O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.Ps 63:1
This is a translation of a text that I wrote earlier (February 2016) in Dutch. It was triggered by a sermon that I heard in Lent 2014, on fasting, that made rather an impression on me.
A long time ago I heard in the time before Easter a sermon in which Psalm 63 was quoted. Particularly verse 3: Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. I considered this, and thought it was quite nonsensical. I thought: “What point is there in having a God when you are not alive?” And honestly, I still think that it is humanly impossible to believe God’s love, when in this life we do not receive that what we need. That faith is then an act of trust that goes against every natural feeling and common sense. The saying that God is better than all else, is also far too often used as a platitude to numb the real pain that one feels over failed plans and unfulfilled longings. It is false to say that the things we longed for and didn’t get, were apparently not really good things. Precisely the purest desires hurt most when they remain unfulfilled. It is vitally important to be honest about that. Precisely when we feel the depth of this pain fully, can we (I believe) learn with how much love God wants to fill us. The cautious attitude of trying to be open for the possibility that there is a way in which God is truly more, and in a true way will fulfill our deepest longings, is a leap in the dark, and the beginning of a long journey for which we need a lot of faith.
The sermon that I heard, was about the usefulness of fasting. It was the first time that I heard an explanation on fasting that really helped me see the point of it. I had heard earlier that it was a great help for prayer, but that never worked for me. The hunger always distracted me enormously, so that I could not concentrate on prayer. But this preacher explained that this hunger is of course natural — to be expected — but we should use the hunger to remind ourselves of how much we really hunger for God. Normally we do not realize that so much. We are far too prone to fix our deepest desires with short-term solutions, and so we deprive ourselves. This new way of fasting: paying attention to the hunger, and realizing our dependence of God, does work for me. It symbolizes a letting go of the short-term earthly solutions, to make space for the deeper and richer fulfillment that God gives. This letting go of earthly pleasures is not just about food and drink, but anything we use to fool ourselves, and try to close our eyes for reality, not realizing that we then also close ourselves to God.
The daily news proves clearly that the world is full of suffering. We tend to feel so crushed by this that we are inclined close our heart to the misery. This seems easiest and doesn’t hurt (us). Only I think it costs a lot more energy than we realize, and it damages our soul when we consciously decide not to use the eyes we have been given. But a second option is that we open our hearts and eyes further, so that we see beyond the visible reality also God’s reality. This means accepting that God wants to perfect us through suffering; continuing to believe that God will fulfill his promises; taking our place in this broken world, not to solve all suffering, but to be bearers of it. When we do this, we can be wholehearted intercessors in this world. By feeling the needs, we can bring them to God and give him space to bless us and the whole world.
The same can be said on the truth about ourselves: it may seem easier to quickly pass over our dark side, just think positive, let’s keep a good atmosphere. But this also will get us to numb ourselves in a way we won’t be able to keep up. It is damaging for ourselves and for true relations with the people around us. Unfortunately, the truth about ourselves is much harder to see than the news. Two things have helped me in this. First: the becoming still before God, on which I wrote earlier. Second: the studying of what ancient church fathers wrote about virtues and vices. A book that explains it well is Glittering Vices by Rebekka Konyndyk DeYoung. She describes the seven vices with their symptoms, together with practical tips on how to fight them, based on teachings of the Desert Fathers. Just one example: think about the sin of envy. “Jealous? Me? No, of course not! That is more a sin for nasty people, and certainly I am not like that”. But when you then read in that book, some of the symptoms, for example talking negatively about other people, you will suddenly notice that at times you do that. And then I will ask myself: “Hey, I am talking negatively, does that mean that I envy this person?”, and by asking this question, I become aware that apparently at that moment I am concerned that my place is not safe1. Now, of course, the longing for a safe place is a valid and good desire. The point is only, that we need to learn to refrain for fulfilling that desire on our own, certainly not in a way that hurts others, and remain trusting that God truly gives us a safe place.
You may think the tone of my text is rather somber: some of you may know that I suffer from burnout symptoms. It may be that precisely for this reason I may be better able to put into words the pain of unfulfilled desires. But at the same time, I feel that more than ever I want to stick to the faith that God wants to fill us with his fullness (see Eph. 3:16-21)
- This whole idea is worked out in more detail in this sermon on envy