Longing for Reward, Third Part
This series is about our deepest longings and what they can tell us about God. The idea, simply put, is that we can look at our own nature and discover something about the purpose of being. Each one of us is a wonder. We marvel at trees or oceans and, to use Heschel’s phrase, we are radically amazed at the sublimeness of things in nature. But look inside yourself and you will see a wonder equal to or surpassing anything else in nature. (See Part 1 of this series here and Part 2 here).
Perhaps we could say that all people, at various times and especially when we were young, have met with desires or an unexplainable sense of longing for something that is beyond us. Poets and songwriters celebrate it. We have had childhood experiences of it for which we sometimes get a sense of nostalgia. Wonder tends to lessen as we get older (unless we cultivate it). Perhaps you remember experiences where you felt a connection to something wonderful and otherworldly. It could have been a pure moment of laughter with friends where you tasted joy unmixed with any sorrow. It could have been some fantastic bit of imagination, a thought about traveling through the stars or of there being some kind of magic happiness in the woods. It may have come to you a dozen times or a hundred, inspired by music or nature or art or people.
In Weight of Glory, Lewis calls this a “desire for our own far off country.” That may sound like a leap of logic, but it is a supposition. We “remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy.” And if we admit that this is true, suppose it is because we were made for another world. If we started with that supposition, we would expect to find longings for our true world in this one.
The longing for bread, says Lewis, does not prove a particular man will be able to get bread. He may starve. But it does indicate that there exists somewhere a fulfillment for that need. We yearn for bread because we are made to need it. Our very yearning is evidence that something like bread exists. Whether we get any or not, bread is real.
Our desire for food and longing for romance would be strange if we lived in a world without food or sex, sustenance or family bonds. Our nature is a clue to reality. So why not believe the occasional flashes of intense longing for pure happiness, for uncontaminated beauty, for love uncorrupted are also clues that such a thing does exist?
But there are two things about desire and the reality of the coming world that need to be addressed. The first is that we as a human race are always finding unworthy explanations that amount to a denial of wonder. The second is that as spiritual children, in our sophomoric level of holy attainment, we fill our longing with unfitting substitutes.
Not wanting to believe in a religious vision of future or hidden reality, thinkers offer us a sad panoply of stand-ins for glory. “Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty,” notes Lewis, “and behave as if that had settled the matter.” The deniers are all around us and have a variety of motives for their repudiation of religious desire. Perhaps the greatest cause of disbelief is the illusion that the tangible is more real, the difficulty in believing that reality itself will change. It does seem reasonable to assume that our experience of the world now is all there is.
But we as a human race have a deep dissatisfaction with that idea. Short of the beatific vision of the New Heavens and Earth overtaking this world someday, we tend to offer other utopian visions. Very few believe we will live and die like insects, meaningless and with no fulfillment ever of the higher urges of our race. “When they want to convince you that earth is your home,” says Lewis, “notice how they set about it. They begin by trying to persuade you that earth can be made into heaven.”
Improvement by evolution or utopia by technology or Shangri-La by government revolution are cheap substitutes. Surely we should pursue good things with the tools we have, but our inner longings are not really satisfied by these cut-rate solutions. Lewis laughs at respectable sounding downgrades of true desire, grand-sounding half answers “as if we could believe that any social or biological development on this planet will delay the senility of the sun or reverse the second law of thermodynamics.”
No, our inner longing is beyond evolution and technology. It is:
. . . the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.
But the enemy is not only “them.” It is also us. Not only do ill-qualified pundits seek to kill our vision, but we dispatch it daily with discount alternatives. Not understanding our own desires, we try to fill them with entertainment, forgetting, passing pleasure, unworthy desires for futile this-worldly satisfaction we will never achieve. Scratching the itch intensifies it. The returns of our self-satisfying behaviors and dreams diminish and we write songs about the sadness of losing our passion with age.
We are like children with desires we can’t explain. Adults try to tell us but we are slow students. The candy tastes so good, why would we eat the vegetables?
Every desire we have has at its root something good. Even the basest lust or the greediest avarice or the ugliest pride is really searching for a satisfaction beyond this world. When we start connecting desires with the true satisfaction which is in the truer world, and which we know will never be completely satisfied in this one, we regather the lost fragments of our inner soul. Life may have a thousand hurts and disappointments, but those longing for “a better country, a heavenly one” of which we can say “its designer and builder is God” (see Hebrews 11) can find bits of heaven in this life too.