The Imperfection of Our Longings
“What do you desire?” King Moonracer squints down at the motley crew before him. A strange looking elf, a bearded prospector, and a red-nosed reindeer are gathered before his throne to humbly petition him for their dearest wish.
“Well,” replies Rudolph, “we’re a couple of misfits from Christmastown, and now we'd like to live here.”
The king studies them for a moment before shaking his head. “No, that would not be possible. This island is for toys alone.”
The bearded prospector, never one to shy away from making himself heard, speaks for the ragtag band: “How do you like that? Even among misfits you're misfits!”
We chuckle at the funny animated characters and the stilted dialogue, but few of us are immune to the unrequited longing that we find in stories like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. We are born knowing, on some level, that we do not belong. Our personalities, character quirks, and hobbies reflect our longing to varying degrees.
Sehnsucht is the German word often translated as a “yearning” or “longing.” Psychologists have suggested that it is a multifaceted concept that involves ideas such as bittersweet emotions, utopian ideals, and an introspective lifestyle. We see this theme repeated again and again in myths, music, and stories: something is missing, and humans will try most anything to alleviate—or address—this longing.
We travel, thinking that perhaps we are feeling “wanderlust,” but each new destination serves only to highlight and intensify our longing. We write, hoping that we are in the throes of creative genius, only to realize that the result is as far from utopian as it could be. We lust, exercise, dance, sing, cry, and scream, but the closer we come to feeling our yearning fulfilled, the more intense our sehnsucht becomes.
Humans are hardwired, it seems, to want more—and not even more in quantity, but the “more” that somehow fills our longings and satisfies our psyches. Worldviews and ideologies must address this facet of humanity in some way, whether by preaching severe self-denial, luxurious self-indulgence, or some balance of the two. Our longing can be a signpost that the world is not as it should be, the sort of “news from a far-off country” that C.S. Lewis calls the desire we have inside of us.
The focus of Christianity is not the sincerity, depth, or beauty of our sehnsucht. Our longing, by itself, cannot reveal the object of what it is we are created to desire. We can chase the latest spiritual high and weep over the most moving music, but we will still be left, at the end, inside of ourselves. Sehnsucht is earth-bound, entombed by human limitations, and while it may dream of a world outside, it can never know for certain if such a place exists—or if it does, how to get there.
Sehnsucht can echo the truth, but only Scripture reveals the God who experiences it.
Soteriology, or the doctrine of salvation, is addressed implicitly or explicitly in all religions, too. Either we don’t need saving or we need to save ourselves or we really don’t know anything about that sort of thing, so we’re going to ignore it for the time being. Christianity, however, offers a startling intersection of sehnsucht and soteriology—the incarnation of the Son of God.
Jesus Christ, true God, chose to become true Man and live among us. He came to save us not because we longed for Him, but because He longed for us. Our longing is bent, curved inward, always craving something just out of reach that will satisfy our gluttonous souls. His longing is not for some disembodied ideal of you but for you yourself to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4). But salvation has a price, the dream of sehnsucht a cost, and only absolute perfection will do. Worse than being living creatures barred from a land of toys, we were dead and decaying corpses, reeking of sin, unable to enter paradise (Ephesians 2:1-3).
So for our sake, Jesus became an outcast. He lived the perfect life and became our sin not so that we could dream wistfully of a better tomorrow, but so that we can live eternally. Because of His literal, bodily resurrection from the dead, we too shall rise—our bodies, souls, and minds perfectly alive forever with Him.
We are not of this world. To paraphrase Lewis, it is perfectly logical for us to feel like misfits because that is what we are. Jesus did not live, die, and rise again in order to show us how to save ourselves or to fit into our peer group. He came to be our salvation, to become the bridge not between the Island of Misfit Toys and Christmasland, but between a perfect and holy God and sin-infected humans. We are righteous before God because of the holiness that Jesus earned for us and credits to us, and clothed in this righteousness we pray earnestly for the “Desire of Every Nation” to come quickly.
This side of eternity, many things will awaken our sehnsucht: a lover’s glance, a mountain glade, the strain of a half-forgotten melody. May our longings serve as imperfect reminders of His perfect longing: not a sentimental feeling restricted to a midday fantasy, but the active, pulsing, relentless work of the Triune God who desires all to be saved and come to a knowledge of the Truth.