Soul Thirst: Meeting Human Longing With Grace

“It makes a difference if I treat a nonbeliever as someone who is wrong rather than someone who is on the way but lost.”

I have learned a new way of looking at the lost from the theologian Jürgen Moltmann, who came to faith during World War II as a captured German soldier in a British POW camp. Scottish women brought the enemy prisoners home-baked goods and a Bible, and, touched by their gesture, he began to read it. After the war he returned to his homeland where he went on to serve as a pastor and professor in the German church hierarchy. Later, though, he began to question a religious system that stratifies bishops, priests and laypersons and then sets them all against the unbelievers. Didn’t Jesus call his followers brothers and sisters, implying something more like a family than a corporation? Doesn’t God reign over all the world, including those outside the fold?

“The church is where Christ is,” Moltmann decided. The manifest church comprises those who accept Christ and embrace the gospel. “But Christ is also in the place where the poor, the hungry, the sick and the prisoners are to be found: ‘As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ That is the latent church.” You cannot read the Bible without hearing the loud message that God cares for the displaced, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the humble, the needy—in other words, those who know their lostness and who long to be found.

The Beatitudes spell out that the restless and discontent—the latent church, in Moltmann’s phrase—may already be close to God. Think about it. The rich act as though this life will never end; the poor feel hunger pangs for something more. Those who mourn sense the rupture of a world severed from God and thus edge closer to the Father who promises to make all things new. Peacemakers and the merciful, whatever their motivation, strive for harmony, for a human family restored.

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The poor in spirit qualify just as much as the economically poor. Christian Wiman, the urbane editor of Poetry magazine, uses the same word as Moltmann to describe the stirrings that led him back to faith. He writes, “When I assented to the faith that was latent within me—and I phrase it carefully, deliberately, for there was no light, no ministering or avenging angel that tore my life in two; rather it seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me, or, more accurately, as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert and had known, though I was just then discovering it, that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief.”

It makes a huge difference whether I treat a nonbeliever as someone who is wrong rather than as someone who is on the way but lost. For a helpful model I look to the apostle Paul’s speech in the cultural center of Athens, as recorded in Acts 17. Instead of condemning his audience to hell for practicing idolatry, Paul begins by commending their spiritual search, especially their devotion to an “unknown God.” God planned creation and human life, Paul told the Athenians, so that we “would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” He builds his case from common ground, quoting two of their own writers to affirm basic truths. Demonstrating a humble respect for his audience, Paul circles the themes of lostness and estranged family before presenting a richer understanding of a God who cannot be captured in images of gold, silver or stone.

There is a time to critique the surrounding culture and a time to listen, in the process perhaps awakening a latent thirst. “I went looking for spirit and found alcohol; I went looking for soul, and I bought some style; I wanted to meet God, but they sold me religion,” the rock star Bono sometimes shouts at concerts. In “Yahweh,” a song I heard him perform in a packed arena, he offered God his hands, which clench into fists, his mouth “so quick to criticize,” and finally his heart: “Take this heart, and make it break.” By the end of the concert he had 20,000 fans joining him in the chorus to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

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When Bono decided to talk in detail about his faith he chose an unlikely collaborator, a stranger to the faith. In the resulting book, the agnostic French journalist Michka Assayas challenges Bono to explain how he could possibly believe in Christianity in the midst of the very secular world of rock and roll. One by one, Bono answers his questions. He freely admits the flaws of the church yet also claims that following Jesus has satisfied his own search for meaning while giving him causes to pursue beyond celebrity and pleasure.

Beauty and Pain

“If there is no God, never was a God, why do we miss him so much?” asked one agnostic European Jew as he looked back on the horrors of the 20th century. Certain universal human experiences—beauty, pain, evil, death—bring deep thirst to the surface.

Affliction and beauty pierce the human heart, said Simone Weil. I have seen both act as spurs toward faith, and they work in different ways: where affliction penetrates by force, beauty strikes a chord of response akin to praise or gratitude. When I was lost, spiritually, it was beauty that brought me back to faith—the beauty of nature, of music, of love—by reviving a desire to connect with the Father of all good gifts.