A Gaping Hole in the God-Shaped Hole Theory



You’re probably familiar with the concept, made popular in a song performed by Plumb a few years ago now: There’s a God-shaped hole in all of us / And the restless soul is searching / There’s a God-shaped hole in all of us / And it’s a hole only He can fill. The idea, of course, is that all of us have some sort of emptiness inside, yet the discovery of God somehow satisfies this emptiness. We are thereby complete.

But I don’t really buy it, and please forgive me, but I don’t really believe those who do.

For one, there’s the whole problem of what the Bible actually says. Paul talks of the whole creation groaning like a woman in labor for something yet to come, which doesn’t sound very satisfied or complete to me at all. Granted, his context involved God’s Spirit helping us along the way, but the picture of satisfaction is too big a stretch for me.

And for another, there’s the whole Mother Teresa problem.

Momma T was in the news recently (no, she’s still dead). Now most of the people I’ve gone to church with in my life would readily condemn her to hell for being Catholic, which is ironic, since Pope Benedict would probably say “right back at ya!” But when I read through the judgment scene described by Jesus at the end of Matthew 25… well, I’m just saying that if I read that to be true and was making wagers… well, Momma T lived on the sheep side as described by Jesus.

But I digress.

There’s a new book out that reveals Mother Teresa’s hidden faith struggles, in her own private words. These are no “I’m having a bad day” letters, no “all these dying people bring me down” sort of writings. These are words that reveal an inner darkness in one who followed Jesus to “the least of these.” Words like these:

“I have no Faith – I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart – & make me suffer untold agony.”

“Such deep longing for God and … repulsed empty no faith no love no zeal. … Heaven means nothing pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything.”

“What do I labour for? If there be no God – there can be no soul – if there is no Soul then Jesus You also are not true.”

She even talked of personal hypocrisy by describing her public smile as “a mask” or “a cloak that covers everything.”

If there was a God-shaped hole in Mother Teresa, of all people, God didn’t seem to fill it completely. In every education and psychology course I ever sat in, we learned about Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If people like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. never reached the pinnacle of self-actualization, then forgive me for not believing the folks who claim God has somehow filled their inner void and led them to nirvana.

And then, for my last trick, there’s me.

Truth be told (and feel free to hate me if you wish), I have blessings coming out the wazoo. I really do have a tremendous marriage, and we aren’t just faking it. I have two beautiful daughters in two excellent schools, the oldest working on a college degree, and the youngest flying through life like she’s a professional. I grew up in a loving home, and I have priceless friends all over the world. I have a good job in a church filled with neat people. I have a wonderful house in a beautiful neighborhood, and we have nice, dependable cars to get us where we want to go. I live in a delightful community, a place in which people respect me and value me as a leader of some sorts. I have money in the bank, few debts, and good health. I have hobbies I enjoy, and I have significant roles in volunteer groups that serve the hurting, ranging from those living in poverty housing to children who have been abused and neglected.

This is the short list.

And I’m still incomplete. I am not satisfied in the depths of my soul. There is still something missing. And it’s not God.

The implications are sobering.

For one, if my observations are true, how do we adjust to living a life without hope for nirvana? How do we adjust to the sobering reality that life will always be incomplete – that is, without descending into a life of either compromise or depression?

And for another, what am I peddling in church? Am I reduced to “pie in the sky” once more? Or, is there something else to offer for the here and now besides the God-shaped hole theory?

These are my thoughts today. I really need to hear some of yours.

49 Responses to “A Gaping Hole in the God-Shaped Hole Theory”

  1. Terry A. Says:

    I say praise God that Mother Teresa had doubts of such magnitude. Because it helps saps like me to know that she did, that I’m not alone or wrong or hopelessly weak when I doubt, too.

  2. lesjr Says:

    Would it be over simplified and or wrong to phrase being dissatisfied as ambition or new goals to reach?

    I don’t know. Al. I sometimes have those same feelings. And I wonder if they are not somehow tied to the feeling that I must do more in my world. It isn’t about me, but sometimes I strive as if it is–which almost always leads to more unfulfilled feelings.

    Thinking aloud with ya!
    Les, Jr.

  3. alsturgeon Says:

    I’m with you, Terry. I see her statements as encouraging me in another, different, way.

    And Les, I don’t think that oversimplifies it at all, at least for the times in which that is true (that my dissatisfaction is ambitious or wrought with new goals). But there are times – and Mother Teresa’s honesty is a good example – when the dissatisfaction isn’t ambitious. Frustrated is more like it. Like we’re just spinning our wheels and getting nowhere. I want my dissatisfaction to always be ambitious, but sometimes it’s just not.

    And I’m with you, too, on the “world revolves around my fixing it” approach to life. Which turns out to be bad news for everyone involved.

  4. Tom St. John Says:

    Al, thanks for bringing a new light on something that I think we all struggle with at times. I know that I am in the middle of one of those “dark nights of the soul” currently.

    Pascal said “There is a God-shaped hole in our hearts that only God can fill.” (Plumb was a bit more prosaic – certainly more melodic) The thing that keeps coming back to me is not necessarily a disagreement with the statement as much as my misunderstanding of what and when it means.

    I think the statement is correct – with the first understanding coming when one asks God to become involved personally in their life. And, for the newly aware, it seems that life has been filled in that area. Kind of like the term, “I did not know how empty was my soul until the moment it was filled” – that searching and longing for God at the center of things actually enters our awareness. The being filled, however, seems to be an ongoing thing. The hole to be filled seems to be pretty deep – or perhaps on our side here – maybe the hole has some leaks. Times when it feels very full and times it feels almost bone dry.

