I was away from home with my husband and children, celebrating Christmas with extended family. Before the big family gathering on Christmas Eve, we attended an area church service. The focus of the service was on the ways Jesus’ birth had disrupted the lives of specific biblical people, Mary and Joseph among them. One common element in their stories stood out—Jesus’ birth did not make their lives easier. In fact, in some ways his birth and his life—and eventually his death—introduced new forms of suffering, making these people’s lives more difficult than they otherwise would have been.
At the end of the service, the pastor announced everyone in attendance would receive a free book. My family picked up our copy on the way out, and as I leafed through it, I was struck by the way the book’s message contrasted with the theme I had just followed throughout the service. The book’s main point was essentially this—knowing and following Jesus makes our lives completely satisfying. We simply need to accept that satisfaction, and live as if it’s true. For me, the claim was almost laughable in light of the ways Jesus’ presence disturbed the lives of people who loved him as a baby, a child, and a man. After 40-plus years of knowing and following Jesus, I can testify this is a false message.
People who proclaim this message often do so with good intentions—they want others to consider a relationship with Christ, and they draw people in by pointing to benefits that have wide appeal. Ironically, like every false message finding its way into our churches, this one has the power to lead people away from the truth and serves as an obstacle to genuine relationship with Christ.
As church leaders, it’s important that we question this message and consider what we’re leading people to expect from a relationship with Jesus. Our churches and popular Christian media frequently give the impression that knowing and following Jesus involves simply reorienting our desires from the world around us to God—thereby finding he fulfills us completely. We speak of people as having “God-shaped holes” that simply need to be filled with Christ, suggesting all our longings and needs will be met through that relationship.
Perhaps because women are often honest about our relational needs, we frequently send this false message to women, implying—or blatantly claiming—once they wholeheartedly give themselves to a relationship with Jesus, they will no longer need the friendship, love, or companionship of other people. Self-help books aimed at Christian women seem to focus on finding satisfaction by expecting God to neutralize our desires and meet our deficiencies—so we don’t have to live with unsatisfied cravings or wishes any longer.
Christian teacher Joyce Meyer promises big emotional benefits from obedience: “I encourage you to let God shape you into someone who loves and actually longs for His correction. Because by bending to His will, we can become healed and whole, satisfied and happy.” While obedience has its rewards, it may not deliver on this promise. As illustrated in the lives of those who knew and loved Jesus at his birth and his death, sometimes obedience makes a person miserable, leads to suffering, or even death. A relationship with God can bring comfort and peace, but it will not bring complete and lasting satisfaction—or happiness—in this life.
In Lysa TerKeurst’s book Made to Crave, she features a strong promise in its subtitle: “Satisfying your deepest desire with God, not food.” Within the book’s pages she declares, “Jesus wants us to know only He can fill us and truly satisfy us. He really wants us to know that. Only by being filled with authentic soul food from Jesus—following Him and telling others about Him—will our souls ever be truly satisfied.” Like other books drawing people away from trying to satisfy themselves through the world’s offerings, this one points us in the right direction, but makes the mistake of simply redirecting our desire for satisfaction rather than questioning its legitimacy as a goal for our lives.
What if God is not interested in making our lives comfortable or in satisfying all our emotional needs, like the latest all-purpose product to hit the shelves promises? Scripture makes clear he wants to transform us in a mercifully slow process that—some might be disappointed to learn—does not forge a quick and easy shortcut past our needs for healing and growth or the consequences of human choices. It does not eradicate the effects of sin in our lives, nor does it take away all our longings. It does not completely close the gap between God and us. In fact, as we know Christ more deeply, we often feel recurring sorrow over our sin—and a new kind of longing that grows with exposure to his love, wisdom, and grace.
Our lives on this planet will never be completely satisfying, no matter how closely we walk with Jesus. If we are healthy people, we will never reach the point where we don’t need intimacy, love, encouragement, and companionship from the human relationships God has designed for us. Likewise, if we are sensitive and open to his work in us, we will never be truly satiated with what we can experience with him now—outside his tangible presence—with the barrier of sin, the limitations of time, and our dim understanding between us.
God blesses those who are unsatisfied, who are hungry and thirsty for what he will offer us beyond this life. We can experience God’s blessings in specific ways when we acknowledge, accept, and embrace a life without satisfaction. Our unsatisfied hearts can keep us looking ahead to a day when our “long-distance relationship” with Christ will end and we will see him face to face.
As leaders and representatives of Christ, let’s be careful how we speak of what a relationship with him will do in our emotional lives here and now. When we offer easy words about satisfaction—“When you know Jesus, you don’t feel emptiness, longing, or unhappy anymore”—we make false promises. In doing this, we encourage people to come to Jesus without expectation of transformation or sacrifice. We encourage them to settle for so much less than he wants them to long for. Moreover, we draw people to Jesus in anticipation that he will deliver on our promises—setting people up to turn away when he doesn’t come through.
Jesus really is the source of all true satisfaction. He promises blessing to those who are willing to hold out for its future fulfillment: “God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). Rather than appeal to people’s consumerist appetites, we can inspire people to know and follow Christ on his own terms—because he is God, he loves us, he is trustworthy, and ultimately he is the only answer that makes any sense. He fills us with “rivers of living water” (John 7:38) that give us a foretaste of the full, quenching invitation to come (Rev. 22:17).
Amy Simpson is a life and leadership coach, speaker, and author of the new book Blessed Are the Unsatisfied: Finding Spiritual Freedom in an Imperfect World (InterVarsity Press). You can find her at AmySimpson.com and on Twitter @aresimpson.