THE GOD-SHAPED HOLE (Part 1)

Wilson Arch - Moab UtahYet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. [Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NLT)]

Our children gave us a jigsaw puzzle for Christmas and, as I struggled to complete it, I wondered if I should thank or curse them for their gift! After staring at an opening, I’d try to find the one piece out of 1,000 that would fit. Since the puzzle’s edges were one color, I confess to a bit of pride when I completed the puzzle’s border. After assembling several sections of the interior, I ran into difficulty finding the right spots for them. Eventually, I realized why—the left side was shorter than the right! With a puzzle that large, while each piece is unique, some are nearly identical; a close fit, however, isn’t good enough and the border had to be redone. As I struggled to find the perfect fit for each opening, I thought of the phrase about everyone having a God-shaped hole that only can be filled by Him. While it doesn’t come from Scripture, the concept is Biblical and I wondered about its source.

The saying may have been inspired by Augustine of Hippo’s word from his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” As a young man, Augustine attempted to fill his restless heart with things like paganism, revelry, drunkenness, empty philosophies, idleness, and decadence. Having tried to fill that void with everything but God, Augustine still felt empty until he heard a voice say, “Take up and read.” Reaching down, he picked up the book beside him and read the first thing he saw—the words from Paul’s epistle to the Romans urging them to stop participating in “the darkness of wild parties and drunkenness…sexual promiscuity and immoral living…quarreling and jealousy,” and  to “clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.” [13:13-14] Augustine had been living the life of debauchery about which Paul warned the Romans but, in the Apostle’s words to clothe himself in Jesus, he finally knew how to fill the emptiness in his life and immediately transformed. Augustine ended up being one of the most influential voices in both Roman Catholic and Protestant theology.

Some sources wrongly attribute a quote about having a “God-shaped vacuum” in our hearts to the 17th century French mathematician, physicist, and religious philosopher Blaise Pascal. While close, that’s not what Pascal said. In Pensées, a book written in defense of Christianity, Pascal wrote of an “infinite abyss” that man vainly seeks to fill with things that aren’t there. Since Pascal came along more than 1,200 years after Augustine, perhaps the ancient theologian’s words influenced him.

Like Augustine, Pascal had a conversion experience but, unlike him, Pascal never led the life of a libertine. Nevertheless, shortly before having a mystical vision in what he called a “night of fire,” Pascal complained of the dissatisfaction, guilt, lack of purpose, and boredom in his life. After his vision, Pascal committed his life to Christ, left the world of science and mathematics, put his remarkable mind to work for God and, like Augustine, left his mark on Christianity.

That “God-shaped hole” is man’s innate longing for something far greater than anything found in this world. Perhaps it’s the “eternity” God plants in our hearts that keeps us from finding complete fulfillment in earthly pursuits and passions. As happened with my puzzle, we often try to fill the emptiness in our lives with pieces that don’t fit and, while some may come close, only the perfect piece works. Nothing—not fame, wealth, education, possessions, shopping, popularity, ritual, false gods, self-indulgence, or even family, can fill that God-shaped hole. As for the puzzle, I eventually gave up and returned it to the box—perhaps, someday I’ll try again. Fortunately, seeking God and fitting Him into the emptiness in our hearts is far easier!

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? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself. [Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII (425)]

 If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. [Jeremiah 29:13-14 (NLT)]

His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist. Acts 17 27-28 (NLT)]

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CASTING CARES

Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken. [Psalm 55:22 (NIV)]

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. [1 Peter 5:7 (NIV)]

yampa river fishingEven though I’m not an angler, whenever I read about casting my cares, I picture using a fly rod and casting my concerns out into the river so the fast moving water can carry them away to God. When we lived in the mountains, one of our favorite walking trails ran alongside the Yampa River and we often paused to watch as the fishermen (and women) cast their lines into the water. Fly fishing is all about the art of casting and a bit like poetry in motion. It was fascinating to watch an angler flick the rod back and forth, gradually increasing the speed of the motion, before finally casting the line forward so the fly would land in the perfect spot. Masquerading as a water insect, the fly is made of things like fur, feathers, fabric and tinsel and secured to a hook. Rather than purchasing flies, many fishermen spend hours tying their own flies. Not wanting to lose either fly or fish in the river, anglers use at least five different knots to securely connect the reel to the backing, fly line, leader, and tippet before finally tying on the fly.

