When we read a good story, we sojourn with the characters and authors upon the trail of longing.
When we travel with Bilbo Baggins, from his hole in the ground in the Shire, to Smaug’s lair under the Lonely Mountain, we travel with the hobbit upon the road of longing. For all his adventures there, Bilbo constantly yearns to be “back again” in the comfort of his beloved home of BagEnd. In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, this sense of longing fills every character from Frodo and Samwise longing for home, to the elves yearning for the Undying Lands of the West.
When we step foot with the Pevensie children from the spare room, through the wardrobe, and into Narnia, we join them and the Narnian creatures upon the road of longing. “It is always winter, and never Christmas,” goes the Narnian lament. A longing for spring. A prayer for the thaw to arrive. Most of all, a yearning for Aslan to come and right the wrongs of the White Witch.
Later on in the Chronicles of Narnia, when we set sail aboard the Dawn Treader, we follow the pilgrim course of longing. Reepicheep embodies Christian hope and longing for the new creation as he longs to see Aslan’s country beyond the horizon.
“Where sky and water meet,
Where the waves grow ever sweet,
Doubt not, Reepicheep,
To find all that you seek,
There is the utter east.”
Even when we read more recent stories, like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, we meet characters who are filled with a sense of longing. Harry is filled with longing to meet his parents. Indeed, the whole wizarding world – well, at least the good guys – long for the final destruction of the dark wizard Voldemort.
When we read a good story, we sojourn with the characters and authors upon the trail of longing. Such is the pilgrim’s path. Some of the best stories and the best authors, like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers – and many more – write stories that fill us with a sense of longing.
On occasion, C.S. Lewis would identify this sense of longing with the word joy, other times he used the German word sensucht. A deep longing. It’s the same idea we find in the Welsh word hiraeth, a homesickness or longing.
It’s what is sung about in the folk song Sweet Beulah Land,
“I'm kind of homesick for a country
To which I've never been before.
No sad goodbyes will there be spoken
For time won't matter anymore.”
It’s what Lewis says so eloquently in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
In his own way, Lewis is paraphrasing those famous words of St. Augustine. “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”St. Augustine, it turns out, joins the pilgrim throng in singing that mighty chorus whose constant refrain of holy longing fills the pages of sacred Scripture.
As Solomon writes, He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
As it so often does, good literature reflects the longing we see written in the lives of God’s people in Scripture as well. Adam and Eve longing to return to Eden. Israel longing for the Messiah. Simeon waiting for the consolation of Israel. Anna waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. The saints under the altar in Revelation crying out, “How long, O Lord?”
As we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, looking we join in the song of the psalmist,
As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
Whether it’s New Year’s resolutions or simply scrolling through the daily headlines, one way or another, at some point we find ourselves in the company of the fictional and historical figures. We find ourselves groaning with creation. Waiting for the Messiah with Simeon. Yearning for redemption with Anna. Crying out with the saints of Revelation, “How long, O Lord.”
Such longing often causes us to ask a question. What are we longing for? An end to a seemingly endless pandemic? An end of despair, depression, and anxiety? What is it that we hope for? For reconciliation with friends or loved ones? For those pesky, recurring sins to just go away? To wake up one morning and all our griefs and sorrows and sins to be no more? These are all good things we long for, and pray for. Though at times, life feels a lot like an itch that we simply cannot scratch away. We find ourselves looking for a magic spell that will make it all go away. But it won’t. In the words of the famous U2 song, we still haven’t found what we’re looking for.
Groaning. Yearning. Waiting. Longing. Christians aren’t alone in this. Indeed, everyone, everywhere is longing for something. What is unique, however, is the answer God gives to fill our longing hearts. God’s gift is utterly, entirely, and graciously unique. The Father sends the answer to our longing in the birth of Jesus for you in the manger of Bethlehem, and upon the cross of Jerusalem in Jesus’ death for you.
This is the longing we sing of in Paul Gerhardt’s Advent hymn, O Lord, How Shall I Meet You.
He comes to judge the nations,
A terror to His foes,
A light of consolations,
And blessed peace to those,
Who love the Lord’s appearing.
O glorious Sun, now come,
Send forth Thy beams so cheering,
And guide us safely home. (Lutheran Service Book, 334:7)
This is the longing Paul addresses in Romans 8, revealing God’s answer in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
"What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us."
Notice that Paul doesn’t make a long list of what “all these things” specifically are. He wants us to see in that little phrase all the things that plague us, past, present, and future. What shall we say to these things? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No. For you are safely kept and redeemed and loved in Christ who fills our longing with the love revealed for us in his incarnation and crucifixion.
From time to time, we may be fortunate enough to find our sense of longing fulfilled, at least for a while. We may find that which we long for so deeply while reading a good story. We may even be blessed to catch a glimpse of Christ’s redemption and his new creation in the Shire or the Wardrobe. One thing’s for sure, our longing is finally and fully answered for, not in the wondrous events of imaginary worlds, beautiful as they are, but in the truth, goodness, and beauty of the death and resurrection of Jesus found in this world for you.
O God, You make the minds of Your faithful to be of one will. Grant that we may love what You have commanded, and desire what You promise, that among the many changes of this world our hearts may be fixed where true joys are found; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.