I ended the first essay in this series by saying that the deepest crisis of the American church, and of evangelical Christianity especially, is that we have forgotten God. I recognize that it seems absurd to say we have forgotten God when God is on our lips so much of the time. While the numbers are slightly down from previous decades, American Christians worship, pray, read their Bibles, and say in polls that religion is “very important” significantly more than do people in most other nations. If anything, we sometimes talk about God so much, many in the culture are sick of God-talk, especially when his name is invoked in the public square to support one political cause or another. So how can I say we have forgotten God?
Let me begin by picturing what the church looks like when it hasn’t forgotten God. Evangelicals certainly didn’t forget God at the birth of the movement in America, what we call The Great Awakening. But today I believe we have forgotten our first love—more of this in the next essay. But first a reminder of what that first love was like.
The reality of which I am speaking—a church that has not forgotten God—exhibits one principal characteristic: a desire for God. A desire so intense it sometimes looks like drunkenness or even madness.
The first place to go looking for a picture of this passion is Scripture.
Desire from Beginning to End
The most vivid example of such desire is King David. David was known as a man of action, a military leader, a nation’s king, so very busy with the affairs of state. (This is important to note, because later we’ll acknowledge how activism is part and parcel of evangelical faith.) He is also famous for his marital affair with Bathsheba, and the subsequent murder of her husband. But the one characteristic that seems to have earned him the label of “a man after [God’s] own heart” was that he was a man who sought God with all his heart. (Acts 13:22, NLT for this and all biblical quotations.)
Psalm 63 expresses this most eloquently:
O God, you are my God;
I earnestly search for you.
My soul thirsts for you;
my whole body longs for you
in this parched and weary land
where there is no water.
I have seen you in your sanctuary
and gazed upon your power and glory.
Your unfailing love is better than life itself;
how I praise you!
I will praise you as long as I live,
lifting up my hands to you in prayer.
You satisfy me more than the richest feast.
I will praise you with songs of joy. (v. 1–5)
Believing that God’s presence was especially to be found in the Temple, David also prayed:
The one thing I ask of the Lord—
the thing I seek most—
is to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
delighting in the Lord’s perfections
and meditating in his Temple. (27:4)
Of course, he isn’t the only psalmist to yearn for God’s palpable presence. Psalm 42 was written by “a descendant of Korah” and famously begins:
As the deer longs for streams of water,
so I long for you, O God.
I thirst for God, the living God. (vv. 1–2)
The examples could be multiplied, as any reader of the Psalms knows. The psalmists were driven by a desire to know God. Not just to do know his will. Not just to do his will. Not just to be wise. Not just to be righteous. But to know God, to be with God, to bask in his presence.
Persons of a stoic nature, like me, are tempted to assume such passion is only for highly emotional personalities. Frankly, at times David and the other psalmists seem like emotional wrecks to me, either lamenting their sorry state or begging desperately for divine aid or longing passionately for God. My instinct is to tell them to just calm down.
Yet since this over-the-top drive to know and love God is found throughout Scripture, I have to question my stoicism. For example, we see it also in Isaiah the prophet: “In the night I search for you; in the morning I earnestly seek you” (26:9).
We see it in Paul:
… everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. (Phil. 3:8–9)
And, we see it in Jesus, not so much in his yearning to be one with God (that would be absurd for the one in whom God fully dwells) but in his teaching, especially in what he said was the greatest commandment: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength” (Mark. 12:30). That pretty much covers the emotional, physical, spiritual, and mental landscape of human life.
To put it another way, Jesus tells us we are to be monomaniacs for God.
Again, people like me—who strive to keep my emotions in check, to navigate life on an even keel, to take things in stride—try to squirm out of this by saying that this first and greatest commandment is merely about obeying God’s commands. We demonstrate our love for him by caring for others in very practical ways—doing favors for friends, listening attentively to a troubled coworker, serving at the food pantry, and maybe even attending a prayer vigil at an abortion clinic or joining a protest march against racial injustice. Doing stuff that helps others—that’s what it means to love God.
That’s certainly part of it. But here’s the rub: Jesus didn’t say that loving the neighbor is the way we show we love God. He said the first commandment is to love God, and then he announced a second commandment—as if it were in a different category—which is to love others. This was not a commentary on the first commandment.
Add to that the unique character of the first commandment—there is something extraordinary about the love of God: We’re commanded to love God with the complete range of emotion, with the full measure of spiritual fervor, with unending intellectual effort, and with every calorie of energy.
Jesus, as was his custom, is trafficking in hyperbole, because if we were to love God like this, we wouldn’t have anything left for the neighbor. But the point is made. Jesus is simply putting into command form the passion eloquently found in the Psalms: “Whom have I in heaven but you? I desire you more than anything on earth” (73:25). This is the deep and abiding desire he calls us to pursue.
Starving for God
Scripture employs a variety of metaphors to drive home the intensity and wonder of this desire. One set traffics in the idea of bodily nourishment—hunger and thirst.
