I was six or seven the first time I remember the feeling. Playing by myself (a fairly common occurrence for an only child), talking to my dolls or to my cats, lost in a world of my own imagining. And then out of nowhere, the feeling—soon to be a familiar one—swept over me: a great desire, an aching yearning, a tremendous longing for something I couldn’t name.
This highly unusual feeling was a little overwhelming for such a young child, and when it came upon me from time to time, I would catch my breath and sit quietly, my mind trying to pin it down, to capture it so I could name it. It was unpredictable, visiting me a few times a year for most of my childhood. And while it was a bit disconcerting, I soon learned to relax and simply experience it as best I could. Not that I had a choice in the matter. Resistance was futile, so I learned to be okay with never understanding what it was or why it was.
During the few minutes when I sat quietly with this feeling, I knew it only as an unmistakable, unresolved longing that caused an ache in my very soul. In my child’s mind, I began to associate it with water because it seemed to me that I was remarkably thirsty, in need of liquid, and then my thoughts would shift and I would long not for a drink but to be floating in water, my whole self, surrounded and supported by gentle, comforting waves as I experienced a complete rest and peace that I never knew I craved.
Years later, I learned the German word that approximates this inexplicable longing or yearning: “sehnsucht.” I also learned that C. S. Lewis had written of this phenomenon several times:
On our longing for heaven, in Mere Christianity:
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”
On the physical, aching feeling of joy, in Surprised by Joy:
“Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.”
On why we can’t discuss this with just anyone, in The Weight of Glory:
“In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience.”
I continued to unexpectedly encounter this undefinable longing, this inexpressible craving for … peace? joy? beauty? rest? … for many years.
As the decades passed in my life, I’ve also been visited many times by a similar feeling but in the negative—a sweeping, inescapable feeling of sadness or melancholy from seemingly nowhere. Not a portent of disaster or an anxiety attack, but a whelming sense of loss or grief for something I can’t name. (I am not a person who is prone to depression or anxiety, so this was completely foreign to me.) It’s similar to sehnsucht in that I must simply live with it for as long as it visits; I can’t alter it or remove it or even lean into it in hopes of learning from it … but just simply exist with it and usually give in to tears, and often sleep.
Melancholy (or “meh LAHN keh lee”—our joking family pronunciation, from the movie Megamind) is a feeling of sadness for no reason. Sometimes I can pinpoint what brings it on (recent childbirth and COVID-driven fatigue have been clear triggers for me) but often I don’t know the origin of the sadness. The great ache of loss or grief has no meaning, no explanation, and must simply be ridden out, similar to sehnsucht.
For those of us who experience such strong and inexplicable feelings, I believe that both of them—what I interpret now as an aching longing for heaven as well as the ache of deep sadness—are given to us by God. We long, we yearn for something more, something we were made for but have never yet experienced. God in his mercy has graciously given us experiences that prefigure what will satisfy our longing, like romantic love, the birth of a child, or communion with nature. But they are nothing compared to what awaits, to what our soul truly longs for. Other people, much as we love them, and this world, beautiful as it is in so many ways, will never satisfy what only Jesus can satisfy.
Deep inside, in our very souls, we know that we were made for more. No matter how beautiful or how wonderful this world—as it currently is—can indeed be, it is not our final home. I learned this very early in life, long before I could possibly articulate the idea behind sehnsucht. And then much later in life, after decades of joy and tragedy and accomplishments and setbacks and happiness and frustrations and mere daily living, I learned the opposite of sehnsucht—the inexplicable feeling of sadness over what is not yet and can never be in this lifetime.
As a child, I used to associate the feeling of sehnsucht with water, but I now associate both feelings closely with the word rest. I crave rest not because I need more sleep or because I’m overextended in some way. I crave it because my soul was made to rest in Christ, and in my finite, limited, present form I honestly can’t imagine what that actually will mean. I can only read hints in the Bible, when God assures Moses, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14) or when Jesus famously says in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
So I see that both sehnsucht and its opposite—feelings that will surely visit me from time to time until I am no more for this earth—are both gifts from God as I anticipate my heavenly home with Christ. Jesus, immediately after promising rest to his followers, further explains this heavenly rest: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30).
Far from being an unwanted or uncomfortable burden, the yoke of Christ binds us to him in paradise. The irony is more than our human minds can grasp: the burden of Christ, given as a gift to us, is our freedom and our rest. As Christians, we long for this yoke with all of our being, and we mourn that we’re unable to experience it fully this side of heaven. Both feelings are God’s gifts, pointing us toward a better day, a permanent day with him in paradise.
Until that day, this world—not yet fully restored, renewed, or redeemed—is our home. And the ache of longing and the ache of loss serve to remind us of the one needful thing we were created to seek.
Photo by Paola Chaaya on Unsplash
7 thoughts on “Longing, Loss, and the Life to Come”
Oh, Rekebah! I have so experienced this since Jesse went to heaven. “The things of this earth have grown strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace” (a hymn but I have no idea who wrote it nor the name of it), and the idea that in the blink of an eye, I can have Jesus and Jesse too, is often in my thoughts. One of my favorite Contemporary Christian songs is “Where I Belong” by Building 429. The chorus goes:
All I know is I’m not home yet
This is not where I belong
Take this world and give me Jesus
This is not where I belong
Thanks for writing this article–you are such an excellent writer!
Thanks for reading, Cathy! I’m glad you’ve shared this experience. And I like that song, too.
The name of the hymn with those words is ´Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus’ written by Helen Lemmel.
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My Melancholy comes every day as I realize how lost the people are in my world
I too, have felt what I think of as God’s drawing as far back as I can remember. What a treasure that is!
And it’s so neat to think of the water association in terms of Jesus being the living water. As well as our rest. Also, that C. S. Lewis quote is a favorite. Sums it up so well! Beautiful post, Rebekah!
Thank you! Yes, the water association surprised me when I was thinking about it as an adult. The connection to Jesus didn’t come through when I was a child, but it definitely does now.
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