Sabbatical Reflections: Sehnsucht (Part 1 of 2)

It was Saint Augustine of Hippo who prayed: “O Lord, thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until we rest in Thee.” [1]

How often has this been the cry of my heart! That prayer has been foundationally answered in my life by the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ. However, there are moments in time when the same cry continues to pour forth from my soul. I suppose that cry is common to most of us, simply because we are made in the image of God. If your soul has cried out in this way, this reflection may be an encouragement to you.

In my reading of Marva Dawn’s The Sense of the Call, I was introduced to a new term – Sehnsucht. While the word was new to me, the concept was not. It is the heart cry found in Augustine’s prayer.

Dawn describes Sehnsucht as: “… that insatiable longing and urgent desire that can be satisfied by nothing earthly. Sehnsucht is one consequence of our having been made in the image of God, and we can’t escape it.”

Wikipedia identifies Sehnsucht as a German word that literally means “longing.” In a wider sense it means “intensely missing.”  Wikipedia continues: “It is this close relationship (encapsulated in one word) between ardent longing or yearning (das Sehnen) and addiction (die Sucht ) that lurks behind each longing, waiting to turn the feeling into a destructive, self-defeating force.”

C.S. Lewis (29 November 1898 – 22 November 1963),  a scholar of medieval literature, literary critic, lay theologian, and one of the 20th century’s most renowned Christian apologists has probably shaped my thinking more than anyone else, save my mentor Francis Schaeffer. Both Dawn and Wikipedia credit Lewis with drawing the world’s attention to Sehnsucht.

Dawn writes: “Lewis brilliantly suggests that many people, believers and nonbelievers alike, after struggle with this Sehnsucht, this intense longing that nothing in the world satisfies or successfully represses, will come to acknowledge that we were made for another world – namely, the presence of God. Only the Triune One is large enough to fill the grand capacity of our spiritual yearnings.” [emphasis mine]

Because we were born out of transcendence and our destiny is eternity, we have this longing for something beyond our material existence. So while the natural world is real (unlike Hindu thinking) and it is good (unlike some Christian thinking), though fallen, it is not all that there is. We dwell in the presence of God and the angels.  We were made for a place of larger purpose in time and eternity. Wikipedia’s description continues:

“It is sometimes felt as a longing for a far off country, but not a particular earthly land which we can identify. Furthermore there is something in the experience which suggests this far off country is very familiar and indicative of what we might otherwise call “home”. In this sense it is a type of nostalgia, in the original sense of that word. At other times it may seem as a longing for a someone or even a something. But the majority of people who experience it are not conscious of what or who the longed for object may be. Indeed, the longing is of such profundity and intensity that the subject may immediately be only aware of the emotion itself and not cognizant that there is a something longed for.”

Lewis continues his musings in The Problem of Pain:

“You have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw—but at the first words a gulf yawns between you, and you realize that this landscape means something totally different to him, that he is pursuing an alien vision and cares nothing for the ineffable suggestion by which you are transported . . . All the things that have deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it—tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest—if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself—you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say “Here at last is the thing I was made for.” We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want . . . which we shall still desire on our deathbeds . . . Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it—made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand.”

In the midst of this inner longing for the place of purpose and belonging that each human being seeks, the Creator has revealed himself to all human beings through his creation. In his creation he provides for all who will look a glimpse of what they are longing for. Like the artist who paints a portfolio of art reveals himself or herself through the process of creativity, so has God revealed himself in his creation.

-Darrow L. Miller


[1] Quoted from Marva Dawn pg 101

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