Prisoners of Hope Waking to the Light
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1
“Seeing,” writes Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it. It is, as [John] Ruskin says, ‘not merely unnoticed, but in the full, clear sense of the word, unseen.’” Dillard continues, “If Tinker Mountain erupted, I’d be likely to notice. But if I want to notice the lesser cataclysms of valley life, I have to maintain in my head a running description of the present.” 1
So, “What is it that you want?”
This is essentially Jesus’ response to two blind men on the road to Jericho in Matthew 20. Jesus’ reply is startling, for when the men heard that He was passing by, they immediately cried out to him, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David.” Furthermore, even after the crowds tell them to be quiet, Matthew says, “They cried out all the more,” repeating their desperate plea. Surely Jesus knew what these blind men wanted; after all, didn’t they ask for mercy?
A few days before I took notice of this passage, I awoke from yet another disquieting dream, the third of its kind in just two weeks. I should interject here that while my friends are often amused by tales of my slumbering imagination, I don’t doubt that God has a way of waking us—even from the dead, as it were. I believe, however, that it is only through his Word that God speaks to us authoritatively, and as such, our dreams are merely one of the myriad ways He uses to get our attention.
The three seemingly inconsequential dreams would have gone unnoticed had they not ended the same way. I awoke to an intense sense of longing unlike anything I had known and in truth, not unlike what C.S. Lewis describes in his essay “The Weight of Glory”: Sehnsucht. 2 The third dream occurred on Ash Wednesday morning only days after the first two. In it, my companions offered me grace as I stumbled through a simple task that I was unable to complete. Then I woke to all white, like a blank page. Unexplainably, this was accompanied by the strongest imprint of longing yet, so much so that I couldn’t bring myself to get up for several minutes. The longing was initially sweet—like for home, for heaven—but then I felt awe and dread, as if God were trying to get my attention. I just kept mumbling, “God, what are you saying to me?” Where was this longing coming from? I wondered. I could hardly speak till noon and kept replaying the dream in my mind trying to find some missing link.
Lewis characterizes Sehnsucht as an “intense longing” 3 for union with beauty and transcendence through a desired object—such as a “far-off country”—which is partly realized in the incarnation of hope and especially, Joy. Such an experience, though, leaves one trembling with an acute awareness that one is ultimately separated from the object for which one longs. This sense of separation leads Lewis to reason, “The human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given—nay, cannot even be imagined—in our present mode of subject and spatio-temporal experience.” 4
Just a few days after my Ash Wednesday dream, and yes, after reading Jesus’ pointed reply to the blind men, I had another dream: A troubled young woman failed her exam and went to seek help from her professor. The teacher responded with kindness and then asked her a question, but I awoke before she answered. The question? “What is it that you want?”
In Lewis’ allegory The Pilgrim’s Regress and Augustine’s biography Confessions, the authors depict the power of longing, both for God and for God-substitutes—those things they sought to fill the void that they would discover only God could fill. Augustine and Lewis recognized that our longings can lead us to God. Conversely, our blindness to them actually directs us away from God, for if we cannot see what it is we seek, how will we know if we’ve stumbled upon it? Indeed, “What we do not long for,” observes Augustine, “can be the object neither of our hope nor of our despair.”
It has been my experience that for the follower of Christ, our blindness to what it is that we want, and ultimately, what it is that satisfies, is rooted either in fear or in submerging our persistent longings under the temporarily tranquil waters of “godly contentment.” I do not mean to suggest that contentment is not possible or even desirable, for the Scriptures, and particularly the Psalms, offer us a view of rest. One thinks, of course, of Psalm 23: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want…. He leads me beside still waters,” where the Hebrew reads literally, “beside waters of rest.” Yet only two chapters later, David is pursued by his enemies and cries out, “The troubles of my heart have multiplied.” So though we may find rest beside tranquil waters, they are “streams in the desert,” and their source flows from a far-off country. 5
And “it is in this contradiction that hope must prove its power,” insists Jürgen Moltmann in his book Theology of Hope. 6 (I am not intimating that the Scriptures leave us with contradictions; rather, the dissonance comes in our experience, and so, like Abraham, sometimes we hope against hope in God.) Moltmann elaborates, “Faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself the unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.” 7 Might we then hold tenaciously to what we long for and refuse to submerge our hope in the shallow waters of satisfaction.
The Conviction of Things Not Seen
Most commentators have noted that Jesus asks the blind men what they want—even after they have asked for mercy—to invite them to put their profound longing into words. And they do: “Lord, let our eyes be opened” (Mt. 20:33). Then Matthew records, “And Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they received their sight and followed him” (v. 34). Jesus’ pointed question was not only an invitation to them to articulate what they longed for; it is also a summons to us. “What is it that you want?” Jesus asks. “Pray to the Father in heaven.” “You have not because you ask not.” Yes, “your Father knows what you need,” but He longs for you to come to him and to ask boldly and persistently, and in doing so, our intimacy with him deepens. As Annie Dillard reminds us, seeing is “a matter of verbalization,” and as such, so also is faith and hope. Thus, when we are required to verbalize our hopes to God, they are in turn brought to light—into his light—where false desires are uncovered and hidden ones revealed. In prayer we are invited both to wait and to wrestle with God, and ultimately to hope in him no matter what.
