There’s a neat function on Facebook that allows you to take a look into your past with the click of a button. Opening your “Memories” brings up a curated list of posts made on the same day of previous years. You can review friendships made, jokes shared, events recorded – all good things! You can also be reminded of some of your very first social media posts – not as good. The primary reason I open up my “Memories” anymore is to delete them.
While the worst things Facebook might recall are a dumb comment or embarrassing profile picture, I sometimes look back on my not-quite-twenty years of life and already wish I could delete a few things – if not from experience, at least from memory. When I expressed this sentiment a while back (on Facebook, ironically), a past teacher of mine responded “I would rather cringe at an old memory than a fresh one!” (Further proof that English teachers are the wisest and best.) Another teacher (not in English class, this time, but still wise) described the process of growth as “the revelation of a tender Father” – a God who reveals what we need to know only when He knows we’re ready. After we’ve grown accustomed to a level of maturity, He encourages us to dig deeper, but never so quickly that we can’t handle it if we rely on Him. This understanding of maturity takes a great weight off our shoulders!
As I learn to keep digging, I am realizing that, from a Christian perspective, “growing up” doesn’t mean “leaving your heart behind”. After a few cringe-worthy and downright painful memories have accumulated, it’s easy to want to ditch this thing in the chest cavity that causes so many issues. However, the elimination of a part of yourself is not growth. Don’t get me wrong: there are unhealthy, sinful, distorted parts of our lives that need to be cut out through the process of sanctification (spiritual maturity). But the heart that God gave you is not one of those things. Our deep desires exist as a result of the imago Dei on us. Through sanctification, God purifies our hearts and reveals to us their intended goodness. Divorced from His will, our hearts are not worth following. At the same time, though, God designed us with deep longings in our hearts – longings that may be left unmet and aching in the dissonance of this fallen world, but which can ultimately point us back to Him.
A couple friends and I have a group chat in which we ramble about everything from theology to the upcoming raid of Area 51. (The name of the group changes every so often, but right now it is aptly titled “Void Discourse”.) One day, when we were all waxing particularly romantic, I described the pursuit of human longings and their fulfillment as a “quest” – a quest for an ideal, for wisdom, for intimacy, for peace, or for any other longing our hearts may contain. These are good things worth pursuing – even if there is pain along the journey. Another wise teacher (though one I didn’t know personally) wrote that “Deeper natures never forget themselves and never become something other than they were. So the knight [of faith] will remember everything; but the memory is precisely the pain, and yet in his infinite resignation he is reconciled with existence.” Eliminating the heart under the pretense of maturity may be a way to avoid potential pain, but it’s also a surefire way to miss out on the adventure. To go full-on King Arthur: as “knights”, navigating our quest requires some guidance. Real maturity, in a way, provides a map; subjective feelings will not suffice for direction.
Last week, I had the opportunity to preach through a chunk of 1 Thessalonians as part of a series on faith, hope, and love. My sermon specifically focused on enduring suffering by participating in Christ-centered community, sharing and deepening the three theological virtues within the Church. These are not shifting emotions but principles by which, through the Spirit in us, we can and must choose to live. In the car on the way out of church, something in my brain made the simple connection (a bit too late to fit into my D.T.): a life characterized by faith, hope, and love should also be increasingly characterized by joy. Founded on our relationship with God and resulting from a faith-, hope-, and love-filled heart, true joy outlasts other emotions as they come and go. During the drive back to the house, I had another quasi-epiphany so suddenly I actually took notes on it while I was on the road. (At a stoplight, okay? Don’t tell the police. It pays to have index cards on hand at all times.)
If you’ve been keeping up with my blog, you may already know that I have found the Enneagram to be a useful tool in recent months, and that I identify most strongly with type Four. Apart from other insights the Enneagram may hold, one simple thing I’ve learned about Fours is that we are very easily drawn into melancholy. It’s our desired state, really. (If you knew just how many hours of Adele I’ve listened to in the past month, this would be no surprise to you.) Melancholy has been defined as “frustrated desire” – highlighting the Four’s tendency to envy. Some people (looking at you, Sevens) may enthusiastically encourage us to embrace joy by leaving behind our moody ways, but to no avail. The epiphany that caused my most recent case of distracted driving was that joy and melancholy need not be opposite extremes – they can be reconciled.
Our hope is in Christ alone – hope for our future life with him, but also for present security on this side of the second coming. It is a now-and-not-yet hope. Obviously, this is cause for great joy! All our security, contentment, and comfort stem from this. At the same time, it is not yet. Our desperate longing for what we know should be is not satisfied – and still, to give up longing for it would be foolish. Our frustration with the way the world is now must be held in tension with our contentment in the midst of it. Just as joy allows us to not be ruled by difficult feelings, melancholy teaches us not to repress them. It is not selfish sadness, but the frustrated desire for wholeness; joy is an experience in that very wholeness. We must embrace the former in order to experience the latter!
We can see this fleshed out by the only example of perfect humanity, my favorite of all the teachers mentioned in this post: Jesus. At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus weeps with sorrow over his friend’s death, knowing full well that resurrection power is ready to break loose. When confronted with the greed infiltrating his Father’s temple, righteous anger courses through him, sinless frustration with the fallenness of humanity on display. In the garden, he chooses to follow the Father’s will over his own even when it means isolation, torture, and death. Jesus’ longing for the unity intended between God and man, frustrated for a time though it was, is inspired by the Father and submitted to His will.
“Some might find it convenient enough that desire is no longer alive, that the smart of pain has dulled; but such people are no knights. A free-born soul who caught himself at this would despise himself and make a fresh start, and above all would not allow himself to be deceived in his soul.” – Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
Our quests are not worthless ventures. When something tugs at your heartstrings, pay attention! Perfection, intimacy, peace, fill-in-the-blank – these longings are not the goal in and of themselves. Their frustration points us to the One who planted them in our hearts. They may be expressed in simple ways on the surface level of our lives, but tracing them to their roots brings us to desires in their original created intent.
It’s not easy to let the ache drive us to the Father, especially when there seem to be so many immediately tangible satisfactions. I know Jesus is waiting at the finish line… but sometimes I don’t want to keep running. It would be a gross lie to say this ache is joyful. In this longing, there are no arms to fall into, no companion to keep in step with, no belonging. My head tries to remind my trembling heart that none of us will truly belong separated from the Father, but sometimes I fear my heart is incapable of deeply recognizing that truth here.
As C.S. Lewis wrote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world” – or at least for a perfected one. And yet we can also imitate Abraham, whose faith “was not that he should be happy sometime in the hereafter, but that he should find blessed happiness here in this world.” Now. And not yet.
When happiness is defined by the Father and our hearts are continually sanctified by His Spirit, our longings – even in frustration – serve to enrich our stories. Longings create great tension, which is necessary for any good plot to advance! Not only that, but our questing is a way God reveals His heart to us (and to others through us). Pursuing something the Father also longs for can be a way of pursuing the Father – the source of our ultimate joy! This requires us to persist in longing, no matter the ache, and let it remind us of the Kingdom of heaven.
My heart may often be steeped in melancholy, but somehow it cultivates joy all the more in the day-to-day. Each morning of “coffee and contemplation” reminds me of God’s presence. Investing in community serves as an expression of His love. Even this act of writing – chiseling out a thought from the marble brick of my brain – alleviates some internal weight and points me to our Creator. We would experience less beauty without the ache!