Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, Life Issues

Coming to Grips with Restlessness

Like an itch that keeps coming back, I have lived with a certain restlessness most of my life. Is it the nature of people, or is it me? I read verses like Proverbs 27:8 (“Like a bird wandering from its nest, so a man wandering from his place”) and find common ground. It’s not as if I have flitted from one job, one church, one adventure, and one relationship to another. I do not see myself as some feckless gadabout. But even in my deep stays, I often found myself looking out over the next horizon feeling as if I still haven’t arrived. Peterson, in his chapter “Buying Passage to Tarshish,” refers to it as a kind of spiritual wanderlust. I keep looking for something. Is it home?  

Some years ago, I made plans to go on a pilgrimage to the edge of Spain. I and a couple of others were going to take up the pilgrim route in southern France and ride to Camino de Santiago. It never materialized. Had I gone, I realize would not have reached the destination. At least the one I had in my mind. I would admire the shrine and begin making plans for the next pilgrimage.  

Which brings me to James K.A. Smith, an Augustinian scholar. His newest book, On the Road with Saint Augustine, speaks to this restlessness as clearly as any book I have read. He likens Augustine’s writings (e.g. Confessions) to a hitchhiker’s guide for wandering hearts. Here’s what I am learning so far—

-this wandering, that begins with the interior, has an explanation. We can’t find what we’re looking for because we don’t know what we want. All we know is that the terrain of our core is a wilderness of wants—wants that this world can never completely satisfy

-we also find that the heart’s wants are infinite, which is why they will never be completely fulfilled with what is finite. Things that are finite go only so far. Most decay, die, or at least become obsolete. It’s like buying the latest state-of-the-art TV and realizing it is out of date by the time you transport it home. So much for the fulfillment

-not only do we live in a world of obsolescence. God has set something of timelessness and eternal perspective in the center of our existence (Ecc 3:11). He has mixed the temporal with the eternal, what one refers to as “divine sabotage.” This explains much of my restlessness, and maybe yours. We find we are no longer satisfied with merely the temporal–the next achievement, the next trip. God has thrust us into this middle zone where we live between time and time without end, temporal pleasures and eternal joy. 

The tension for a believer is coming to grips with where home is. It is not here, but with God in heaven. And we are not there yet. Meanwhile, we live with the weariness of being en route. We can only see a fraction of life’s movement. There are temptations that sucker us into forgetting where home is. We get drained from the chase and disappointed by the unfulfilled expectations. We live with a longing to escape the harrowing experience of being human in a broken world, as well as with a hope to escape the unnerving awareness of our growing fragility. 

Our need is to learn how to live in the between, with what Smith refers to as “A Refugee Spirituality.” We are migrating to a home we have never been to before. A different country, a heavenly citizenship. What’s critical is to know how to make the journey. A refugee spirituality does not make false promises for the present. It does not seek to convince ourselves we’re already home, or that we will find home short of home. It does not see conversion as arrival at our final destination but views it as the acquisition of a compass. On the way, it points us to a better path. On it, we become more and more aware of our dependence. We learn the importance of living lightly, of having a certain indifference, of coming to terms with the fact we’re not quite home.

If we get our bearings, we find a certain joy and peace and satisfaction in doing the journey with God, as well as with the refugees he sends to journey with us. We begin to delight in what God is serving up in the present, without being too concerned with what tomorrow will bring. As Jesus once said, “Tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own ” (Matt 6:34).



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