The Flip Side of Longing

Bored Panda isn’t usually a place to look for spiritual insight. But this week a list of “Absurd Reasons Kids Cry” quickly became a way to name my own longing. To an adult it might be absurd that a little girl would curl up in a ball on the sidewalk because the Golden Gate Bridge isn’t really golden. Or that a three year-old would be devastated because he can’t be on the bus he saw on TV. But what happened to us that we stopped letting ourselves hope for things? When did we begin to base our expectations on what was reasonable?

What do you do with your longing?

I’m guessing each of us came to moment when we were disappointed one time too many and became ashamed of our longing. But we still long. Now we just keep the longing to ourselves. Or express it in the more socially acceptable language of anger, anxiety, and despair. Scripture actually calls us to take the risk to hope for things we may never see in this life, to imagine things beyond our imagination, to reach for things we can’t touch. When we keep pressing towards the Kingdom and we keep getting knocked back, it’s natural that we feel disappointed. Is the problem that we’re not doing the right thing with the longing? Or is the problem that, as Jesus foretold, the world doesn’t want the thing we’re longing for? There are several good reasons to stop leaning into our longing in a particular way or place. But if we want to learn to long like Jesus, becoming safe and sensible is no reason to give up longing. Maybe this is why Jesus said we have to be like children to enter the Kingdom. They’re relentless in their longing. Here’s a possibility that gives me new energy: that my despair is the flipside of my longing. Click To Tweet

Maybe this is why Jesus said we have to be like children to enter the Kingdom. They’re relentless in their longing. Here’s a possibility that gives me new energy: that my despair is the flip side of my longing. So I’m taking time to name the thing I’m longing for that I just can’t see yet. I’d call my longing something like: “Wants to be in the throne room. The one in Revelation.” “Can’t wait to see the whole and lovely Bride of Christ healing the nations.” “Aching to know God with my whole self.” “Desperate to see justice for all.”

How would you name your longing? Scripture is infuriating. It keeps drawing our imaginations into God’s, teaching us to love the things he loves. And the Spirit in us takes that little spark and fans it into a flame, teaching us to yearn for the things he yearns for. And then we enter back into an ordinary, broken world that looks very little like the things we’re learning to want. We’re tempted to think we’re fools to want such things. And even if we press on, we’re tempted to believe we do so all alone. Or we’re tempted to create the things we long to see by forcing them. And when none of that seems to get us what we long for, we’re tempted to just let the longing fester into anger and despair. In it all, we’re tempted to ask the Lord, “Why do I seem to care about this more than you do?” How can we nurture the longing while also living in a place that cannot offer all we long to see?

The process of longing

Here is a typical pattern to how longing can take a turn towards for the worse:

  • We learn to long for something we hear about in a sermon, read in Scripture, see in a dream/a song/in nature.
  • We look around to see some sign of it in the world and come up empty.
  • We watch to see if others long for it and everyone seems to be getting on with daily life.
  • We take a step towards it and it doesn’t become the fullness of the thing we long for.
  • We feel alone.
  • We grieve and despair, we give up hope, we feel foolish for imagining something so unrealistic.
  • We ask God “Why do I care about this more than you do?”

But what if our longing is God’s longing? What if God wants us to step toward our deep joy to bring about a foretaste of the thing we’re longing to see? What if someone needs to begin it before we can see it? What if that someone is us? What if those small steps we take will help others long for it too? But what if our longing is God’s longing? What if God wants us to step toward our deep joy to bring about a foretaste of the thing we’re longing to see? Click To Tweet

The promise of our longings

What are ways we can lean into the promise of our longings? Here are the practical suggestions that have helped me from wallowing in a posture of despair:

  • Seek others to help you discern whether it’s time to press in or rest.
  • Find friends who are longing for similar things so you know you’re not crazy or alone.
  • Keep exposing your heart and imagination to Scripture, nature, and healthy community.
  • Learn to name the flip side of your frustration/grief/fear in terms of longing and joy. 
  • Don’t be surprised if others don’t see it (yet) or it costs you something.
  • When you take the risk to share your longing and people don’t get it, don’t take it personally. 
  • When all else fails, dance like a crazy person – it gives both an outlet for pent-up frustration and a release of joy.

It helps that such a reasonable fellow as C.S. Lewis was able to name this deep emotion, which we often try to label romanticism or adolescence or nostalgia or beauty. It helps that he doesn’t snicker at it but instead elevates it, comparing it to a desire for a far-off country, an inconsolable secret within each one of us, which brings both pain and joy. It makes no sense to miss something we’ve never experienced, to love something we’ve never known.

And yet I’m reminded of Jesus who, for the joy set before him, endured the physical and social torment of the cross. He died many deaths before he got to the cross—relational deaths, social deaths, deaths to his fundamental human instincts of self-preservation. At any time he could have decided it wasn’t worth the loss of relationship, reputation, comfort, and safety. But something pressed him forward. And he was shaped by every one of those deaths, each one presenting one more opportunity to choose his true self, to choose the Kingdom. Whenever we feel alone with our longings, we can’t forget that he’s the one who began this longing in us, and he’s the one who brings it to its fullness. We can’t forget that although we feel alone, we’re part of a great cloud of many witnesses, throughout history and across the world, all longing for the Kingdom we don’t yet see (Heb. 12).

So what are you longing for? And what are you doing with your longing?

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