    I know that in the times that I feel the most dry, I am pulled into the concerns about ME. Perhaps I am not hitting the mark; I’m not putting in the time; I am avoiding; I … I … I…. The times when it feels that the hole has been filled up a bit more is when that pronoun seems to slip onto the wayside and instead of thinking and analyzing and … whatever, a more simple doing-the-next-right-thing presents itself and it gets done. In that “alignment of the universe”, I can see in retrospect that, with a great deal of simplicity which I seem to step into instead of generate myself, whatever gifts I have been given seem to be called upon and simply answered with a yes. The grace of looking back with a sense of wonder shows me that somehow I was working side by side with God – and the feeling of it being so right and so satisfying shows me a more filled hole.

    And it continues to leak after a while and I am annoyed and ticked that I’m losing it again. (note pronoun use.) Perhaps that is one of God’s tactics: leave them with a taste and having them want more. Not a very commonsense way to get close to someone, but what the heck do I know. As a matter of fact, the longer I occupy space on this planet, I realize that I know very little. I do think that God is revealed a bit at a time to us according to a different schedule than ours. And I think God reveals our own true selves to us the same way – a bit at a time. Knowing God and knowing ourselves seems to be an ongoing cycle of mystery and discovery. Glad that I do sometimes get those amazing looking-back moments. I think that is an end result for the times of doubt and confusion and I see that maybe there has been some forward motion.

    Sorry for going on – that line from Pascal has always resonated with me in many different ways. Whenever I get a chance to be with the women who carry on Mother Teresa’s work, I am reminded in small ways that perhaps my own quest for Nirvana needs reworking. While I am thinking that they are living a life of deprivation and that they need a break once and a while, they pray for me that I am not tied to a notion of a desired end state here and now that is not what is intended. I am reminded in my discussions with them that this is not our Home, and the longing for that place is also a part of that God shaped hole. And, instead of worrying about my hole, perhaps I should be concerned with assisting God in helping to fill the hole in others. After all, they asked, what does “the kingdom of God is upon you” mean to you, Tom? Tough crew, those Missionaries of Charity. They never let me off easy. They are, however, excellent occasional spiritual guides.

    So, I don’t know this has lead, except naming some thoughts and feelings. Perhaps they speak to your point, but I know that they have spoken to me this morning! (Tangents are a wonderful thing) Thanks for continuing to generate interesting things that speak to you.

    Have you considered that maybe you are helping to fill some holes in the hearts of others with where these may lead???? Interesting….

  5. alsturgeon Says:

    Thanks, Tom. It would be nice to help others – you always do so for me. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughtful tangent.

    I guess what I’m fighting against is the assumption that “Christians” have it all figured out, and the rest of the world is so silly not to be just like us, “us” having it all so good and all, you know. Peace. Joy. Happiness.

    Me thinks that truly following Christ fully (which is the game, by the way) is an excruciating journey, not a simple ticket to Happy Land.

    Which is why my two questions at the end still reverberate in my skull:

    #1: I thought I bought a ticket to Happy Land. If not, where am I headed?

    #2: What am I selling? Tickets for an Excruciating Journey? I need a new PR consultant.

  6. Terry A. Says:

    In light of some things that have been happening in our family the last week or so, I’ve come to wonder if — surprise, surprise — the church hasn’t completely botched the telling/living of the gospel.

    We teach and preach it as a means to an earthly happiness, but I think maybe we’re selling the byproduct there. We say being a Christian is all about living upright and just, having a strong marriage and family life, etc.

    But what if Jesus’ good news was that we need all those things — the strong family, the good marriage, the moral framework — because taking up our cross(es) was going to lead us into situations that would tax every one of those areas. That all these things we hold as primary points of the faith are really secondary, that when we dive into the messiness of the kingdom, we’d darn sure better be able to hold on to one another.

    Christianity as I’m experiencing it right now is stressful and depressing, and quite frankly, I feel like I got the ol’ bait-and-switch treatment from the church’s selling/telling of it.

  7. dannydodd Says:

    I do think there is a measure of satisfaction and fulfillment we can enjoy while here.

    Our hearts should desire God as a deer pants for water. The deer’s thirst is quenched- for a while anyway before she returns to drink agian.

    This is how I see our relationship with God. We drink freely from his fountain and find refreshment and strength for our journey. It is true that our thirst will never completely be quenched until we are fully in his presence, but we do receive a measure of satisfaction.

    If he completely satisfied us now, what then would we have in which to look forward?

    That Mother Theresa felt this is just a confirmation of the fact that she was human. We all feel it- even while drinking at God’s fountain, but that still does not dimish how he provides for us now.

  8. Whitney Says:

    Al, I’ve been fascinated by the Mother Theresa stuff lately, too. I think part of the reason this has been a big deal is because the world THINKS Christians are proclaiming total fulfillment solely because of God. I also think the Mega churches promise and promote some of that–instead of the struggles we should necessarily face as followers of Christ.

    I’ve personally never been promised that. I think if you read the Beatitudes we should not expect that. Poor in Spirit, lowly, meek, hurting. If we never question our faith, I believe it can become a monotone habit, not a longing. I pray for faith all the time…is that wrong? I struggle with my faith pretty regularly, yet I do not give up on God. My faith issues are because of ME, of MY wants, needs, desires, and yearnings. I believe that each and every day I wake up and have that struggle God is teaching me something.

    Our society wants no part of the mystery of God. I think we have to embrace the mystery and part of that may be not knowing what is supposed to fill that hole.

  9. Whitney Says:

    Terry…ding, ding, ding. I think you have it right. Without those things in my life in the past few years, I do not know where I would be.

  10. DeJon Says:

    Oh, Al. You provoke me so.

    It’s a constant effort for me, given my background and up-bringing, to bite my tongue around “people of faith.” But as time goes on, I’ve begun to lose the motivation and effort it takes to not call their bluff… and in my opinion, a bluff it is.

