An Infinite Ache and a Neglected Hope
How union with Christ opens the door to infinite delight
There is an infinite ache that needles at the hem of every human consciousness. No matter how hard we try to fill our lives with something that satisfies, a vast ditch still yawns between our yearnings and our experiences. Some of us never stop trying to leap across the chasm, and the wounds from these attempts become a roadmap of scars on the surface of our souls. Others pretend that the ache isn’t there at all—but this gap is so universal it cannot be escaped and so vast it cannot be measured.
“I’m dizzy from the shopping mall. I searched for joy, but I bought it all.” John Mayer confessed on his album Heavier Things. “It doesn’t help the hunger pangs and a thirst I’d have to drown first to ever satiate. Something’s missing, and I don’t know how to fix it. Something’s missing, and I don’t know what it is.”
The author of Ecclesiastes wasn’t completely certain how to fix it, but he did at least know the source of the problem: “God has planted eternity in the human heart, but no one can quite comprehend what he’s done from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11; see also 1:15).
What’s missing in each of us is the capacity to satisfy an ache that’s more vast than the cosmos itself.
Every human being—even the one who finds the notion of God to be slightly less believable than the Easter Bunny—senses this chasm between our yearnings and our capacities.
Artists in particular know this gap. The painter chases an image that flashed through her mind in that moment when she stood with her face to the wind and the autumn leaves were whirling around her, but the painting she produces in the weeks that follow never quite measures up to what flitted through her soul as she stood there in the park. The writer senses something sublime in a simple conversation with a friend and that sense of transcendence births an essay that trips over itself in clumsy words and never manages to evoke the moment in which it was conceived. There is a guitar solo I have heard in my head for years, but I have never been able to channel it through fingers and fretboards, no matter how hard I’ve tried. Maybe I simply lack the skill, or perhaps there is something in what I hear that simply cannot be translated into vibrations of wire and wood or magnified in the warmth of an amplifier tube. “I could play these songs ‘til I was dead,” Rich Mullins once lamented, “and never approach the sound that I once heard.” So could I.
The Source of the Yearning
Either God or evolution or some combination of the two has woven within us a yearning that every human being knows but none of us is able to fill. “Not one thing I’ve tried has filled me up inside or felt like mine,” Sammy Hagar sang during his years with the mighty Van Halen, when he tried to satiate his yearnings with quite a wide range of pleasures if the stories he tells are even half true. And yet, none of these pleasures—by his own admission—actually left him satisfied.
If naturalistic evolution is the source of these yearnings, humanity’s universal sense of transcendence is nothing more than a survival mechanism with no corresponding reality and no hope of satisfaction. Any expectation of lasting satisfaction is a mere illusion with no meaning beyond paving the way for a few extra rounds of mating in the primeval past because our species stayed stronger longer than our fellow hominids who lacked this hope.
But what if the source of this sense is divine?
If the source of this sense is divine, there is at least a possibility that this sense is more than a mere survival mechanism. Perhaps the ache within us is a splinter of truth that signifies something real. If there is a designer, it is conceivable that our desires are not the vestiges of a metaphysical fraud. Instead, they are signposts that point our hearts in the direction of a greater world. This is, of course, the point that C.S. Lewis famously made in Mere Christianity:
The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death.”
The ache within us is a longing for a “true country” that can only be experienced in its fullness post mortem. In the same way that our flesh has been crafted with natural senses and desires, our souls have been designed with desires that transcend nature. This life brims with glistening droplets that hint at this transcendent reality, but this reality can never be fully tasted in this life.
Why Can’t This Yearning be Satisfied Now?
But why is this the case? Why can’t we fully experience the transcendent and the infinite here and now? I suspect that the immediate answer in the minds of many Christians would be, “Because of sin.”
And yet, I’m not certain that sin is primarily what stands in the way of infinite delight.
Yes, sin deludes us so that we chase deprived and depraved distortions of what our souls actually need. Sin can even twist our minds so that we convince ourselves—if only for a moment—that this or that finite pleasure has satiated an ache that’s more vast than the cosmos itself. Yet the ache itself could be a consequence of our finitude, not a result of our sin.
Infinite Yearning and Union with Christ
To put it another way, I suspect that Adam and Eve experienced some sense of unsatiated longing not only after their rebellion against God but also before. Even in an unfallen state, the first couple was finite and fully capable of feeling unfulfilled. Prior to sin’s entrance into the world, their longings drove them to seek God’s closeness in the cool of the day and to see everything in all creation as a signpost that pointed to God’s presence. Perhaps, in time, they would have been transformed somehow into a more glorious sort of being. Instead, they traded God’s nearness for a passing pleasure—a “good …, pleasant, … and desirable” fruit (Genesis 3:6)—that was created to point them toward God’s infinite goodness and wisdom as they obeyed his command.
So how is it that God will one day satiate his people’s yearnings?
The answer is not merely an entrance into a “true country”; it is union with Christ. “Union with Christ” is the work of the Spirit that binds believers to Christ in such a way that all the goodness of Christ becomes ours. It’s what a sixteenth-century pastor named John Calvin had in mind when he declared that “Christ is not outside us but dwells within us. Not only does he cleave to us by an indivisible bond of fellowship, but with a wonderful communion, day by day.” “The Spirit binds us ever closer together,” Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck said concerning the nature of this union, “but in such a way that the boundaries between Christ and us are never eliminated.”
Here’s what I would suggest: It is only through the eschatological fulfillment of our union with Christ that finite humanity will become capable of experiencing infinite delight. After all, how can that which is finite possibly experience what is infinite apart from union with the infinite? And how can this happen except through the substitutionary death and resurrection of Jesus by which the believer is brought into union with him? The fulfillment of this union will not make us infinite or divine; instead, it will make the infinite accessible to us by means of the crucified and risen Christ.
Here and now, the Christian’s experience of union with Christ is partial—but a time will come when our union with Christ is made complete. “We will be like him, because we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). This future transformation takes place “in Christ” when we are transformed to experience a greater glory (1 Corinthians 15:22, 44). In that future moment, we will begin to experience infinite delight through Christ whose human nature is united with an infinite, divine nature “without separation, the distinction of the natures being in no way annulled by the union.”
All of this takes us a step beyond what C.S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity. If union with Christ is what solely and exclusively opens the door for finite human beings to experience infinite delight, it is not our entrance into a “true country” at death which opens the door to infinite satisfaction. It is our union with the True Man. The “true country” is an eschatological consequence of union with Christ. This union reveals the meaning of our yearnings now and guarantees the satisfaction of these yearnings later.
In some sense, then, our “true country” is not a place but a person—and, in other writings, C.S. Lewis seems to have recognized this. When he described Jane’s conversion in his science-fiction novel The Tortured Planet, Lewis did so in terms of a personal, mystical union:
She had come into a world, or into a Person, or into the presence of a Person. … In this height and depth and breadth the little idea of herself which she had hitherto called ‘me’ dropped down and vanished, unfluttering, into bottomless distance, like a bird in a space without air. The name ‘me’ was the name of a being whose existence she had never suspected, a being that did not yet fully exist but which was demanded. It was a person (not the person she had thought), yet also a thing, a made thing, made to please Another and in Him to please all others, a thing being made at this very moment, without its choice, in a shape it had never dreamed of.
One day, this entrance “into a Person” — a union which we know now only in part—will be experienced in its fullness, and this fullness will become the door through which infinite delight flows and fills our souls. “Now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).