How I Lost It
Like most young people, I started life optimistically. I married a beautiful girl, started a church, built a house and raised three kids. Everything went according to the script, except that somewhere along the way I developed a slow leak.
Julie and I went from a tiny apartment, to a condo, to a small house, to our dream house on an acre. It was an exciting trip that took over 20 years, but suddenly, it was over. All that was left was maintenance and repairs. My youthful excitement over starting a church morphed into a daily grind of refereeing human conflict. The kids left the nest.
I felt like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football. I approached each new chapter of my life thinking, “This is is!” But every time, Lucy yanked the football away before I could kick it. After a while, I realized that the end of the rainbow is an optical illusion.
I first experienced this early in life. I was 11 years old, standing on the concrete slab in front of our garage, thrilled that I was going to a party with my friends that night. Out of nowhere, a thought whacked me on the head: Tomorrow, after the party, I would be be bored again. I would need another party, and another, and another. Could life be that meaningless?
My teenage years deepened my suspicion. One moment I was flying high: I made the basketball team. The girl I was trying to impress smiled. I aced the test. The next moment I was moping around: The coach put me on the bench. The girl smiled at someone else. I got a D.
It would be hard to script a better life than I have had: Loving parents, a devoted wife, a rewarding job, great kids, and a nice home in the country. But having lived the American dream, I can say that, for me at least, it is just that—a dream. The pursuit of happiness is exhilarating but you never catch it. Lucy always pulls the football away and you wind up on your back, starting at the sky, wondering what’s next. Good grief!
Your life may have been much more difficult life than mine. I am truly sorry. But I’m here to tell you that even if your life had unfolded perfectly you would still feel a hunger that nothing can satisfy. It’s not an anomaly. It doesn’t happen just to a cursed few. It happens to everyone. It is the human condition.
The Wound That Can’t Be Healed
In the fairy tales, Cinderella and the Handsome Prince ride over the hill to live happily ever after. Tellingly, we never go with them to see. If we did, we would discover that, like the bear who went over the mountain, all they saw was the other side of the mountain; more of the same, world without end, amen.
Ecclesiastes is said to contain the wisdom of Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived. Solomon set out on an all-out search for meaning. He approached it it with the zeal of an explorer and the precision of a scientist. One by one, he tried each option: wine, women, song, hard work, hard liquor, leisure, wealth, education… He tried everything. After tracing every path to its bitter end, he offered up his conclusion:
“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)
Modern seekers have tried and repeated Solomon’s experiment with similar results:
- Jagger can’t get no satisfaction.
- Bono still hasn’t found what he’s looking for.
- Peggy Lee can’t believe that this is all there is.
- Dylan saw that everything is broken.
- Emily Dickinson searched in vain for morning.
- In The Greatest Showman, Jenny Lind complains that it’s never enough.
Everyone winds up in the wasteland with T.S. Eliot.
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
If you suspect that life is pointless and think you’re alone, think again. One by one, seekers come back to tell us: Meaning may be pursued; it cannot be captured.
The Great Escape
Pascal’s described this problem masterfully in his Pensees.
Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.
The real horror of prison, Pascal says, is that you are left alone in a room with nothing to do but face the fact of your life’s vanity. The best you can do is keep yourself distracted. Pascal calls these distractions “diversions” and proceeds to describe how people in the 17th century tried stayed diverted. It’s worth reading the whole thing if you have the stomach for it.
Here is what diversions look like in the 20th century.
- Cram your calendar full. Stay in constant motion or your shadow will catch up. Plan a robbery. Plant a church. Take up beekeeping. Go out to eat. Start a business. Build a house. Buy a boat. Take up skydiving. Are you trying to catch something, to escape something, or just chasing your tail? Who cares? Keep moving!
- If you’re less driven you might try filling the void with mindless distraction. Sell your soul to your smart phone. Check your Facebook page. Binge on Netflix. Watch a whole day of football. Fill your mind so nagging questions can’t sneak in.
- If you’re the dreamy sort you can try to avoid emptiness by living in the future. Plan a vacation. Plan a move. Plan a divorce. Plan something. Anything. Stay up to your neck in tomorrow. Don’t let today catch up.
- Then, there’s always better living through pharmaceuticals. Choose from socially acceptable options like chocolate or caffein or cross the line and become an alcoholic or drug addict. However you do it, stay doped up or you’ll hear the voice in your head: “Vanity! Vanity! All is vanity!”
This may sound like an overstatement but I believe it to be true: All bad behavior stems from the attempt to flee from vanity, everything from the bulge hanging over your belt to Hitler’s Germany. These are symptoms of a disease. We are running from an enemy we cannot escape. Despite our best efforts, meaninglessness always catches up.
Then comes a crisis. You get cancer. Your marriage falls apart. You lose your job. The stock market crashes. Your kids are in a car wreck. Escapes and distractions aren’t enough to cut the pain. You come face to face with your brokenness. Now what?
Now, says Jesus, you are blessed.
Jesus’ Alternative: Make Brokenness a Door
Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount with these words.
God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. (Matthew 5:3)
The point is not that pain is a blessing. The point is that it’s an invitation. When you experience pain, misery, fear, suffering, sadness, longing, or any other negative human emotion, you are at the doorway the Kingdom of God. In fact, you have found the only way in.
Several years ago, I had the only vision I have ever had. An entrance, much like the entrance to a cave filled my consciousness. It was a foreboding passageway above which was inscribed the word “futility.” The point was uncomfortably clear: God was commanding me to pass through the dark opening. I was being told to immerse myself in futility. To die. Somehow I knew that there was life on the other side. I wanted the life, but the door was terrifying.