    When I reflect on the vast majority of fellow citizens here in the Bible belt calling themselves “Christians” or “religious” or what have you, I like to compare all of us to Mother Teresa because of the sheer embarrassment we should all feel but don’t. And then the hear that there are people out there willing to impugn “Momma T” because of her Catholic affiliation… I’ll be honest, if there is an individual out there that has the gall to judge “Momma T” I would love for them to show themselves so that we can all see what I misguided, hypocritical fundamentalist really looks like.

    The version of “church” or “Christianity” followed by 99.99% of the people is fundamentally broken. It is by and large a self-absorbed model of holier-than-thou rubbish that makes all of us feel good about ourselves because we spent Sunday morning in the “Lord’s House” giving 10% of our income to volunteer leaders who are quite often well-intentioned but untrained. We listen to sermons in climate-controlled buildings about a God who cares about out “hurts.” We line our bulletins with prayer lists that are almost exclusively filled with the elderly or those stricken with cancer (a terrible illness) when we should all honestly realize that some day the vast majority of us will one day die having led quite the charmed life.

    Why do we do these things? Honestly. Does it really do on positive thing anything for this mysterious being we call God. I know we certainly believe it does, but what benefit does it bring?

    I don’t think we know the first thing about faith. Nothing.

    I don’t think we know the first thing about God. And I mean nothing.

    We read the Bible through own lenses, and the proof is in how little difference there is in the “churched community” and the rest of the world. Take the statistics on a sociological scale and you will find teenage pregnancy, divorce, abortion rates, charitable donations show no significant difference between those that consider themselves religious and those that don’t.

    It is all a charade to make ourselves feel like a better person because we act the way we think God would want us to act.

    We turn faith in to a rigid understanding. When faith by definition is a lack of understanding.

    Mother Teresa wasn’t sure if God existed. What makes us in our culturally contrived fundamentalism so damn sure?

    I would love for the whole of the body of religious people to stop pedaling Jesus like a vacuum cleaner salesman, to give up with the proselytizing and just love the way Mother Teresa loved.

    Perhaps this is judgmental, and for that I apologize in advance, but if you show me a religious person that doesn’t doubt if God exists, I will show you an ignorant person with a shallow faith resting on half-truths.

  11. Whitney Says:

    Dej, I think you paint with a very broad brush. You might be surprised that more people feel the way you do than you think. You also might be surprised what those people do for others without telling ANYONE, so you never know about it and so other people just assume they do nothing. They still go to the churches that are “peddling Jesus” and sit in the pews with the people only there to make themselves feel good because that’s what they know to do…because we’re still told to not forsake the assembly and to go into all the world and all that stuff you well know. I know you and know you mean well, and I certainly understand where you’re coming from. Just be careful about such broad generalizations.

  12. DeJon Says:

    Whit, with greatest respect, I find that to be a popular and comfortable response. But do you really believe its true that those about whom I speak have an underground and super-secret realm where they are really living the selfless example of Jesus Christ? And if they are, why are they putting up such a good front to “blend in” with the rest of the world so as to be wholly indistinguishable?

    Seems like a lot of effort for a not-so-obvious purpose.

  13. mrspeacock Says:

    Great questions, Al. I don’t have any great answers, so I’ll do my favorite thing here and point out the obvious. God has never told us that we have a Him-shaped hole and only He can fill it. That’s just our catchy way of trying to be relevant. And I’m not entirely sure I believe it, either.

    You can fill yourself up with a million different things that aren’t God, some bad things, some good things. And often those things will make you happier. But I don’t think we should be satisfied with happy. We should demand truth. There’s a cheesy line at the end of Miracle on 34th Street where the lawyer says, “Which is better, a lie that brings a smile, or a truth that brings a tear?” I hate that line for obvious reasons, but mainly because it teaches you to embrace a happy lie.

    All that to say, I don’t think it’s possible to be completely filled here. I think it’s entirely possibly to be content, even happy, and certainly possible to be at peace. But the basic tenant of Christianity is that there’s something better to come.

    However, I don’t believe God is withholding anything that He can give to us now. We are told that “his divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness…” I think the problem is that we thirst for more than we actually need. And He can’t give it to us. Like when Moses was allowed to see only the back of God, yet he was still glowing when he came down from the mountain. He can’t give us the certainty of seeing His face because we would literally die from the power of it.

    Mother Teresa is a hero of mine, even more now that I can actually identify with her on something. Stinks that it’s her doubt I identify with other than her compassion, humility, etc.

  14. Amy Hitt Says:

    Mother Teresa (whose faithful actions I admire greatly) believed in saviors and victims and therefore became both herself. There are no saviors or victims…we are all co-creators with God by our thoughts, words and deeds (how powerful those three things are)…and that is the “Good News,” because if we are the ones who have screwed things up in our lives (instead of screwed up things being done TO us)…then we can also be the ones who…unscrew them.

    But Mother Teresa aside, since you asked, I believe we will all feel like something is missing in our lives until we get on our unique, purposeful path. During our mid-life crisis, we often discover we have lived out someone else’s path (one or all of our elders). There is something you are meant to do that you are probably afraid to do, because it flies in the face of your tribe. But having the courage to jump off of the cliff…that is true faith…and that is when your God-shaped hole is filled.

  15. mrspeacock Says:

    I’m jumping in on the DJ/Whit discussion here.

    I doubt the very existence of God on an alarmingly frequent basis. I even mentioned this during a discussion on doubt, which you would think would be the perfect time to confess. But I was met with mostly confused faces. I couldn’t decide if 1)I was a horrible faithless person and all of the others were saints, 2)I just said what everyone was thinking but too embarrassed to admit or 3)The group hadn’t thought about it enough to question.