There is an art to fly casting and fly fishermen spend years perfecting their technique, especially since no one cast is ideal for every situation. Christians, however, aren’t casting flies—they’re casting things like fear, problems, anxiety, and worry—the cares every believer faces in this fallen world. While there’s no special technique to casting those cares, like fly fishing, it’s often easier said than done. Just as a fly fisherman may labor over tying his flies and fret about choosing the perfect ones for the day’s conditions, we often spend a great deal of time focusing on our worries rather than casting them into God’s river. Just as the fisherman ties those five knots to keep from losing his fly, we tie ourselves up in knots when we’re reluctant to give up our cares to God!

The anglers casting their lines in the river want to catch and land a fish but, when we cast our cares, we want to bring in an empty line. They catch, we release! Our cares are not for God to take away from us but for us to release to Him. Because the flies on the end of a fishing line are nearly weightless and our cares often seem as heavy as boulders, casting cares seems harder than casting a fly in the river. Nevertheless, it can be done and is far more rewarding than a trophy-sized trout.

Fishermen go to the river with an empty creel and hope to return home with a full one but we go to God with a creel full of cares so we’ll end up with an empty one. Our creels may be empty but we’ll be filled with the peace of God!

He that takes his cares on himself loads himself in vain with an uneasy burden. I will cast my cares on God; he has bidden me; they cannot burden him. [Joseph Hall]

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. [John 14:27 (NIV)]

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NIV)] 

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IT’S TERMINAL

Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties. After all, everyone dies—so the living should take this to heart. … A wise person thinks a lot about death, while a fool thinks only about having a good time. [Ecclesiastes 7:2,4 (NLT)]

ghost bikeIt’s often said that there are no atheists in foxholes. This maxim traces its beginnings back to 1914 and World War 1 when an English newspaper quoted a chaplain at a memorial service for a fallen soldier: “Tell the Territorials and soldiers at home that they must know God before they come to the front if they would face what lies before them. We have no atheists in the trenches. Men are not ashamed to say that, though they never prayed before, they pray now with all their hearts.” When we joined our northern church, it was during the Viet Nam War. I remember a young man in our new member class who’d drawn a low number in the draft lottery. Expecting to be in combat within the year, he confessed wanting to “get right” with God before that time came. Apparently, even the threat of a foxhole is enough to cause some people to rethink their relationship with the Almighty.

Whenever we pass a roadside memorial or ghost bike like the one in today’s picture, I’m reminded of the precariousness of life. There’s a memorial at a corner near us for a young man who died there several years ago. Decorated seasonally by family and friends, it’s a poignant reminder of how unexpectedly a life can be extinguished and how much he is missed. Unlike the fellow in our church class, that young man, the victim of a drunk driver who ran a red light, didn’t have a low lottery number to warn him how near to death he was.

“A funeral provides an indispensable perspective on the universally terminal condition,” said the Reformation Study Bible notes for today’s verses from Ecclesiastes 7. Indeed, everyone is born with the incurable disease of death. I’m of an age where the many notes of condolence I’ve written these last few months make me think I should buy sympathy cards in bulk. These are dark thoughts for an early spring day, yet far too many of us choose to ignore our inevitable fate. Death is the one appointment that none of us will miss. While we have little control over the when of that day, we do have control over how we choose to prepare for the inevitable.

In both this world and the next, what happens after we die depends entirely on what we do now. Once laid out in the mortuary, it’s too late to write a will or accept Jesus. When we’re placed in a casket, we won’t be able to mend fences or make amends and we’ll have missed the opportunity to get right with God. By the time we’re on the other side of the sod or turned to ash in a crematorium, we can’t express our love and forgiveness or decide to accept God’s saving grace.

The problem with foxhole conversions, of course, is that once out of the trenches, they rarely last. Moreover, if we don’t make it out alive, by waiting until the very end to accept Jesus, we’ve missed out on the abundant Kingdom life He offers that begins while we’re here. Getting right with God long before we enter either foxhole or hospice care seems to be the wiser choice. The good news for the saved is that dying doesn’t mean departing from the land of the living. For those who know Jesus, death means departing from the land of the dying for the land of the living.

Depend upon it, your dying hour will be the best hour you have ever known! Your last moment will be your richest moment, better than the day of your birth will be the day of your death. It shall be the beginning of heaven, the rising of a sun that shall go no more down forever! [Charles Spurgeon]

And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him. [Hebrews 9:27-28 (NLT)]

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TUMBLEWEED AND COTTONWOODS

This is what the Lord says: “Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans, who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the Lord. They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope for the future.” [Jeremiah 17:5-6 (NLT)]

Russian thistle - tumbleweed

Russian thistle – tumbleweed

Because Judah had trusted in false gods and foreign alliances rather than God, Jeremiah pronounced God’s judgment on the southern kingdom. After saying their sins were as if they’d been etched on their stony hearts with a diamond-pointed iron chisel, he compared them to a stunted shrub. That shrub may have been the tumble thistle, a common plant found in Israel’s grasslands. I’ve never been to Israel but I’ve seen a similar plant in the western states: the Russian thistle, commonly known as tumbleweed or wind witch. Both kinds of weeds begin with flowers on a spiny plant. As their seeds mature, the entire plant dries and breaks from its roots at the soil surface. Shaped like a ball and rootless, the wind blows and rolls these plant “skeletons” across the prairie.

In stark contrast to a stunted shrub, Jeremiah likened those who trust in the Lord to deep-rooted trees planted by the riverbank—trees untroubled by heat or drought. I’m reminded of our hardy American cottonwoods found near rivers, lakes, and irrigation ditches throughout the nation. The fastest growing trees in North America, cottonwoods can grow to over 100-feet tall, with a trunk diameter of 6-feet, and a leaf canopy over 75-feet wide. Instead of being blown by the wind like tumbleweed, the cottonwood’s size makes it an excellent windbreak. When we trust in ourselves and false gods, we’ll be blown every which way like a tumbleweed but, when we trust in God, we can withstand life’s headwinds like a cottonwood.

Growing on the water’s edge, cottonwoods typically survive adverse conditions and prairie fires. Few plants can survive the scorching heat, scant rainfall, relentless winds, blowing sand and poor soil of New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument but the deeply rooted Rio Grande cottonwood thrives there! When we trust in God and sink our roots deep in His word, like the cottonwood, we will flourish and have a full life, even in harsh conditions.

Dubbed “the pioneer tree,” the cottonwood was a welcome sight for settlers crossing the plains because it meant shade from the heat, fuel for a fire, and a source of water. Those same settlers considered tumbleweeds a menace. They leeched nutrients from the soil, crowded out forage grass and, being highly flammable when dry, could become flying fireballs and spread a grass fire. Just as pioneers found refuge in the cottonwood, those who trust in the Lord find refuge in Him. Those who trust only in man are as worthless as a noxious weed and as dangerous as burning tumbleweed.

When we put our trust in man, false gods, or empty ideologies, we’re no different than a tumbleweed: dry and rootless, rolling in whatever direction the wind is blowing, and with no hope for the future. When we trust in the Lord, we’re like the cottonwood: deeply rooted in His word, fed by His living water, and able to survive, even thrive, in the bleakest of situations.

But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit. [Jeremiah 17:7-8 (NLT)]

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FIRM FOOTING

Hear my prayer, O Lord; listen to my plea! Answer me because you are faithful and righteous. … Show me where to walk, for I give myself to you. … Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. May your gracious Spirit lead me forward on a firm footing. [Psalm 143:1,8b,10 (NLT)]

sign on schilthornMany years ago, I was facing a difficult decision about a project. In spite of praying, pondering, searching Scripture for direction, and consulting with wise advisors, I was still in a quandary. Nothing brought me closer to a clear answer to my dilemma. Although it seemed like a good idea (at least in theory) and I felt like I should want to be part of it, doubts kept nagging at me. Wanting God to make known His will, I prayed the words of Psalm 143:10: “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. May your gracious spirit lead me forward on a firm footing.”

The phrase “firm footing” reminded me of a sign I’d seen at the top of the Schilthorn in the Swiss Alps. Warning that high-heeled shoes shouldn’t be worn while hiking the mountain, the caution seemed to demonstrate a firm grasp of what seemed obvious. The steep slope was covered with scree and would prove precarious even for a properly equipped and skilled hiker! I realized the footing on this particular project felt anything but firm. In spite of its good intentions, it was as ill-considered as wearing a pair of strappy high heels while hiking the Schilthorn. While there’d been no cautions about prohibited footwear, I’d seen plenty of other warning signs about the venture; I just hadn’t wanted to heed them. It’s easy to confuse what we want to do with what God intends for us or to think we’re hearing God’s voice when it is only ours speaking louder than His!

Had I been reading any other Bible translation, rather than “firm footing,” the verse would have read level ground, land of uprightness, level pastureland, or good paths. Whether those words would have resonated with me the way “firm footing” did, I don’t know. But, as God would have it, I was using my NLT Bible and I finally understood the project was not right for me.

God has challenged, admonished, cautioned, and tested me but He has never steered me wrong. Even when I haven’t especially liked God’s task for me, He’s always given me a sense of peace along with His mission, even when it meant stepping into unknown territory. Admittedly, obedience often has upset my plans, meant more work, pushed me out of my comfort zone, or challenged my capabilities, but it always has led to peace. The sense of peace I had as soon as I declined this undertaking told me that I’d finally found and followed God’s will.

If we don’t have peace about a choice we’ve made, if we don’t feel confident in our walk, it’s time to stop, reconsider, and pray. We’ll only know we’re on firm footing and following His plan when God gives us peace about our decision.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NLT)]

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HOPE

It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. [1 Corinthians 15:42-43 (NLT)]

lake lucerne sailboatThe anchor, the Christian symbol of hope, is the most prevalent of all the Christian symbols found in the Roman catacombs. In fact, all of the symbols, paintings, mosaics, and reliefs found in the miles of labyrinth-like narrow tunnels and thousands of graves in the catacombs reflect hope in some way. Instead of the dark funereal images you might expect in an underground cemetery, the white walls of the Christian catacombs feature living things like flowers and birds along with Bible stories expressing hope in God’s plan of salvation. Prominent themes from the Old Testament include Daniel emerging untouched from the lions’ den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego exiting unharmed from the fiery furnace. Frequently depicted are the stories of Noah, who escaped from the flood, and Jonah who was delivered from the sea monster. Continuing the theme of deliverance are many images of the good shepherd so frequently mentioned in Psalms. New Testament stories usually showed Jesus raising the dead (with over fifty representations of Lazarus), healing people, and feeding the multitude. The art of the catacombs is all about man’s hope in God’s deliverance, provision, and plan of salvation.

As I read about the displays of hope found in this ancient place of grief and death, I thought of my mother’s final days. I was only fifteen when I sat at her hospital bedside. Even though she knew her end was near, my mother had no tears. Instead of worry or fear, she radiated a sense of peace and hope. I recall my father reaching under the plastic of her oxygen tent, brushing back her hair, caressing her face, and saying, “You look like an angel tonight.” Indeed, no angel could have been more beautiful that she was that night. My mother smiled back at him and said in a voice filled with hope, “Maybe tomorrow, I’ll be with them!” She could say those words so confidently because my mother was a believer and, like those early Roman Christians, she knew Jesus and trusted the promises of God.

The stories and symbols found in those ancient catacombs remind us that, for a Christian, death is not something to fear. Going beyond the here and now, Christian hope reaches past the grave into the glorious tomorrow promised by God! Death, for a Christian is not an end but a beginning; it is like emerging from the trials of a lion’s den, fiery furnace, or whale’s belly unharmed. When that last breath is taken, the Christian simply pulls up anchor and sets sail for a new land—one where tears, pain, and sorrow are replaced by peace, joy, and praise. That is the hope seen in the art found in the catacombs of Rome and the hope I saw firsthand in a Detroit hospital room nearly sixty years ago.

Death to the Christian is the exchanging of a tent for a permanent palace. Here we are as pilgrims or gypsies living in a frail, flimsy home subject to disease, pain and peril. But at death we exchange this crumbling, disintegrating tent for a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. [Billy Graham]

And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. [Romans 8:23 (NLT)]

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