In the late 1600s a book was published by the French theologian and mathematician Blaise Pascal titled “Penses” (meaning “Thoughts”). In it he wrote, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?
This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
This was the beginning of an idea that today we call “the God-shaped hole”. Essentially, this is the idea that all people have a longing inside of us that can only be filled by the relationship with our Creator we were designed to have, and so anything else we try to find fulfillment in will leave us empty.
The enduring emptiness
I believe there is a lot of truth to this idea. While the Bible never speaks directly to an existential emptiness only God can fill, a solid theological argument can be made for it. And the fact that this idea has lasted hundreds of years and only grown in popularity suggests it resonates deeply with humans. And yet, there are many biblical examples of men and women walking in faith and yet still apparently chasing fulfillment in other things.
King David is the quintessential example of this. Here was someone described as “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22) who expressed extensively in the poetry he wrote feelings of abandonment and loneliness, while in his personal life his unending sexual experiences wreaked havoc in his family and personal life.
Honest Christians, I think, will admit to sharing David’s feelings at times. In response, Christian circles seem prone to suspect that this existential ache is evidence of some hidden sin or failure, something we are doing wrong that keeps God at a distance from us. In my own internal life, thinking like this has wrapped me up in cycles of shame and frustration.
If God is with me, I’ve wondered, why do I still feel empty? Or if I’ve done something wrong, why won’t he just tell me what it is so I can repent and be filled?
A thirsty man in Samaria
One afternoon when Jesus was tired, he sat down beside a well. He was passing through an area called Samaria, inhabited by a people group who, traditionally, Jewish people would have nothing to do with. But even though doing so required an extensive detour, the Bible says specifically Jesus had to pass through Samaria (John chapter 4 verse 4). A woman came along, and Jesus asked her for a drink. The woman was surprised that he - a Jew - would even speak to her, let alone ask to drink out of a Samaritan woman’s water container (John chapter 4 verse 9).
And then, as he often did, Jesus said something odd. Seemingly ignoring the heavy racial issues between them he said, “If you had known the gift of God and who it is who said to you ‘give me some water to drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water,” (John chapter 4 verse 10). Naturally, the woman was confused by this response (John chapter 4 verses11-12). Jesus went on to explain, “Everyone who drinks some of this water will be thirsty again. But whoever drinks some of the water that I will give will never be thirsty again, but the water that I give will become a fountain of water springing up to eternal life” (John chapter 4 verses 13-14).
You can imagine the irony of the situation. Here was a thirsty man, apparently desperate enough to ask a perceived enemy for a drink, suddenly claiming to be capable of giving an unending supply of water that would quench this woman’s thirst forever.
In the end Jesus did convince her, and in fact her entire town, that he was the source of an eternal, thirst-quenching life. The story concludes with the Samaritans in the town saying to the woman Jesus had met first, “No longer do we believe because of your words, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this one really is the Savior of the world,” (John chapter 4 verse 42).
But this story had to begin with a thirsty man sitting beside a well. In fact, this story began with the very source of living water asking for a drink.
Because it is the thirsty who go to wells and meet others searching for water.
Following the God called Immanuel
Christianity is not freedom from the ache of humanity, it is the opposite. Jesus himself, who we are called to be like, became someone who thirsted and grew tired and agonized in the face of death. Why should we expect to be any different? Being a Christian is to fully enter into our humanity as He did, believing by those glimpses of beauty we receive in hearing about and experiencing God, that there is an answer to our emptiness, and eternal value in the creation bearing it alongside us.
If there is a God-shaped hole inside us all, I believe God flows in an out of it like the sea. When it is full, we look down into ourselves and see the shape of him with joy. When it is nearly (but never completely) empty, the ache causes us to stare even deeper into ourselves, and then (if we are listening to that still, small voice we so often mistake for silence) out at the others gathered at the well with us. And we see the shape of him in them too.
It is then that, like Jesus, we can describe with hope the living water we have seen and felt and believe will always come again to fill us all. And we see then, with the eyes of Immanuel - the God who is with us at any cost - that this temporary thirst we feel is a small price to pay to be truly with these who are the image holders of the very beauty we long for. And this holy place is where the love we are called to walk in begins.
It is the thirsty who meet each other at the well, and it is the empty who can hope to be filled.
Christina Jones is a Press Service International young writer from the USA