    In my previous post, I said we thirst for more than we need. But maybe sometimes we’re satisfied too soon? Talking in circles here.

  16. Whitney Says:

    Dej, I think you are mostly right, actually. I do not think the large majority of “Christians” do anything but talk a big talk. Myself included too much of the time. I do believe there are people doing things that no one else knows about. And you ask why they make such an effort to keep it secret…well, because some things we do are no one else’s business. It’s between us and God. There’s no concerted effort to blend in in spite of it. There’s no conspiracy. 🙂

    I think your dissatisfaction has left you to where you can’t see any good in congregational settings/establishments at all because you feel like it is all smoke and mirrors. You see, I don’t feel that way, but I DO think we let the congregational setting be a means for “getting off the hook” in terms of our responsibility to show Jesus love through service others (not in the name of whatever church). It is, in my opinion, a PERSONAL responsibility that we don’t take nearly enough.

    I’m just saying, don’t be so jaded by your experience that you assume all people who say they’re Christians are just blowing hot air. That does make you judgmental. Christians aren’t perfect. The system we have is far from perfect. But the intentions of the heart are not ours to adjudicate.

  17. Whitney Says:

    Sorry for all the posts…this is what happens with this type of discussion when I’m supposed to be working. This is much more interesting. Gee, thanks, Al.

    I see a trend here. A trend that we, as Christians, are relieved to see that someone as great and respected as Mother Theresa had the same doubts we do! Mrs. P I go with #2, we are just too embarrassed to admit our doubts. WHY is that? Our walks are supposed to be met with struggles of all sorts. We should be allowed to have doubts and to talk about them with each other. But that is taboo…

    So, I think the fascinations with this Momma T thing is that the media/world is just ecstatic to see “Christians” flounder because maybe it means that their faith is meaningless and thereby provides ammo for those who hate us (hmmmm..persecution on a mini-scale?). BUT Christians are also ecstatic because the news of her struggles allow us to finally admit that we have the same struggles, but we keep going in spite of them. So it gives us strength. See…she is still helping us in her death. Amazing.

  18. Jeff_R Says:

    Let me give the full Pascal quote, just to make sure we aren’t misrepresenting him here.

    Pascal did not in fact say that “there is a God-shaped vacuum in all of us.” What he said was, “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. . . . And yet, after such a great number of years, no one without faith has reached the point to which all continually look. . . . A trial so long, so continuous, and so uniform, should certainly convince us of our inability to reach the good by our own efforts. . . . he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself. He only is our true good, and since we have forsaken him, it is a strange thing that there is nothing in nature which has not been serviceable in taking His place; . . . And since man has lost the true good, everything can appear equally good to him, even his own destruction, though so opposed to God, to reason, and to the whole course of nature.” (Pensees 6.425)

    Thus the hole Pascal speaks of is “happiness shaped”. That one can only FIND ultimate happiness in God is a separate question – though in the quoted passage, Pascal does intimate that separately.

    Nonetheless, I think the problem for me personally is in expectations and perspective.

    When I consider my life, then attempt to objectively consider the lives of those around me, I recognize that I have an incredible wealth of fortune in practically every category. I recognize that I am really “living the dream”. This simple act of reflection and objective circumspection is often the nudge I need to boost my attitude and my mood. Thus, reflection and circumspection, to me, are essential parts of what it means to find peace and happiness.

    It is also instructive to reflect that when evaluated, the happiest people tend not to be the folks with the most physical or temporal wealth – or even, it seems, who live in countries that are democratic, liberal or non-violent. Thus, the happiest people live in Nigeria, Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador and Puerto Rico. Not high on my list of vacation spots. Happiness must reside, ultimately, in things that aren’t on the American consumer’s shopping list. In fact, the factors that make people happy tend to be (sigh) genetics, marriage, low expectations, faith (religious or not), having and valuing friends.

    I think there’s a lot to be said about how the consumerist mentality has distorted the message of the gospel over the last century and a half. We’ve followed the American method of trying to convince people that our “product” is the solution to their need for happiness. Thus, you’ve gotten all kinds of “marketing distortions” added to the gospel to try to “sell” the gospel as this happiness tonic – things like charismata, health-and-wellness, prosperity, the moral majority/politicization of fundamentalism, etc. are all the results, in part, of trying to “find” something in Christianity that will “sell” to the needs of the “consumer”.

    Most Christians tend to evangelize based on the idea that God and church will make people happy and meet their needs. But the underlying flaws are at least twofold.

    One: it isn’t true. While there are certain studies that indicate having faith makes one happier, this isn’t limited to Christianity – nor is the happiness solution limited to faith (or even dominated by it).

    Two: it sets up an immediately defeatable position. Are we then claiming that folks can’t be happy without God or the church? If so, we’re going to have a hard time with the message because there’s just an abundance of evidence to suggest the contrary.

    The message of the church should be living a Christian life – serving others in humility – not because it will win converts, but because it’s the right way to live. If this effects people to consider Jesus, all the better – but that’s not our problem.

    Regarding the second part of my own personal evaluative technique: expectations, I would say that I don’t expect my orientation toward God to make me “happy” (whatever that might mean). I expect it to be a part of what makes me more human and more complete, but that may or may not be coincident with personal happiness.

    What does all that say about our own “dark nights of the soul”? That they are in all likelihood not at all related to faith, but are more likely related to our circumstances, genetics, attitudes and objective awareness. Focus on these things, and trust that God is still God and is and will be faithful.

  19. Jeff_R Says:

    I would also just echo Amy’s words, “we will all feel like something is missing in our lives until we get on our unique, purposeful path”. To me, this is what the Good News is about – making me what God intended me to be. Unfortunately, we tend to define that almost entirely in moral/behavioral terms (due to our bent toward legalism and control), rather than in existential terms.

