Pause for thought: Learning to Long
The past year has taught us a lot about longing. We long for the comforts and routines that once nourished us, for the company of friends and family members beyond our ‘bubble’, for a time before Zoom fatigue, virtual schooling, and kitchen-table conference calls. For eleven months now, we have trudged together (though at a safe distance from one another, of course) through the valley of the shadow of COVID, and we long for the verdant pastures of ‘normal life.’
A period of sustained longing can be tedious, but it can also be a tonic, disturbing our ‘normal life’ long enough to remind us that things are not yet as they should be. In this sense, longing plays an important role in the life of faith. The Christian scriptures might not say much about Zoom fatigue or at-home fitness routines, but they have a lot to say about longing.
The story of God’s people begins with an account of domestic longing, an elderly Abraham and Sarah heartsick for a future they assumed had passed them by. The Exodus, the centerpiece of God’s saving work in the Hebrew Bible, begins with the longing of an enslaved people for liberation. Much of the Old Testament was written during periods of captivity, with the Jewish people either dispersed or living under foreign rule, longing for a homeland, for a righteous King, for the presence of God in their midst.
It was into this great chasm of longing that the Word became flesh and lived among us. The songs of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon recorded for us in the opening chapters of Luke are in many ways songs of satiated desire. God has come at last to lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things, to save God’s people from their enemies, to give a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of God’s people Israel!
In one sense then, the New Testament marks the end of our longing. Human beings have been homesick for God ever since leaving the garden, and now, in the person of Jesus Christ, God has made God’s home with us.
But in another sense, of course, the longing just continues. In fact, the longing seems to intensify after Jesus’ ascension. The disciples have witnessed first-hand the answer to all the world’s problems. They have seen, touched, followed, and fellowshipped with God incarnate, with love in the flesh. And so they become impatient with a world that continues to carry on as though nothing has changed.
Towards the end of his second epistle, Peter gives us a marvellous glimpse of a new heavens and a new earth (3:10). Not the destruction of the world, as we are sometimes told, but the world’s purification. In the fire of God’s love, all the rust, and gunk, and corruption that have accumulated around the edges will be burned away, and the earth will shine again like a newly minted coin. According to Peter, everything that we do now is in preparation for that day. Everything that we say, and do, and think should be in the context of this waiting, what Peter describes as a “hastening,” an “earnestly desiring,” a “longing” for the coming day of God (3:12).
The problem with longing, we often think, is that it breeds either despair or complacency (or both!). We either give up on waiting for something that we start to think may never come, or we spend too much time waiting and longing, and not enough time actually making the world a better place.
The longing of faith, however, is the opposite of despair and complacency. Our longing does not despair, because it is always sustained by hope, by a certainty in God’s promises. God may not work according to our timetables (as Peter writes, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day”), but nothing can prevent God from accomplishing God’s purposes. The same God who surprised and delighted Abraham and Sarah with a child, who liberated the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, who made his home among us in the womb of Mary and in the manger of Bethlehem, that same God will complete the work of healing and restoration that was made known to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Because of that vision of the end, that longing for God’s future, we participate here and now in the work of God’s love. Our longing doesn’t drive us to despair or complacency, it drives us to action. Saint Peter writes, “Therefore beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by [God] at peace, without spot or blemish” (3:14). In other words, let your lives today reflect the shiny new creation that is to come. Let your longing transform you into the thing you long for. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery writes, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” If you want to build a ship, teach people to long for the sea. If you want to transform the world into a place of truth, and peace, and justice, teach people to long for the Kingdom of God.
It will be tempting for us to think, in six months’ time, that all is well again, that we can finally return to life as usual. But for the disciple of Christ, life as usual is nowhere close to enough. There will still be poverty after COVID. There will still be racial injustice after COVID. There will still be hatred, and greed, and loneliness, and despair, all things which no vaccine can eradicate.
Our faith teaches us not to settle for life as usual, it teaches us to long for the world to come, to pray for the world to come, and by the Spirit of God within us to work for the world to come. But our faith also gives us the assurance that these things will indeed come to pass. In the words of Julian of Norwich, we remain confident that, despite all appearances to the contrary, “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."
Revd Dr Jordan Hillebert