into a zip file so that I can do more for him?
But I don’t think he’s asking me to do. I think he’s saying, “Hope, now is the time to long. Now is the time for me to refine your understanding of the longing, to wake you up to the pulse of heaven’s citizenship inside you. This hunger, Hope, is part of what it means that I am the bread of life. Because I am the bread, I have prevented any human from completely filling another. Herein lies my kindness.”
There will be more days of longing. There will be more days where I just don’t understand. But I have a hope that will not disappoint (Romans 5:5), and I can trust that with each feeble step forward that I’ll understand a little more that Jesus is the only One who satisfies.
Yes, I have spent my twenties disappointed. But I have spent my twenties blessed.