    Since someone quoted Pascal (a personal hero of mine), I will throw in a quote from another of my personal pantheon (!):

    “And now, with God’s help, I will become myself.”
    – Soren Kierkegaard

  20. urbino Says:

    As long as we’re quoting philosophers, I believe Naven Johnson said it best when he said, “I found my special purpose! I found my special purpose!”

  21. Jeff_R Says:

    Now that’s a great quote!

  22. Jeff_R Says:

    Now that’s a great quote!

  23. alsturgeon Says:

    Okay, no way I can respond to everyone, but deepest thanks for every comment.

    There’s this classic Far Side cartoon where a married cow couple is in their living room. The male is on the couch, and the female is standing at the picture window, wineglass in hand, string of pearls on her wrist, and looking back over her shoulder she says, “Wendell, I’m not content.”

    Now this cracks me up. Especially the Wendell part. I don’t know why, but Larson’s selection of names for his anthropomorphic cartoons is always just perfect.

    But it kills me, too, because I’m that big fat heifer. What reason in the world do I have for not being content? I have more than enough…

    Here’s why (I think): I still don’t comprehend the path I’m taking in life.

    I love my twin, Amy. The path to which she refers is what’s truly called into question in this entire conversation. What is my path? What is your path? What is our path? What is our specific goal in life that makes life matter in the first place – something worth living for, something worth dying for… (If any of you well-adjusted types have a good answer for yours, feel free to post a comment – I’d be interested to hear some.)

    No church I’ve seen is interested in the depth of that question. We’ll say our path is to follow Jesus, which is obviously a load of bull. Who wants to live like He lived and die like he died? No one I’ve met.

    If our path in life is to achieve personal happiness, then we need to avoid indiscriminate love like a plague. It got Jesus killed. It got Dr. King killed. And it didn’t seem to do a heck of a lot of good for Momma T either. If our path in life is to achieve indiscriminate love, then we need to give up thinking we’ll find personal happiness, too.

    The problem with Christianity is that we’ve been advertising a 2 for 1 sale. Get your selfless love, and personal happiness here, too! Better order now while supplies last! This is why the religion business stinks right now, across the board. We’re advertising a lie, as DeJon so honestly and passionately – and effectively – attests.

    Juvenal and I had this discussion not so long ago. To date, I still side with indiscriminate love, the path of Jesus. I guess it’s just sobering to realize that truly pursuing that course won’t find me a genial old man watching spring baseball in Florida from my summer home. If I’m serious about this path, I need to give up the dream of comfort – even the inner kind.

  24. urbino Says:

    IMHO, that is correct. That’s why I don’t find Jesus’ approach to life workable. Emptiness is its point (until you get to your next life, at least). The theory goes that, as you self-empty in the service of others, God is refilling you.

    Maybe other people find that that happens. I never did.

    This self-sacrificing, self-emptying, selfless, [insert your preferred additional synonym(s) for self-abnegation here] lifestyle sounds great, in terms of what it can do for the world of people in need. But it means just what it says: the self gets vaporized. No wonder you’re left feeling empty.

    If everybody did it, then it might work. But since only a tiny fraction of the population ever will, it doesn’t, won’t, and can’t.

    Serving those in greater need than yourself is great, but you have to do it in such a way that you don’t consume your entire insides. Don’t self-empty or become selfless.

  25. Whitney Says:

    You mean we have to get outside our plushy comfort zone? That’s terrifying. It really is.

    As for the “Happiness for Sale” theme, I swear to you, I have never come away from any Bible study or sermon thinking my life was supposed to be cushy and happy because of God. I think I’m way TOO comfortable to really be doing God’s work. I need to be less comfortable, then maybe the thought of less cush wouldn’t be so frightening. I do know that there are churches trying to sell that message, and I also think some people hear that because they want to. It’s easy.

    We can spend all day blaming maintream religion like it’s been an abusive, manipulative father, but at some point we have to take personal responsibility for hearing and subsequently doing what Jesus did. This is the same reason I can’t stand Freudian psychology…just blame someone/thing else.

    I don’t disagree with you (Al) or DeJon, but also don’t believe it is our place to assume that just because someone goes to a mainstream church and worships that they are like a whitewashed tomb. Maybe they are. Not our call. Our call is to make sure we are not. And all this concern comes down to “advertising a lie” then you and I need to be braver about stepping up and confronting the problem. That will take considerable sacrifice. Too many people have this realization and (1) ignore it, or (2) just walk away.

  26. Whitney Says:

    JU–man, you make me think much more than I’m comfortable with. My head hurts. Seriously, you challenge me (in a good way) more than anyone I’ve ever known.

  27. alsturgeon Says:

    Thanks, guys.

    Whitney, the “happiness” product was very clear in my upbringing, and in my current setting, too. Come and listen to us, follow Jesus, and your life will be better and happier and everything. I heard bunches, “Even if there wasn’t a Heaven, the Christian life is the best life to live” (implying that we’re in on something personally satisfying).

    And I hope you don’t hear me blaming mainstream religion. I AM mainstream religion. I’m pointing fingers at me. I, along with the rest, don’t live like Jesus lived. And from going to church a LOT in life, it doesn’t seem that anyone talks about this practically at all – seems like a foreign language. If Jesus lived in Ocean Springs, would his life even faintly resemble mine? Where would he live? How would he spend his days? Who would be his closest friends? What kind of trouble would he be getting in? These aren’t questions we talk about at all.

    But there’s a difference between blaming something and wondering if it has anything going for it. I do think that is a valid question.

    I think church folks are nice people (well, at least a bunch are). I think I’m nice people. It’s the combination of the message “come let us show you a way of life worth living” and “we don’t live like Jesus lived” that I find maddening.