Furthermore, Jesus’ invitation served as a reminder to the blind men to what it is they actually wanted. Namely, they initially asked for mercy. Yet certainly they wanted more than his mercy; they desperately wanted their sight. So one wonders, were they afraid to ask for more? Throughout the Gospels Jesus’ presence and his insistent questions cast light upon our unspoken desires, hesitations, and fears, whether with the woman at the well or the crippled man by the pool of Bethesda (see John 4-5). Said Jesus to the crippled man: “Do you want to get well?” Here yet again is the same startling question, but then, the man had come to this pool of healing for 38 years. Had he lost hope, drowning his longing in the waters of familiarity and time? Jesus’ inquiry is both a reminder to him of his long-held fragile hopes and fears, and an invitation to trust him with them. Both assure him that he is not forgotten.
Moreover, it is essential to note that Jesus continually turns the question back to himself: What is it that you want (of me)? That is, Jesus is the ultimate object of this question, and we fall into idolatry if we consistently overlook the Lord, the Giver of Life, in exchange for his gifts. Said Jesus to the woman at the well, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). So we see once again that verbalizing our desires brings our pursuits—whether for God or something else—to light. “What is it that you want?” is at root a sacramental question awakening a hungering response to the Bread of Life: “Lord, I need your hope; I want your love; feed me on your faithfulness.”
Hence, if I may dare take this one step further, is healing really all they wanted? That is to say, after the blind men regained their sight and the lame man was able to leap, were they evermore without longing or want? Were all their hopes realized in the restoration of their sight or limbs or did they perhaps long for more: for Jesus to remain with them always, for families to know the fullness of their joy, for maybe even a drink of water in their dying days? And again, did they still not want even more? I am not dismissing the enormity of the precious gifts given and of the aches assuaged. Yet if Lewis is right—and I think that the Scriptures agree—“our best havings are wantings.” 8 For Sehnsucht—Joy—is inescapably an “inconsolable longing,” since whatever we want, and sometimes even receive, is unable to satisfy us wholly in this world. Why? Because “all Joy…emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire…. All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be.’” 9 Therefore, Lewis concludes, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” 10
And, of course, we were. We were made to enjoy unbroken intimacy with God, to delight in his presence above all else, and to worship him with our whole beings. We long to be united and yet we are separated; we long for wholeness and yet we know incompleteness. We forget or are blind to God’s continual reminders and invitations, longing for assurance that we are not forgotten. Thus as Lewis warns in “The Weight of Glory,” we will be betrayed by anything else we desire if we believe that Joy is found in them: “It was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things…are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found….” 11
So what are we to do? When we rightly see that we are ever-seeking pilgrims who cannot now have what we ultimately want, the Shadowlands of fear and resignation are often not far away. Yet it is in this place—and a bittersweet one at that—where I have come to find C.S. Lewis’ signposts most helpful. Like Moltmann’s unveiling of hope, Lewis sees in the poignantly paradoxical nature of longing the ineluctable presence of Joy itself:
“[T]hough the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be a delight. Other desires are felt as pleasures only if satisfaction is expected in the near future: hunger is pleasant only while we know (or believe) that we are soon going to eat. But this desire, even when there is no hope of possible satisfaction, continues to be prized, and even to be preferred to anything else in the world, by those who have once felt it. This hunger is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth…. For this sweet Desire cuts across our ordinary distinctions between wanting and having. To have it is, by definition, a want: to want it, we find, is to have it.” 12
And so it is that we are pilgrims in Narnia, prisoners of hope 13 spying dreams of dawn in a far-off country, and its Light pierces us even in the Shadowlands. Like those before us, we are given signposts as reminders along the way and invitations to rest beside still waters, or to wrestle with God till daybreak. So who of us, half-hearted creatures though we often be, would hunger for anything less?
Danielle DuRant is research assistant at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries
1 Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Perennial Library, 1985), 30-31.
2 Lewis also describes Sehnsucht at length in his Afterword to The Pilgrim’s Regress, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992) and in Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955).
3 The Pilgrim’s Regress, 202.
4 Ibid., 204-205. 5 See Isaiah 35.
6 Theology of Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 19.
7 Ibid., 21.
8 Letters of C.S Lewis (5 November 1959), 289, cited in The Quotable Lewis, eds. Walter Martindale and Jerry Root (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1989), 359.
9 Ibid., and from Surprised by Joy, 78, emphasis mine.
10 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Collier Books, 1960), 120.
11 The Weight of Glory and Other Essays (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 30-31.
12 The Pilgrim’s Regress, 202-203. Lewis portrays this awareness as living in the “dialectic of Desire.”
13 Zechariah 9:12 says, “Return to your fortress, O prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.”