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Rev. James Martin, S.J. Headshot

Want to Experience God? You Already Have: Incompletion

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"I could believe in God if I only experienced God."

If I had a dollar for every time I've heard that sincere and heartfelt statement, I'd be a rich guy. (Well, actually I'd have to give the money to my religious community since I take a vow of poverty, but you get the general idea.)

Many people today -- seekers, agnostics, atheists -- find it difficult to believe in God for many reasons. First is the suffering they see in the world. How could a good God let people suffer, especially, they say, children and victims of natural disasters? Second is the evil and mendacity that they see in religion, like the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church.

But the third reason is that they feel that they have had no real experience of God. Even many otherwise religious people feel that they've never had a "direct" experience of God.

I think many people have, but they're just not aware of it, or they dismiss it as "something else." Or they're not encouraged to talk about it in spiritual terms.

One of the most basic ways of experiencing God is experiencing a desire for God. Desire often gets a bad rap in spiritual circles, but it is an essential part of spirituality, because desire is a key way that God's voice is heard in our lives. Our deepest desire, planted within us, is our desire for God. And it's God who plants those desires within us, as one way of drawing us to the divine.

Maybe you're surprised by the notion that everyone has an innate desire for God. If you're an agnostic, you might believe that intellectually but haven't had experiences yourself. If you're an atheist, you might flat-out disbelieve it.

So for the disbelieving, the doubtful, and the curious (and everyone else, for that matter), let's look at how these holy desires manifest themselves in everyday life.

What do they look like? What do they feel like? How can you become aware of your desire for God?

Over the next few days and weeks I'm going to talk about some of the most common ways that our holy desires reveal themselves in our daily lives. As you read, you might take a moment and consider which have been at work in your own life.

The first is incompletion.

Many of us have felt the feeling that, even though we have had some success and happiness, there is something missing. Way back in the 1960s Peggy Lee sang "Is That All There Is?" In the 1980s U2 sang "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." We all feel that restlessness, that nagging feeling that there must be something more to life than our day-to-day existence.

Feelings of incompletion may reflect dissatisfaction with our daily lives and point us to something that needs to be rectified. If we are trapped in a miserable job, a dead-end relationship, or an unhealthy family situation, it might be time to think about serious change. Dissatisfaction doesn't have to be stoically endured: it can lead to a decision, change, and a more fulfilled life.

Yet no matter how happy our lives are, part of this restlessness never goes away, this restlessness that provides a tantalizing glimpse of our longing for God. "Our hearts are restless until they rest in you," wrote Augustine, 1,500 years before Peggy Lee and Bono. This longing is a sign of the longing of the human heart for God. It is one of the most profound ways that God has of calling us to the divine.

In the echoes of our restlessness, we can hear God's voice.

Sometimes those feelings are stronger than simple incompletion and feel more like an awful emptiness. One writer called this emptiness within our hearts the "God-shaped hole," the space that only God can fill.

Some people try to fill that hole with money, status, or power. They think: If only I had more -- a better job, a nicer house -- I would be happy. Yet even after acquire these things, people may still feel incomplete, as if they're chasing something that they can never catch. We race ahead, straining to reach the goal of fulfillment, yet it always seems just out of reach. The prize of wholeness is elusive. Emptiness remains.

That was my experience early in my business career. After graduating with a business degree from the Wharton School in the early 1980s, I thought that once I landed a good job, pumped up my bank account, and filled my closet with elegant suits, I would be happy. But even with a job, money, and the best suits I could afford, I wasn't satisfied. Something was missing. It would take me several years to figure out what it was.

One of the best reflections on this topic comes from the twentieth-century spiritual writer Henri Nouwen. Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest and psychologist, wrote a perceptive book called The Selfless Way of Christ, in which he examined this relentless quest to fill the empty hole in our lives. He observes that those rushing to fill that hole already sense that it is a useless quest:

Somewhere deep in our hearts we already know that success, fame, influence, power, and money do not give us the inner joy and peace we crave. Somewhere we can even sense a certain envy of those who have shed all false ambitions and found a deeper fulfillment in their relationship with God. Yes, somewhere we can even get a taste of that mysterious joy in the smile of those who have nothing to lose.

In their drive to fill this hole, others are pulled toward addictive behaviors, anything to fill them up: drugs, alcohol, gambling, shopping, sexual addictions, compulsive eating. But those addictions lead only to a greater sense of disintegration, a more cavernous emptiness, and, eventually, to loneliness and despair.

This hole in our hearts is the space from which we call to God. It is the space where God wants most to meet us. Our longing to fill that space comes from God.

And it is the space that only God can begin to fill.

Reflection Questions:

1) Do you want to believe in God? Could you see this very desire as one way that God has of drawing you closer?

2) When was the last time you felt the need for "something more"? Where were you? What was the experience like? Is it possible that the source of this desire is an inborn longing for God?

3) Is it strange to think about God calling you through desire? Why couldn't God use this desire as a "calling" of sorts?

4) What keeps you from linking your desire for God with a "calling" from God?

5) What are your deepest desires? Do they include God?

In our next post we'll look at "common longings" and "everyday connections" as pathways to God.

James Martin, SJ, is a Catholic priest and culture editor of America. This essay is adapted from his new book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.