  28. Rochelle Says:

    well of course you aren’t satisfied on earth with the good that you do. if you compare it to being in Heaven with our Father, you will be insatiable.

    So tell “them” the truth:
    you need God to be with you on Earth and Jesus Christ for salvation but don’t expect it to be easy. It doesnt mean you’re going to have a perfect life b/c life is imperfect. God helps with your struggles. Some people may have THEIR God hole filled and be satisfied.

    Christians and those considering accepting Jesus Christ as their saviour should sign a waiver releasing any preacher from responsibility of giving them a perfect life here, on Earth.

    Nirvana, is only in Heaven with our Father.

    but you already know that…right?

  29. urbino Says:

    Thanks, Whitney. Life challenges me. I just try to pay attention as it happens. Whatever I’ve said that challenges you, that’s where it came from.

    If it makes you feel any better, btw, I get headaches, too; I’m not just a carrier.

    On an unrelated note, which I’ve resisted sounding but no longer can: is it okay if I quietly chuckle a little at a group of Christians having a religious discussion about how much they want to find Nirvana?

  30. alsturgeon Says:

    Thanks, Rochelle… I’m becoming a bigger and bigger fan of preacher waivers. 🙂

    I agree with you, but I think the path of love is a LOT less personally satisfying than commonly presented. More than just “it won’t be easy.” Instead, “it will be very, very hard.”

  31. urbino Says:

    Instead, “it will be very, very hard.”

    Or, “You will die young, or wish you had.”

  32. mrspeacock Says:

    I was in a Old Testament class in college taught by a brilliant (I mean super smarty-pants) professor who said that Abraham and his comrades had no concept of heaven. Their only expectation of God was what they experienced in this life. Has anyone else studied this? If it’s true, then it’s very convicting to me.

  33. alsturgeon Says:

    I’ve heard that to be true of Israel as a whole in the OT. But I have no expertise in that realm.

  34. alsturgeon Says:

    And your point is EXCELLENT, Madame Peacock, what with alll our “Heaven is what keeps us going” talk.

    Hebrews 11 is worth consideration.

  35. urbino Says:

    No expertise here, either. Like Al, though, it’s consistent with what I’ve picked up from HB scholars over the years.

    It’s certainly true that modern Judaism is much, much, MUCH more this-world oriented than Christianity is.

  36. urbino Says:

    Picking up on something Whitney said to DeJon, upthread:

    I think your dissatisfaction has left you to where you can’t see any good in congregational settings/establishments at all

    I can’t speak for DeJon, obviously, but I can see good being done in churches. For example, they do do a reasonably good job of looking after their sick and elderly, and of mourning with those who mourn. And as Al has said, they do yeoman’s work after disasters. That’s all truly great stuff, and I’m a long way from sure that it happens equally well outside of church settings.

    The problem I see is that, even taking those things into account, churches still do much more harm than good.

  37. johndobbs Says:

    Interesting fountainhead, and resulting tributaries. I’ll toss in a few thoughts too. Al, you asked two questions … and I think that one’s perspective / philosophy will determine the answer.

    For example, if you asked Gilligan these two questions:

    #1: I thought I bought a ticket to Happy Land. If not, where am I headed?

    Oh, well, see we were going on a three hour cruise but then this big storm came up (cshhhhhhh – sound effects) and (crasssshhhhhh) we landed here. But we’re headed home! That radio made out of coconuts is bound to bring someone to rescue us soon.

    #2: What am I selling? Tickets for an Excruciating Journey? I need a new PR consultant.

    It’s hard some days … especially when those savage headhunters who speak half-English chase us around the island … or when Lovey is missing a million dollar diamond necklace only to discover that an oragutan that we’ve never seen before has found it’s way to the island and now steals from us. But over all, these huts are pretty sturdy … and made a great transition from B&W to color.

    I’m tempted to go on … but the point is made that if we are only pretending, any answer will do. From my perspective, which I attempt to mold to the perspective of Christ (as do you):

    #1: I thought I bought a ticket to Happy Land. If not, where am I headed?

    I didn’t buy a ticket to Happy Land. I needed something I could not gain on my own. You can call it a God-shaped hole I suppose … but forgiveness (and yes, eternal life), rescue from myself is a lifetime journey … not a ticket. We do attempt to satisfy ourselves with our goods and by controlling our lives to the nth degree … and we all fail in this … the only satisfaction comes from living water and bread of life … Jesus Christ in our lives and His Spirit in our hearts. Our discontent is often because we are focused on things outside of His will for us. And we are never promised that once we become believers there is only smooth sailing. Peter swore, “I do not know Him” but he did know Him. MT said there were times when she doubted God, but she did know of His presence in her life. If you are as honest as I think, you do struggle with your own sin and failures. If you do not, I suggest greater introspection. There is some part of us that is only filled by Jesus Christ … only satisfied in Him. If I only follow Him so that things will go well with me, I will not stay long.

    #2: What am I selling? Tickets for an Excruciating Journey? I need a new PR consultant.

    You are selling an authentic Savior, risen, and coming again. You are ‘selling’ One who demonstrated even more than Mother Theresa the reality of true love. You will tell the truth that any thinking person will struggle at times, but a struggling soul is not a lost one. A ‘Christian’ mannequin will tell you that all is well and there’s never a wave on the water. However, those who have walked with Jesus did not lose themselves in the sense that they became nothing … they did lose parts of themselves that could not remain if we are following the Christ. Such is true of all philosophical pursuits. And the truth is that most people do not want what you are selling … if it is the authentic Christ.

