Pleasure, Longings, and an Unsatisfied Heart

There were early indications that I had unrealistic expectations and was prone to disappointment and depression when things didn’t go according to plan. An early story took place at a railroad crossing. I don’t have conscious recollection since I was only two or three. But my parents insist I was standing in the backseat of the car (the days long before required car seats for babies) and enthralled with the chugging, speeding train going by, rumbling the pavement and flooding our ears with sound. I apparently had a look of fascinated ecstasy, a big smile on my face, and was jumping for joy. But then, the signal lights stopped. The crossing bars lifted, and the train was gone. And I cried, almost inconsolably. I didn’t want it to be done.

In some ways, that story is typical of my life to this day. For people like me, the anticipation of enduring pleasure is its own reward and the disappointment of a temporal pleasure feels like the worst curse possible.

C.S. Lewis had quite a bit to say about pleasure and our longings for satisfaction—especially about disappointments and what he called “inconsolable longings.” Maybe that’s one of the reasons his statements about longing always touch me so profoundly. For example, in the Problem of Pain, Lewis compared a young boy’s naïve innocence about sexual desire to his love of chocolate:

“The letter and spirit of Scripture, and of all Christianity, forbid us to suppose that life in the New Creation will be a sexual life; and this reduces our imagination to the withering alternative either of bodies which are hardly recognizable as human bodies at all or else of a perpetual fast. As regards the fast, I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure, should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer no, he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it.” [1]

On the surface, this statement may sound like it’s mainly about sexual pleasure (or maybe, chocolate!). But it is really about temporal vs. eternal pleasures: the longings of the present and the unfulfilled promise of satisfaction in the future.

Pleasure, Longing, and an Unsatisfied Heart

Unsatisfied Longings

It is those unsatisfied longings that often propel me into sin as I try to “scratch” what I cannot “itch.” Whether it was the toddler wanting the train to keep going forever, or the 60 year old version of me wanting a body that doesn’t have heart disease or arthritis, so much of my life has been about inconsolable longings. So much has been about trying to satisfy them with pleasures that cannot last. I would argue that every moral failure, every disappointment, every foolish decision I’ve made in life had something to do with trying to feed a hunger with something that could never do the job by itself.

Where did those longings come from, anyway? They aren’t all bad. The hungers themselves have never really been the problem. Most of them were created by God and, in their proper place, serve a useful and even beneficial purpose. God is not opposed to pleasure! God invented it. The problem is not the desire to be happy or enjoy life. The real problem is how I do it.

God put those hungers in me as reflections of his image. Pleasure and longings remind us of his larger plan for humanity. I believe God put them in me to point to him in two directions: backward and forward.

Backward appetites remind me of who made me and why. I was made by God and in my original condition, before sin entered the world, would have had everything available to satisfy. I would have had no inconsolable longings. Of course, the Bible says something happened to spoil all that. Genesis 3 says how our first parents rejected God’s plan for pleasure, eating a forbidden fruit, and plunging themselves and all their descendants (me) into misery. So, my inconsolable longings now are backward reminders of what we lost.

But they are also forward glimpses of what God promised in the future. Hungers for something yet to come. The Bible says I am destined for eternity. That is where I belong. Because of that, the old gospel song says,

“This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through;
My treasure is laid up, somewhere beyond the blue;
The angels beckon me, from heaven’s golden door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

I can’t feel at home in this world, not perfectly. Even the best pleasures will never be enough. And when I miss out on some experience in this world that promised to satisfy, my temporal perspective drives me to the erroneous conclusion that there is no satisfaction ever. If only the little boy really knew how much better sexual intimacy was than chocolates! One day he will. But then, he must learn that even that consummate pleasure is temporary. He will still long for more.

Related: Porn and the Desire Dilemma

Finding the Satisfaction Our Hearts Desire

So, how can I convince myself there really is satisfaction for the inconsolable longing in my soul, “somewhere beyond the blue?” The first line says: “this world is not my home, I’m just a passing through.” The more I focus on my heavenly destination the better equipped I will be to look forward to it. The more I focus on my earthly sojourn (to the exclusion of heaven), the less I will long for heaven. It’s really that simple. The more consistently I realize “I’m just a passing through,” the more I will look forward to what Jesus said in Matthew 6:21-22:

“Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume, and where thieves don’t break through and steal;  for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

This is true for you as well. I’m not the only one with inconsolable longings in his heart. Nor am I the only one who has tried to scratch what he cannot itch.

Where has your “scratching” taken you? Into what dark places of restless and helpless disappointment? Are you ready to admit you cannot satisfy the longings yourself? Are you ready to believe what God said: “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

[1] C.S. Lewis, Miracles, 1947, p. 92