I have pondered long and hard the question of why people turn to God. I remember a woman from Romania telling me that she was raised in a staunchly atheistic environment. They were not allowed to even mention the name of God in their household, lest they be overheard and their entire education denied. After she came to the United States, I happened to be her patient when I was recovering from back surgery. When I had the privilege of praying with her one day, she said as she wiped away her tears, “Deep in my heart I have always believed there was a God. I just didn’t know how to find him.”
This sentiment is repeated scores of times. More recently, I had the great privilege of meeting with two very key people in an avowedly atheistic country. After I finished praying, one of them said, “I have never prayed in my entire life, and I have never heard anyone else pray. This is a first for me. Thank you for teaching me how to pray.” It was obvious that even spiritual hungers that have been suppressed for an entire lifetime are in evidence when in a situation where there is possible fulfillment.
Although I agree that the problem of pain may be one of the greatest challenges to faith in God, I dare suggest that it is the problem of pleasure that more often drives us to think of spiritual things. Sexuality, greed, fame, and momentary thrills are actually the most precarious attractions in the world. Pain forces us to accept our finitude. It can breed cynicism, weariness, and fatigue in just living. Pain sends us in search of a greater power. Introspection, superstition, ceremony, and vows can all come as a result of pain. But disappointment in pleasure is a completely different thing. While pain can often be seen as a means to a greater end, pleasure is seen as an end in itself. And when pleasure has run its course, a sense of despondency can creep into one’s soul that may often lead to self-destruction. Pain can often be temporary; but disappointment in pleasure gives rise to emptiness—not just for a moment, but for life. There can seem to be no reason to life, no preconfigured purpose, if even pleasure brings no lasting fulfillment.
This is why I believe that the intertwining of pain with pleasure is at the root of the human dilemma and at the core of the hungering spirit. People in pain may look for comfort and explanations. People disappointed in pleasure look for purpose. But this is where, I believe, the West has lost its way. In our boredom, we may search for an escape in the strange or the distorted, while God has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ.
Only in the Judeo-Christian worldview is every person understood to be created in God’s image, for God himself is a person. Likewise, each person has relational priorities that are implicitly built in, not by nature but by God’s design. Consider the tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Even in that stoic culture, where community rises above everything else, each one who wept was grieving the loss of their own loved ones: They were not grieving just for the total loss of life but also for their personal loss. This is real. It is not imaginary. We stand before the individual graves of the ones we love more often than we stand before a graveyard in general.
But there is more. Personhood transcends mere DNA. There is essential worth to each person. In Christianity, the essence of each and every person and the individual reality of each life is sacred. It is sacred because intrinsic value has been given to us by our Creator, who has revealed himself in the starry skies and upon a nail-scarred cross.
The more I reflect on my own life and interact with others, I am fascinated to see the design God has for each one of us individually, if we would only respond. The truth is that I have known people who in the peak of their success have turned to God, and I have known others, drowning in pain and defeat, who seek God for an answer. Either extreme leaves haunting questions. God alone knows how we will respond to either.
God has created us for his purpose, and relationship and worship are built into this design. God alone can weave a pattern from the disparate threads of our lives and fashion a magnificent design. Perhaps today, if you will stop and reflect on it, you will see that Christ is seeking your hungering spirit.
Ravi Zacharias is founder and chairman of the board of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.