    One more thing, the post that disturbs me most here is DeJon’s. I believe I have met DeJon sometime in the past. Delightful man. Bitter post. There is no such thing as 99.99% of anyone doing anything … so right away we are dealing with an exaggeration….and though I have no knowledge of his heart and life, we have received an expression of anger and hurt. There are several things worthy of consideration there … but always when we point at others and decry their inadequacies we need to be called back to our own. Four of the words I try to repeat to myself: “and then there’s me”. I’m a professional (though unpaid) critic. I ought to be able to receive at least as much as I give. I’m not always good at that, though. DeJon, I think you express some things we all need to hear … but as has been pointed out, perhaps there is more to the Christians around you than you seem to think?

    To the readers here who come to these questions outside of the concerns of Jesus Christ, I am sure you have something meaningful to contribute to assist someone to have a sense of well being. I can learn from that as well.

    But to the original thought, Yes, Al, there is something only God can provide and it is something that all the world needs. As such, it is a God-shaped hole… although I think that’s maybe not the best way to say it… perceived or not … if we believe what we say is true … then it cannot be denied without destroying some foundations of our faith.

    Thanks, if you read my too-long comment.

  38. alsturgeon Says:

    Man, John Dobbs, you ought to be a preacher! 🙂

    Okay, let’s work with this: God rescues us from ourselves. I’m with you. He replaces our warped will for us with his perfect will for us. Now what is this will for us…? All the good church-folk in this thread seem in agreement that it isn’t happiness. So what is it?

    I’ve found the answer provided by Jesus to be kenosis – self-emptying love.

    Tell the truth now: how many church-folks do you know that are fully convicted that kenosis is the path to take? Further, how many churches (as a collective whole) do you know that make that their central focus?

    So to start, when we invite people into churches as we know them, we are not inviting people into a life of kenosis.

    But I’ve bemoaned all this before. As has my friend, DeJon.

    Here’s the brand new thought to me that prompted this blog post: if we did offer kenosis as the path, we wouldn’t be offering a life path that will result in inner satisfaction. Self-emptying love does not appear to equal inner satisfaction – not in our very best human examples of kenosis does it appear to equal inner satisfaction (meaning MT, not me). Instead, it involves emotional pain. Following Jesus fully doesn’t offer pretty life endings. Ask those who followed him first.

    This is not in our brochures.

  39. DeJon Says:

    John, Whit, Al, JU and anyone to whom this terrific discussion seems interesting…

    Thx for tolerating my shpiel. And while I have neither the ability nor the desire to take back any of it, I readily admit that when calling out a machine as large and diverse as the modern day church it is inevitable to paint with a broad brush… and an unfortunate byproduct is the discrediting of some good done by portions of this machine.

    If one were to describe my words as bitter, I can’t disagree. But more than saying that I’m bitter I would say that I’m “mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” (Tip of the cap to Peter Finch).

    The way I see it the church is an amalgamated morass of people making up a few subgroups. These subgroups as I see them include, those duped out of ignorance, those duped out comfort and complacency, and then there’s the dupers.

    Let me explain.

    Those duped out of ignorance: This group includes those with little church knowledge that have heard that “life is better with God.” Perhaps they are trying to “live a better life” and think that religion seems like as good a place to start as any. They are too new to the traditional church model to question it, and are just trying to do what seems right. This group buys many of the Christian best-selling books that are nothing more than self-help such as “Your best life now,” Lucado’s “Cure for the common life,” Wilkinson’s “Prayer of Jabez,” and Warren’s “Purpose-driven life”

    Those duped out of comfort and complacency: This group would include those that grew up in church. They’ve been around long enough to know the right things to say and how church folks act. They may be involved in the church programs, but they either don’t think critically enough to identify the church model for the fruitless energy-sucking machine that it is. Perhaps they don’t want to make waves. Perhaps they don’t care enough to really want to examine the example of Jesus Christ. But I’ve some in their number fight tooth and nail to defend some of their Draconian, fundamentalist beliefs. Either way they do what they know to do, and its a cynical win-win for everyone involved.

    The dupers: this group is probably most victimized by my broad-brush painting. Perhaps they felt that the best way to demonstrate spirituality was to join the machine. Perhaps they like to make people feel good so they teach people “a better way.” Either way this group usually works their fingers to the bone attending to the needs of the “flock.” The forward-thinking one’s coordinate the church’s resources in response to crises of varying proportions and often do Holy work. Other times they manage budgets to pay the building’s electric bill, buy more finger paints for Bible class, and think about how they expand the kitchen where they have potluck every fourth Sunday.

    All together there are a lot of moving parts. There’s a lot of activity. There’s plenty of accountability (that too often dives headlong in to judgementalism). And when it comes to the competition for expending energy these groups of people often lead the pack.

    They often fight about the most ridiculous arguments like Heaven and earth depend on it.

    And I’ll be the first one to admit I’m putting too fine a point on it. But in terms of ROI, it is a bad… no, an embarrassing investment for all parties involved.

  40. urbino Says:

    Following Jesus fully doesn’t offer pretty life endings.

    Or beginnings or middles. I’m not trying to pile on. I’m trying to call attention to the sheer emotional and mental endurance required. I frankly don’t think it’s even possible for any but a tiny, tiny percentage of people.

    He replaces our warped will for us with his perfect will for us.

    Except clearly he doesn’t. Clearly the great majority of churchgoers retain the great majority of their original warped will. I realize people make arguments about it being a lifelong process, not an instantaneous event, and I agree with that, as far as it goes.

    The problem is it doesn’t go very far. The great majority of churchgoers are no less warped at 50 than they were at 30. Or at 70 or 90. And people who are the children and grandchildren of churchgoers are no further along than their parents or grandparents. More often than not, they’re further behind. And after 2 millenia of existence, the church is fully as warped as in Paul’s day.

    Nevermind perfection. Where’s the progress?

