A lot of Christians talk about a void in every person that can only be filled by God. We are compelled to fill it, but we will never achieve peace /fulfillment /wholeness unless this space is filled with God. This “God-shaped hole” is an innate human desire to connect with the transcendent.
It’s a cliché. And like most clichés, it’s an oversimplification, but it carries some truth. Human beings have desires. Besides physical needs and desires–we were created for relationships, we were created for community, and we were created to be in relationship with God. To say that all we need is God is to deny the other good things he created us to desire and enjoy. These ought not to be tossed aside, but understood as good gifts from a loving Father. But, yes, our most profound desire is to know and be known by God.
For this post, I am borrowing from Tim Keller, particularly his book Counterfeit God’s and a lecture of the same name that he delivered at Cambridge Passion.
In his exploration of idolatry, Keller differentiates good things and ultimate things.
Good Things and God, The Ultimate
God created everything, and he declared them to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31). The list of good things is obviously very long and it includes:
- romantic love,
- and cherry trees.
The list goes on and on.
Above all these good things, God places humanity. Humanity occupies this place above the good things because we alone were created in God’s image. Here’s the text which articulates humanities special position in creation, above all the good things.
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
Innate value has been conferred onto human beings by God. Our value is linked to God. In a properly ordered life or society, God is the Ultimate thing. Human beings occupy a position above all the good things because they were created in God’s Image. All the other good things are good, but they do not have more value than God or humanity.
Augustine called sin “disordered love.” Sin is, in essence, replacing God with something else. We take a good thing and make it the ultimate thing; we replace the Creator with the created. The good thing in the ascendant position is an idol.
Career advancement is a common idol in our culture. There’s nothing wrong with career advancement–it is a good thing–but when it becomes an ultimate thing, all other things must give way to it. The marriage and the children will be sacrificed to it. “Friends” becomes a name for those who can be used to aid advancement while others will be treated as rungs on a ladder. Idols are very demanding overlords, they take and they want it all.
Beauty is a good thing. And it is another common idol. it demands huge amounts of money and often ones dignity, and it always fails those who worship it–we cannot stop beauty from fading.
Family is a good thing, but it is a terrible master.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is one of my favourite books. It could only come from a brilliant and tortured mind. His “This is Water” commencement speech to Kenyon College class of 2005, presents some of the wisdom Wallace has aquired through his struggles. In this passage he explains the problem with false gods:
You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship… Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship-be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles-is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things-if they are where you tap real meaning in life-then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already-it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power-you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart-you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on. Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings.
(If you listen to the whole speech, you will hear Wallace come dangerously close to pointing to a realignment of our loves under the transcendent god, for our sake and for the sake of others around us.)
Whatever your idol, it will eventually eat you alive.
God-shaped hole? We should maybe stop using the phrase, but behind this cliche is the idea that everything you desires will destroy if they are put into the position of a god. Conversely, if you subordinate all your desires to Christ’s Lordship, you will achieve the peace and fulfillment and wholeness you seek, because it was for Christ you were made.