Here are four things that meant:
- I had to give up on my marriage.
- I had to let go of my kids.
- I had to surrender my career.
- I had to stop chasing happiness.
It wasn’t that I had to get a divorce, abandon my kids, quit my job, and never smile again. All of these were legitimate expressions of life. It’s just that none of them was the source of life. The command was to detach from them, and that felt like dying.
Tying the knot with Julie is the best thing I have ever done but the dream of waltzing off hand in hand to eternal joy was overly optimistic. (She would say the same about me, with greater reason.) As much as I love my kids, they make a lousy center-of-the-universe. I enjoy my work but it is not the fountain of fulfillment I’m longing for. I had to let go. And that hurt.
Why Brokenness Hurts So Much
Going through the door of brokenness hurts. There is no way around it. The life you have cobbled together may be unsatisfactory but it’s the only life you have. Letting go is terrifying. You have to die. As Jesus put it,
“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. (Luke 9:23-24)
If you want real life you have to enter the real world, the one where God is God and things are things. This takes a death and a birth.
You must die to the way of life that makes a God out of things. This is terrifying. Everything you have leaned on to hold up your existence must be abandoned. Birth isn’t much better. It always involves nakedness and pain. You didn’t plop into this world in a new suit and a fist full of cash. You made your debut naked and screaming. In the same way, you enter the Kingdom of God stripped of pride and self-sufficiency. So why do it? Because of what’s on the other side of that door.
What’s on the Other Side?
If brokenness is a door, what is on the other side? At present, we can only answer that question partially. As the Apostle Paul put it, we see through a glass darkly. That doesn’t mean we don’t see at all, or that we can’t have a real experience of the life on the other side here and now.
The Kingdom of God is not just something in the future. It is present with us. It’s not just an after-life. It’s an uber-life, a heavenly layer added to our earthly existence. We can train our eyes to see it and teach our hearts to feast on it. We can fill our lives in this world with meaning, even suffering and death.
For this to happen, your eyes must be opened. Jesus said,
“I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)
Notice that the result of being born again is not going to heaven when you die. It’s seeing the Kingdom of God. What does that mean? Here are a few of the things you will see when you go through the door of brokenness and enter the Kingdom.
- You will see God working in all things for good. (Romans 8:28)
- You will be at peace (John 16:33)
- You will see God by your side in your suffering. (Hebrews 4:15)
- You will be filled with joy (John 15:11)
- You will see that God is making all things new. (Revelation 21:1)
- You will have unshakable hope. (Hebrews 6:19)
- You will know without a doubt that you are forgiven. (Luke 23:24)
- You will feel God’s love. (John 17:23)
Don’t worry if you are not experiencing these things yet. It just means your eyes are not yet adjusted to the Kingdom light. Learning to see is what the Seven Habits of Wholeness are all about. You make brokenness a door. You trust Jesus. You live in hope. You enter the love of God and discover your purpose as you love others in the unique way God made you. The whole thing is profoundly restful since you aren’t be trying cobble together a life out of created things. You receive life as a gift, from the Creator.
Jesus Won’t fill your God-Shaped Vacuum
People used to tell me I had a God-shaped vacuum. The idea was that if I went through the right process of receiving Jesus, I would never feel empty again since Jesus would fill my God-shaped vacuum. The problem was that I still felt emptiness, even after I came to Jesus. I wondered if I had done something wrong.
I saw I was not alone but in the Christian circles I lived in it was not okay to be not okay. Since we had found Jesus, we were supposed to be the “after” picture. It was fine to talk about sin, struggle, and pain as long as they was part of our “before.” But these things were obviously a part of our “after” too, our “now.” The refusal to acknowledge this made us inauthentic. We struggled just like everyone else, but unlike everyone else, we couldn’t admit it. To do so would be a denial of our salvation, or so we thought.
All of this was based on a false premise. Brokenness does not end the day we follow Jesus. What changes is that we no longer fear it. We even learn to welcome it. Loneliness, longing, pain, discontent, and suffering remain a part of our lives and our struggle with sin (going off God’s path) will be an ongoing battle (Romans 7:14-25).
Following Jesus does not erase pain for us any more than it did for Jesus. He was the Man of Sorrows, well acquainted with grief. The change that takes place when we follow Christ is that our brokenness becomes a door. It’s not that a vacuum is filled but that a vacuum no longer needs to be filled. We learn to stop running from it. We no longer need to escape.
We realize that our problem is not that we are filled with longing but that we are filled with the illusion that we can escape it. How could a finite creature ever say “I am that I am”? Mustn’t we forever say, “I press on?” In The Last Battle, C. S. Lewis describes the cry of the souls in heaven as, “Further up! Further in!” Heaven itself may not be the end of the rainbow but the beginning of a new one.
Making brokenness a door means you embrace your longing, that you stop giving it eviction notices. Discontent is not a curse but a gift, an invitation to meet God. When you embrace your sorrows you also embrace the Man of Sorrows. Strangely, you may find making peace with your longing to be immensely satisfying. It’s not that the longing itself is good. You don’t linger in the door, soaking up pain. You go through it and meet with God.
Don’t Go Through the Door Alone
One last word: You don’t have to go through the door of brokenness alone. You are invited to follow a heavenly Guide, not to set out on a solo adventure. Your suffering will be the fellowship of Christ’s suffering. When you stop running from brokenness, when you learn to make it a door to God, you will discover Christ in it with you. Next week we take the first step. We trust Jesus.