Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What We Do With Sehnsucht

[H]e has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
-- Ecclesiastes 3:11

Sehnsucht (ZEN-sookt) -- From the German. A practically indescribable longing, craving, or yearning.

We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it...
-- C. S. Lewis, "The Weight of Glory"

When we broke ourselves with our sin, the image of God in us was fractured, and the sound of its breaking is like a signal from our hearts sent out to deepest space in search of reception. It's been said we all carry around a God-shaped hole. There is something missing. This is a rather static concept inferior to the German concept of Sehnsucht. Lewis writes of it best. But other artists capture it equally well and better. Poets Whitman, Eliot, Auden. Novelists Austen, Auster, James. Van Gogh and Hokusai. Rachmaninoff to Radiohead. King Solomon. There is an active ache inside of us. We are groaning with creation.

We all groan. But we deal with it different ways. What do we do with Sehnsucht?

1. We drug it.
Perhaps the most common way we stifle this longing for God is by pouring false gods into it. "Every one of us is from birth a master crafstman of idols," Calvin says. From meth to porn, shopping to Facebook, the world does not lack for anesthetics. Most people commit to an endless cycle of temporarily satiating Sehnsucht. It's endless, of course, because drugs wear off.

2. We deny it.
This approach often goes hand in hand with idolatry, and is at its core self-idolatry, as plenty of people simply say they aren't broken, they aren't missing anything, they don't have that "inconsolable longing." They've got a happy family in a nice house with a two car garage supported by a good job and nothing bad has happened to them, and they just don't think they have cause to suspect they long for anything more. Of these people, John Kramp, author of Out of Their Faces and Into their Shoes, wisely reminds us, "You can be lost and not know it." Let's not pretend every person apart from Christ feels lost without Christ. This is probably the most dangerous position to be in.

3. We deify it.
This approach is becoming more popular in professing Christian circles, particularly among younger generations. At some point, the longing itself became more interesting than the longed-for. Idolaters of Sehnsucht don't mind reveling in the mysteries at the expense of their Author, because mystery seems so much more interesting than revelation. Those who settle for the longing itself rather than the settler of the longing coddle their doubts, cherish subjectivity, and elevate uncertainty.

4. We delight it.
"If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,'" Jesus says to the woman, "you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." How do you delight the longing? By finding the receiver tuned to its frequency. Only the enjoyment of God himself makes Sehnsucht truly beautiful. Only the rest of the Savior finally solves our weariness. The cry of our hearts has one authorized interpreter, and this once unknown tongue, a lament, a barbarous yawp (thank you, Whitman), translates to a joyous yawp when spoken in its native land.

You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are not at rest until they find their rest in Thee.
-- Augustine


cjbooth85 said...

Where should I turn if I want to read more about sehnsucht?

And I know you don't have much time since you are about to travel, but......can you give specific works by the artists that you named? I'd love to look at specific examples of sehnsucht...I'm especially interested to see what it might look like in the visual arts.....like how does one see it in a Van Gogh? Which painting, how did he depict it, etc?

Thanks Jared...a subject near and dear to my heart...

Jared said...

For Lewis, I'd go with "The Weight of Glory" and probably The Problem of Pain.

I went with Austen b/c of our conversation yesterday. That pent-up, near-eschatological, romantic longing.

Paul Auster's Moon Palace is a unique postmodernist take on the emptiness-driven journey for home.

Any of Auden's poems, really. Eliot's "The Waste Land" is the biggie -- and despite Lewis's much ballyhooed criticism of Eliot, they were more alike in their themes and concepts of Myth than Lewis realized, I think -- and also his "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (which Lewis hated :-).

I think Van Gogh's early work like The Potato Eaters catches Sehnsucht in simpler forms. But even the over-commercialized Starry Night transforms a night sky (with church down in the valley) into a statement of longing for life. All of Van Gogh is like that. He sees the signals in the grain of a person's skin or the waves of a cypress tree.

Hokusai's "Views of Mt. Fuji" series does it for me, especially the The Great Wave (I think that's what it's called). I have a little print of that in my office. One of my favorites.

Spherical said...

I think Piper's book, "Desiring God," is full of this idea and it is what got me started thinking like this.

SD Smith said...


Point 3: A word fitly spoken, brother.

Jason said...

I'm off to read some Lewis. Thanks, Jared.

cjbooth85 said...

Thanks Jared. I've got some reading to do....

Doesn't Lewis cover it in Pilgrim's Regress too? John's longing for a country over the mountains or a distant island or something? Long time since I looked at that...

Curious how Radiohead shows it...

Like I mentioned before, it's especially powerful when the artist mixes media to convey the 'sensation.' I'm thinking of the new version of the Pride & Prejudice movie - the music swells with sehnsucht (in my opinion) and makes that gorgeous clifftop image far more powerful than the image alone.

May I add a bit of scripture because it's my favorite Psalm?

Psalm 63:1-5
"You, God, are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
where there is no water.

2 I have seen you in the sanctuary
and beheld your power and your glory.
3 Because your love is better than life,
my lips will glorify you.
4 I will praise you as long as I live,
and in your name I will lift up my hands.
5 I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods;
with singing lips my mouth will praise you."

This is related, isn't it? But it refers to being 'fully satisfied.'

So it makes me want to ask: can we ever be truly satisfied (like David says in v.5) in this life? Or is that for Someday when our individual and collective Sehnsucht is completely filled up by Jesus?

Jared said...

Here's a piece on Radiohead from The Gospel Coalition:

I don't know if we can ever be totally satisfied this side of the kingdom's consummation. I suspect not, if Romans 7 is applicable beyond Paul's own inner war.
But we can certainly be satisfied when we are walking by the Spirit.

cjbooth85 said...

Brooke Fraser's "C.S. Lewis Song" speaks directly to this...just thought I'd throw it in....


To read the lyrics, go here: