I have always longed to return to the USA. Ever since my family moved to Geneva, Switzerland when I was just seven years old, I have had this feeling of “in-betweenness”: Geneva definitely grew to be my home, and I identified heavily with this new country, but some part of me always felt like a stranger there. Some part of me felt so relieved to be back whenever we would return to the States to spend the summer at the cousins’ or the grandparents’ house. And some part of me would feel like it got left behind when it was time to return back to Geneva.
This yearning I felt – that we all feel for something at some point – is the sense of “longing” that Plantinga’s first chapter of Engaging God’s World deals with. He writes of this insatiable desire for what we do not have, what we crave with all of our being. What we do not always see, however, is that our longings are pointing towards something much larger beyond their immediate target. They are, in fact, proof of our sensus divinitatis, our “sense of divinity,” of God Himself: we long for fulfillment, and we will keep searching until we find what satisfies our yearnings. Of course, being the God-breathed creatures that we are, we are ultimately longing to connect with our Creator, and thus our longings are really signs of our search for Him. As St. Augustine found, He is our summum bonum, our “ultimate good” that will satisfy our longings, and He does so through our relationship with Him.
We, however, most often cannot see the reality of such yearnings, since we also desire the petty things life has to offer. We all long for sexual fulfillment, which is a beautifully divine longing at its essence, but sex has become such a meaningless, loveless, empty treat people seek out in ways God did not intend. As C.S. Lewis remarks, God surely “finds our desires not too strong, but too weak […] We are far too easily pleased.” Even when our longings are not specifically impure or degrading, they can often be misguiding and downright confused. Since arriving in Michigan and seemingly fulfilling my craving for returning to the U.S., I now find myself very much wishing to be back in Switzerland with my family, friends, and European culture. I do not know exactly where I want to be (maybe somewhere right in the middle of the two, like the Atlantic), and thus my longings seem to point in conflicting directions. As Plantinga writes, “these longings [we try to satisfy] are unfulfillable,” leaving us aching for more, or better, or even something complete different. Only once we discover the underlying direction of these longings can we truly expect to feel lasting satisfaction and continuous fulfillment.
Of course, the element of hope also plays into this sensus divinitatis. I held on to the hope that eventually I would come to the States for university studies and leave Europe, just as I now hope to someday move back to Europe. The hope that someday our desires will be satiated is what fuels these longings, and that is why we must be careful with it. The Bible calls for a selfless kind of hope, one for all people, for all of God’s children. We must therefore be, as my missions trip leader once challenged me, “just as happy in delivering a sandwich to a starving homeless person as in making the sandwich ‘behind the scenes’ and sending it out with others.” We must long for good to befall the whole world, regardless of our part in the process. This is challenging, and the Devil tricks into believing we are doing this, when really we are being selfish once again, as Lewis demonstrates in The Screwtape Letters.
Ultimately, however, if we entrust our hope and our longings to God, and exhort others to do the same as well, we can be hopeful for the final goal: shalom. Perfect peace, in which “death and mourning and pain will have passed away” (Plantinga) should be our objective, and this should put all other longings into their worldly perspective and help us strive for the New Kingdom, where one will not need to long for physical pleasure or a far-away continent.