We see this first in the Exodus account, where Moses explains one lesson from the miracle of manna:
… [God] humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deut. 8:3)
This, of course, is the very verse Jesus quotes when tempted by Satan to break his fast. But this isn’t the only time Jesus employed this metaphor. On one occasion, he was explaining to a crowd that in the desert his Father was responsible for feeding the Israelites with bread from heaven, but he now he offers “the true bread from heaven.”
To this his listeners reply, “Give us that bread every day.”
In response, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).
When his listeners became increasing disturbed by this teaching, Jesus doubled down, saying something that no doubt shocked them:
I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you. … For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him (vv. 53, 55).
It is a violent, frankly cannibalistic allusion meant to shock them into seeing a deeper reality—the intense and personal nature of our union with God. As much as food and drink nourish and sustain us and become part of our bodies, so Jesus can sustain, nurture, and become one with us. And if we want such an intimate and life-sustaining union, we will hunger and thirst for it like nothing else.
Most of us reading such words live in lands of abundance, so the biblical metaphor does not quite register. Our pangs of hunger needn’t last but for a few minutes. Within ready reach—in a refrigerator or store or vending machine—is something to nourish us. Hunger for us is mere inconvenience, and food an entertainment. We watch reality TV shows that revel in the abundance of food and in the creativity of chefs, and some of us pride ourselves in being “foodies.”
The biblical writers knew little of the affluence we enjoy. It was not uncommon for them to endure periods of drought or famine. Food was not a hobby nor about satisfying cravings but often a matter of life and death.
They would much more likely identify with the sufferers of modern-day famines. Christopher Hitchens, in his Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays, described one such famine on a trip to North Korea:
In the fields, you can see people picking up loose grains of rice and kernels of corn, gleaning every scrap. They look pinched and exhausted. In the few, dingy restaurants in the city, and even in the few modern hotels, you can read the Pyongyang Times through the soup, or the tea, or the coffee. Morsels of inexplicable fat or gristle are served as “duck.” One evening I gave in and tried a bowl of dog stew, which at least tasted hearty and spicy … but then found my appetite crucially diminished by the realization that I hadn't seen a domestic animal, not even the merest cat, in the whole time I was there.
To hunger and thirst for God in the biblical sense is to be desperate for God. The psalmist, among others, believes he is starved and dehydrated without God, one whose skin sucks on his bones and exposes his skeleton, whose listlessness fuels his despair, who scours the ground for even single grain of rice. The psalmist so desires to know God and his love—and here’s where the nourishment metaphor is transcended—he says it is better than life itself (Ps. 63:3).
The Romance of God
Romantic love is another biblical metaphor that pictures this desire.
In our age, we have recovered the original meaning of the Song of Solomon as a celebration of romantic love between a man and a woman. But for centuries, the church has also rightly understood romantic love as a symbol of the love between God and his people—for example, Bernard of Clairvaux published 86 sermons on this biblical book, waxing eloquent on just this theme.
Bernard came by this interpretation honestly and biblically. Perhaps the most well-known use of the metaphor is found in the apostle Paul’s discussion of marital love, saying that it pictures the love between God and us:
As the Scriptures say, “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.” This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one. (Eph. 5:31–32)
And he uses the metaphor elsewhere, as well: “For I am jealous for you with the jealousy of God himself. I promised you as a pure bride to one husband—Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2).
Paul came by this metaphor honestly as well, drawing on the many Old Testament passages that pictured Israel as the bridegroom and God as the bride. Take, for example, this from the prophet Isaiah:
For your Creator will be your husband;
the Lord of Heaven’s Armies is his name!
He is your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel,
the God of all the earth.
For the Lord has called you back from your grief—
as though you were a young wife abandoned by her husband,” says your God (54:5-6).
Perhaps the most famous and extended use of the metaphor comes from Hosea:
I will make you my wife forever,
showing you righteousness and justice,
unfailing love and compassion.
I will be faithful to you and make you mine,
and you will finally know me as the Lord (2:19–20).
Jesus often used wedding imagery in his parables to picture our relationship with God in the kingdom of heaven. “The Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of a king who prepared a great wedding feast for his son…” (Matt. 22:2).
And as with the nourishment metaphor, this is carried through to the end of the Bible, in the vision of the culmination of all things:
“Praise the Lord!
For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns.
Let us be glad and rejoice,
and let us give honor to him.
For the time has come for the wedding feast of the Lamb,
and his bride has prepared herself.
She has been given the finest of pure white linen to wear.”
For the fine linen represents the good deeds of God’s holy people. (Rev. 19:6–8)
It is no wonder then, that Bernard, among other church writers, exploits this metaphor as he opens his sermonic Commentary on the Song of Songs. In sermon 3, in explaining the meaning of “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth,” he says:
… anyone who has received this mystical kiss from the mouth of Christ at least once, seeks again that intimate experience, and eagerly looks for its frequent renewal. I think that nobody can grasp what it is except the one who receives it. For it is "a hidden manna," and only he who eats it still hungers for more.
