Have you ever heard music so beautiful that it made you weep? Have you ever seen a painting that made you long to be part of it? Have you ever felt a melancholy ache for a time in your youth that you wish you could experience again and hold on to forever?
C.S. Lewis spent a lot of his writing exploring the topic of longing, and Peter Kreeft uses Lewis’ thoughts on longing as basis for his book about heaven called Heaven, the Heart’s Deepest Longing. Lewis said in Mere Christianity:
Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts would know that they do want and want acutely something that cannot be had in this world.
Lewis called this feeling of wanting the something “joy.” The Germans have a word (the Germans always seem to have a word) for this indescribable longing: Sehnsucht. Nevertheless, Lewis notes, this Sehnsucht or joy is not what we are really longing for. It, in fact, is only the signpost that points us to the object of our desire. Lewis elaborates on this thought in the essay “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” (The Screwtape Letters: Includes Screwtape Proposes a Toast)
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—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 not visited.
Lewis takes up this theme again in the Weight of Glory:
In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name.
Lewis believed all people, believers and unbelievers, felt this longing and that it is what draws us (as it drew him) to God. Believers still experience the longing, and it is a longing for something “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered in to the heart of man.” It is, in fact, a longing for heaven.
We cannot perceive heaven with our head and even our heart is unable to tell us much. I think every Disney kid movie has a scene where a character tells the heroine to listen to her heart, as though the heart is a fount of wisdom ready to burst forth if we just will look inward. But the Bible tells us that the heart is deceitful above all things. While there is no fount of wisdom within us, we can find some things out by looking within—we see within us an abyss—a deep hole that we want to be filled.
Ecclesiastes tells us that God has “made everything fitting for its time, but he has put eternity into man’s heart.” Kreeft explains:
We cry for eternity because God has put this desire into our hearts. Our hearts are restless until they rest in him because they were designed by him to rest in him alone. Resting in nature is unnatural for us. Our nature is to demand supernature.
Though we may realize that God has put a longing in our hearts, we still don’t know what it is we really want. In my next post, we will try to figure that out.
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