Human beings were made for God (Psalm 100:3, Acts 17:26–27), but something has gone deeply wrong. Sin has cut us off from our Creator and left us out-of-sync with each other and ourselves. Under the curse of sin, we both desire God and resist Him simultaneously (see Romans 1). The consequence of this spiritual tug-of-war is that we often turn to temporal things to fulfill our desperate longings—yet genuine, lifelong meaning and purpose remain elusive and fleeting.
Three Popular Narratives of Life
As a wayward soul for the first half of his own life, St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest Christian thinkers outside the New Testament, illustrates this problem by reflecting on his misspent youth:
But my sin was this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in him but in myself and his other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error.1
Many of us occupy our life with various diversions (sports, music, knowledge, hedonism, romance, power, wealth, drugs, and so on) in an attempt to fill the haunting void that can only be filled by God. In my late teens, I experienced a restlessness and discontentedness in life that I believed could be satisfied through meeting the right woman or by becoming a rich and famous professional athlete. Christian philosopher David Naugle identifies three practical narratives of life2 that people often pursue when looking for satisfaction or contentment.
- Sensualism: pursuit of sex, food, fashion
- Materialism: pursuit of money, wealth, possessions
- Egotism: pursuit of achievement, prestige, power
These mini-narratives, if you will, are generally more popular than so-called grand narratives (worldviews like theism and naturalism). Naugle states, “Most people live their lives in accordance with one of these three basic plots (or in combination).”3 Part of the challenge is that while the focuses of these pursuits (sex, money, achievement) are actually good things, they were never intended to satisfy a human’s existential needs.
The path toward these pursuits is well travelled. In one fashion or another Augustine pursued all three of these narratives, but to no avail. “In my youth I wandered away,” Augustine confesses to God, “too far from your sustaining hand, and created of myself a barren waste.”4
Many of us can relate to Augustine’s story of pursuit of self only to find a “barren waste.” Maybe Mick Jagger is actually being existentially forthright when he sings, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” Many American youths of the 1960s can now testify that the decade’s mantra—“sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll”—greatly overpromised and deeply under-produced. So it has been since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit.
Running on Empty
As a Christian, I know that sex, money, power, and achievement cannot fill what Christian thinker Blaise Pascal calls that “infinite abyss” within the human heart. But reading about the broken lives of two of my cherished sports icons (baseball great Ted Williams and basketball star Jerry West) recently brought that message home again with great force.5 These two athletes played their respective sports with sheer greatness. As a youngster I could only dream of playing the way these two superstar athletes routinely performed. Yet both of these men candidly admitted that they lived tortured lives. Achievement, money, and fame ultimately satisfied neither of them. Those who knew them well saw both their greatness and their brokenness. After the cheers of the crowd faded, both men, upon reflection, confessed their unhappiness. Though they seemed to have it all, they were in large measure discontented with life.
Pascal observes, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?”6 C. S. Lewis also noted humanity’s need to fill the spiritual abyss, likening human beings to car engines, which are built to run on gasoline and nothing else.
Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.7
Quenching the Thirst
The message of historic Christianity is that this God-shaped hole or vacuum inside of human beings can only be filled with the God-shaped person of Jesus Christ. Human beings as bearers of God’s image were made for God, need God, and no other alternative will satisfy this divine thirst or hunger. Augustine’s prayer in Confessions reflects a somewhat existential perspective of this need for God:
Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you. . . . The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.8
The truth is that creatures made in God’s image (human beings) can only find genuine contentment—rest and peace for their souls—through an intimate relationship with their Creator-Redeemer God. In his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus explains, “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Reflections: Your Turn
What comforts or pursuits do you turn to when you need to find peace?
For more on the Christian claim of human beings finding rest and peace uniquely in God, see my book A World of Difference.
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin, 1961), bk. 1, 20.
- David K. Naugle, Philosophy: A Student’s Guide (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 50.
- Augustine, Confessions, bk. 2, 10.
- See Ben Bradlee Jr., The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams (New York: Little, Brown, 2013); and Jerry West and Jonathan Coleman, West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life (New York: Little, Brown, 2011).
- Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin, 1995), no. 148.
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 54.
- Augustine, Confessions, bk. 1, 1.