Sometimes it’s a subtle restlessness easily buried beneath activity. Sometimes a gnawing ache that refuses to be silenced. It can masquerade as loneliness or grief, or, in the face of startling beauty, mingle with joy and awe.
I call it longing.
I don’t always know what it means. For what is this insistent voice crying out?
I’m often tempted to stop at the first answer that presents itself:
I’m longing to practice medicine again. Longing to be productive.
Longing for a man to love and choose me to share his life.
Longing for my life to matter, for each of my days to make a difference in the life of another.
But in the summer, as I sat with the gnawing ache of desire to practice medicine again, I discovered that I could follow it deeper. It isn’t the practice of medicine that I long for, with its respected position and crazy hours. It’s being invited to step into people’s places of pain and fear and bring hope and healing. Being part of the most intimate and precious moments of their lives. (I just love watching dads cry when they see their baby born!) It’s being able to explain a complex question simply enough for a layperson to comprehend. It’s being who I’m made to be in relation with God and others. Working with my hands and heart. Using my skills and passions. Participating in God’s work of creating and healing and restoring life.
I’m discovering at the root of all of my longings one from which all others arise. It is a longing to enter more deeply into the relationship at the center of the universe – to know and be known, love and be loved, and to be part of the Love and Creativity that flows out from itself to draw others into the place where we become most truly ourselves.
God understands these longings.
Jesus pronounced a blessing on those whose longing runs deep.
“Blessed are those who are starving for right relationships, for they will be filled.”
(Matthew 5:6, my paraphrase)
This appetite that seems unquenchable – it will be satisfied. But only when we let the longing grow, when we refuse to settle for quenching the thirst with something that will in the long run only make us more thirsty, when we let the longing drive us to its end. There we discover that its end is also its source. Our longings to belong, to be part of the Life at the center of the universe, are small reflections of the heart of the One who made us.
Maybe this is part of what sets longing apart from simple desire. It comes not merely from within myself. It is an inner stirring that arises in response to the call of Another.
In Hosea, a parable of passion and prostitution and hope, the glimpse of God’s longings is almost unbearable.
My people are hell-bent on leaving me.
They pray to god Baal for help.
He doesn’t lift a finger to help them.
But how can I give up on you, Ephraim?
How can I turn you loose, Israel?
How can I leave you to be ruined like Admah,
devastated like luckless Zeboim?
I can’t bear to even think such thoughts.
My insides churn in protest.
(Hosea 11:7-8 The Message)
Dreaming of the day she responds again to His love, God says:
“It will come about in that day,” declares the LORD,
“That you will call Me Ishi
And will no longer call Me Baali.
(Hosea 2:16 New American Standard Bible)
Not “my Master, my Owner.” No longer “One who rules over or possesses me.” But “my husband, my man.” It astounds, this glimpse into God’s heart, this longing which runs far beyond reverence and awe to intimacy of the deepest level imaginable.
It is this longing that drives him to take gifts away, refusing to let the love of his life wander off without a fight for their marriage, for her life. The longing causes Him to strip the beloved of all distractions, not to be cruel, nor in punishment, but in a passionate love that desires only that she receive his love. He knows it is only in His arms that she can truly live free, for it is for His arms that she was created. She was made to fit into the life of God, to be filled by Him, in an even deeper and more mysterious way than man and woman meet and fulfil each other.
Seven times in Hosea comes the verb “paqad.” Admittedly one of the most difficult Hebrew verbs to translate, it is given widely varied meanings, including, in Hosea, “to punish.” But the root meaning may best be understood as “attend to with care” or “take note” (Speiser in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament).
Even the harsh measures of pain and deprivation are driven by longing and love too great to settle for less than the best for the beloved. His longing keeps the end in view.
“But then I will win her back once again.
I will lead her into the desert
and speak tenderly to her there.
I will return her vineyards to her
and transform the Valley of Trouble into
a gateway of hope.
She will give herself to me there,
as she did long ago when she was young,
when I freed her from her captivity in Egypt.
(Hosea 2:14-15, New Living Translation)
His is a longing which never gives up, even as it leads Him to the harshest of measures of love, the one which He bears Himself.
And as I wait before this sign of His longing, I am learning to see longing not as a problem to be fixed, but as a gift, a gift which I miss when I refuse to sit with the longing, to let it grow, to turn back toward the Giver and ask him to explain the gift.
It summons me toward what is deeper and truer and more satisfying. For under all our deepest longings lies a longing deeper still, the echo of the heartbeat of the One who longs for us, refusing to let us be satisfied with anything less than His love. Unwilling to be satisfied with anything less than ours.
Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you;
he rises to show you compassion. (Isaiah 30:18)