(Note how he also employs the nourishment metaphor as well.)
In short, the desire for God is not unlike falling in love, in which the love-struck desire nothing else but to be with the beloved. It’s like the physical passion young lovers feel for one another. And it’s like the ecstasy of sexual union that momentarily satisfies ever so deeply but before long grows into a desire to know ecstasy again.
Bernard is one of many proto-evangelicals in his emphasis on the personal, intimate, and passionate relationship we can have with God. As he put it in his treatise On Loving God:
He is all that I need, all that I long for. My God and my help, I will love Thee for Thy great goodness; not so much as I might, surely, but as much as I can. I cannot love Thee as Thou deservest to be loved, for I cannot love Thee more than my own feebleness permits. I will love Thee more when Thou deemest me worthy to receive greater capacity for loving; yet never so perfectly as Thou hast deserved of me.
To encounter the living God is to meet with two realities at the same time. The first was expressed no more eloquently than by the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal, when he haltingly transcribed in what became known as his Memorial, his stunning vision:
The year of grace 1654,
Monday, 23 November, … from about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,
GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
GOD of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Your GOD will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.
Many a saint has experienced this reality, if not in a direct, overwhelming vision, certainly in some encounter that they can never shake. They can never shake it because of the second reality that accompanies an encounter with the living God—its insatiableness. In Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis talked about such an experience:
It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me. … It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? ... An unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again.
The cardinal mistake in some Christian circles is telling people that knowing God will bring us peace. Yes, in the sense of knowing forgiveness and purpose in life. But in a deeper sense, an encounter with God brings us not only satisfaction but also deep dissatisfaction, not just fulfillment but also longing, and a longing that can never be fulfilled. In her Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich called it “an unbearable desire.” She wrote, “If he graciously lets us see something of himself, then we are moved by the same grace to seek with a great longing to see him more fully.” She put it best when she said: “I saw him and I sought him, I had him and I wanted him.”
We are longing for the infinite, for that which all other desires only point. And when our desires are fulfilled, however briefly, we recognize how much more there is in God’s beauty and wonder and love. We can never exhaust its wonder and glory—and for that very reason, it is the most precious of longings.
Again, a person like me is tempted to say that longing is given only to a few naturally spiritual people. They have a unique desire for God, but most of us desire concrete realities and have special passions for, perhaps, food and drink, or romance and love, or fine music or fine art, or to be in the splendor of creation, and so forth. To each his own. This spiritual passion isn’t for everybody, I think.
And yet, Jesus says it is, in that he commands that we all pursue the love of God, and pursue it the fullest extent. This, like all commands, is not as much a “should” as it is a promise: Do this, and you shall live. Really live.
In our restlessness, we flit from one thing to another as we follow our desires, hoping against hope to find something, anything that will cure our boredom and satisfy our longings. Everything we pursue—financial security, love, fulfillment in a calling, the joy of a hobby or pastime, meaning work, and so forth—are mere pointers to something more true, more good, and more beautiful. We remain restless precisely because we mistake these shadows for the real thing.
At our worst, we make idols out of the penultimate things we desire. At our most innocent, we are like confused travelers who rejoice in reaching a milestone, mistaking it for our destination. In either case, there is something better that awaits us. The great Augustine, in reflecting on his youth in Confessions, said, “I sought pleasure, nobility, and truth not in God but in the things he had created, myself and others. Thus I fell into sorrow and confusion and error. Thanks be to Thee, my Joy and my Glory and my Hope and my God: Thanks be to Thee for thy gifts.”
In commenting on this, Augustine scholar Michael Foley noted that this passage outlines Augustine’s theology of desire: “The appetite for physical pleasure is ultimately a groaning for happiness in God, and thus the attempt to satisfy it with created goods instead of the Creator ends in sorrow rather than joy.” The same applies to the yearning for nobility and truth.
Thus there is no one who is not “into God,” so to speak. The only thing at issue is whether we are aware of what our desires are for and where they are designed to lead us. As Augustine famously and succinctly put it, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”
To desire God—this is the sum and substance of life. It’s not just one injunction of many but the greatest commandment. It’s not merely a duty to fulfill but the fulfillment of life itself—to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength. There is no greater blessing than to give oneself to this pursuit, and to enjoy the everlasting longing it produces in us. This is what the Westminster Catechism is getting at when it says that the chief purpose of men and women is “To glorify God, and enjoy him forever.”
So the psalmist is not neurotic or an emotional wreck, but the sanest of human creatures. If it is a mental illness, then let us all share in it. The church is not only a hospital for sinners but also an asylum for those disturbed saints who are monomaniacs for God, who want nothing but to seek after him, knowing full well that the pursuit will never end, and yet knowing too that there is nothing better to do with one’s life—“I saw him and I sought him, I had him and I wanted him.”
[Next week: How evangelical Christians have forgotten God.]
A condensed version of this essay appeared in the June 2019 issue of Christianity Today.
Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today. If you want to be alerted to the essays as they appear, subscribe to The Galli Report.