  41. DeJon Says:

    Regrouping quickly to illuminate my point…

    This model to which so many are addicted may… no, does include some that have a true desire seek the way of Christ. Obviously Mother Theresa is like a story book character to me, but I know some that demonstrate the compassion and love that was her hallmark. And without exception those blessed few I’ve come to know check their judgmental opinions, fundamental beliefs, and dogmatic drivel at the door. And instead they love without attribution, and sacrifice without question.

    Now that we know of MT’s extended crisis of faith. I wonder now, why did she still live and love the way she did?

    We peddle a falsity for our own selfish purposes of increasing church attendance that says, “your life will be more complete if you love like Jesus did.” But thats not the picture painted by Mother Theresa’s letters. So if that sales pitch is false and we (read: I) still don’t live like she did (much less like Jesus), then what is one left to think?

  42. aliasheea Says:

    So on and off for the past year I have gone to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey to go to Tracker School, which is owned and operated by Tom Brown, Jr a world renowned tracker of people, animals, missing children, etc. (For those of you who have seen it one of his case files was the inspiration for the movie The Tracker with Tommy Lee Jones) Anyway, Tom Brown was taught by an Apache Indian Scout named Grandfather from the time he was 11 years old. He lived in the woods and teaches his students to survive in the woods with literally nothing. He loves to say that if you have a knife with you in the woods you are just camping, not surviving. So I went to Tracker School for the first time last September and stayed in a tent (a luxury!) in the 20-30 degree weather for a week, and went again a couple of months ago for two weeks (only 40-50 degrees then but we did build debris shelters). So now that you have this background let me tell you a little about what I learned.

    I learned truly for the first time that God gave us everything we needed to survive, and it did not include houses, cars, jobs, television, etc. That was probably the most spiritually fulfilling week of my life because I saw was a facade my life was. Talk about filling my God-shaped hole with a bunch of useless stuff. There was nothing like being in the raw world God created and seeing what a blessing every stick and leaf and rock was to feel complete. Then I came back home where I was used to things again, buying stuff, or making mundane stuff important to me. So I sit almost every day and remember a story Tom told to us on the last day of Tracker School. He is VERY passionate and hopefully you guys will get something great out of his story:

    Grandfather, who was a healer, walked 12 miles to help a sick woman. There was no water source on the journey, and Tom was waiting for him at camp when he got back. They were next to the cold water spring and Tom was expecting him to drink and drink because he was so hot and thirsty. But Grandfather reverently walked to the edge of the spring and picked up a handful of water. As the water coursed down his arms he began crying and thanking the Creator for making something so beautiful and life-giving. He prayed for a few minutes, crying the entire time before taking a few sips of water.

    A few years later after Grandfather had passed Tom was walking on the beach. He saw a man in his seventies who began to tell Tom about his life as a fisherman. He had fished for 50 years and retired to the beach. After a while Tom sat on the beach and began examining the grains of sand. The fisherman looked at him and said sarcastically, “I guess you haven’t gotten a good look at the sand in a while because everyone knows it’s gray!” Tom was very angry and before he could stop himself he said, “Do yourself a favor, Old Man. Tiffany couldn’t make a diamond as beautiful as the grains of sand that were made for us. Maybe you should take a good look around.” He began to walk off and turned around a minute later to apologize for his outburst when he saw the fisherman holding up the bluefish he had caught earlier that day. He was looking at how the scales were shining in the sunlight and began crying. Suddenly he was screaming, “I’m almost done and I never knew! There’s so much to see and I never knew! It’s all a waste!”

    So Tom charged us with who would you rather be? The fisherman who saw how his life had been wasted in nothingness or Grandfather who was thankful for even that which was the most basic.

    So while I also admit having these dark thoughts much like you, Al, I remember that that is because I can’t see what is around me. I begin to have a distorted view of beauty and become very self-centered. So I think that perhaps our God-shaped hole is sometimes filled, sometimes not according to what we have put in our way to obscure our view. As was mentioned here previously, we were never promised a life with no problems, we were offered a life just like everyone else’s on earth. I think Jesus said for us to live a simple life, and that part of the reason that we aren’t filled is because we live complex lives full of stuff (that needs to be taken care of), dramatic relationships (that need to be taken care of), and sometimes we live our lives in such a way that we can complain about things like they are out of our control (and need to be taken care of!). How do we have time or energy for anything else I wonder sometimes? I don’t think that there is necessarily nirvana here on earth, that was offered when we die. But I think some of our unhappiness definitely comes from ourselves. I guess I’m rivalling John for longest response!

  43. alsturgeon Says:

    Wow. I’m feeling powerful. I asked for some thoughts, and I think I won the Thought Lottery with this post.

    Hey Deej, if I become a really, really good Duper, do I get to be known as a Super Duper. And if so, do I get Dan Marino’s autograph? At least a free month of Nutri-System? 🙂

    Instead of trying to respond, I need to go spend some significant time with the article DeJon linked under “addicted” (Detoxing From Church). I skimmed it, but it looks like it could be a monumental-type article for me. So I’ll thank you now, for at the very least the possibility…

    And thank everybody else, too – for all your thoughts mean an awful lot to me…

  44. Jeff_R Says:

    Sorry, aliasheea, looks like I still hold the record!!

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  48. sage Says:

    This is without doubt, the best discussion I have EVER read on the internet about the human condition. I was amazed by the civility and decency between people looking for answers. This is so REAL and so refreshing, I wish that copies were in every church. You have restored me, to see that others are asking the same questions that I am, and there were some wonderful conclusions. We need MORE talk like this!

  49. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Thanks, Sage. It has been a long time since we had this discussion (and blog going), but it was a great season in my life. Really good people talking about really interesting things. Thanks for your kind comment — and for reminding me of this conversation.

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