These feelings come in a variety of ways, along many different paths. Sometimes it's relational: the ache of loneliness, the awkward feelings of not fitting in, the deep and painful sense of alienation from others that seems to take on cosmic proportions.
Or maybe it's the need for meaning and purpose. When we are young, we yearn for significance, wanting our lives to count for something, believing that we're specially crafted to fulfill a certain destiny, though we're not sure what it is. But then as we grow older, those dreams fade. We realize that we're merely existing: working for a living, trying to hold a marriage or family together, but still lacking a sense of congruity between what we're doing and who we really are
Sometimes this inward ache is awakened by beauty. Have you ever had the strange experience of something beautiful moving you deeply, unexpectedly? The fire in your spirit is stoked with desire. A secret longing provoked by the sonorous sounds of a symphony, or the lyrical laughter of a little child, or the consoling cadences of poetry, or the stunning spectacle of a crimson sunset over the ocean.
It's the experience that Guinan (the psychic bartender played by Whoopi Goldberg) had in one of the Star Trek films. A renegade aboard a starship is trying desperately to get in line with the Nexus, a mysterious ribbon of energy floating through space. Captain Picard has a conversation with Guinan who had been in the Nexus, and she says, "That ribbon isn't just some random energy phenomenon travelling through space. It's a doorway. It leads to another place - the Nexus . . . It was like being inside...joy."
You know that you are treading on transcendent ground in moments like this. But try to grab the experience, to hold it, to preserve it, to make it last, and it will slip like sand through your fingers.
These are the experiences that stab the soul awake with an ardent desire for something more. And perhaps most significant of all is how desirable this piercing desire is in and of itself. Though it is a thirst we cannot quite satisfy, the worst thing in the world is to have the desire and then lose it. That's why C. S. Lewis once said, "Our best havings are wantings."
The problem is that we so often mistake the object of our longing. We think that if we can just find that perfect relationship, or achieve success, or realize our dreams, that we will finally feel deeply satisfied. It's not that any of these things are wrong in themselves. Created things, as Lewis points out, "are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only 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."
The ancient prophets and songwriters of Israel were also pierced with longing. But they learned to channel their yearning to the true source of satisfaction, the fountainhead of divine beauty in God himself. The psalmists described God as a river of delights and a fountain of life (Psalms 36:1) and yearned for pleasures at God's right hand forevermore (Psalms 16:1). In one of his most desperate Psalms, David cried, "O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water" (Psalms 63:1).
The prophets uttered oracles of judgment on God's ancient people because they had forsaken God, the fountain of living waters, and had contented themselves with broken cisterns instead (Jeremiah 2:1). But they also held out hope, inviting all who were thirsty to come buy wine and milk without money or price (Isaiah 55:1).
But it is in the Gospels that we discover the ultimate quenching for our thirst. For Jesus himself, speaking to a woman who had vainly sought satisfaction in multiple relationships with men, promised that anyone who drinks the water he gives would never thirst again, but find instead a well springing up to eternal life (John 4:1). In fact, the Bible ends with an invitation to drink: "The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.' And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.' And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price" (Revelation 22:1).
Are you thirsty? Have you been looking for satisfaction in all the wrong places? Have you been trying to quench your thirst for joy with broken cisterns that can hold no water? Then come to Jesus. The fountain is open; the water is fine. Jump in and drink!
Brian G. Hedges is the lead pastor for Fulkerson Park Baptist Church in Niles, Michigan. He has been married to Holly since 1996 and has three children: Stephen, Matthew, and Susannah. He has contributed articles to Heartcry! A Journal on Revival and Spiritual Awakening, Pastor Connect, and The Banner of Truth magazine. He is the author of christ formed in you: the power of the gospel for personal change (Shepherd Press, 2010). And licensed to kill: a field manual for mortifying sin (Cruciform Press, 2011)