Sunday, September 20, 2015

Our Absurd Attempts to Fill the Emptiness

The French mathematician and philosopher Rene Pascal had observed that we have a God-shaped vacuum within, which demands to be filled, and God promises to intimately fill it:

  • I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the LORD… I will plant her for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called 'Not my loved one.' I will say to those called 'Not my people,' 'You are my people'; and they will say, 'You are my God.'" (Hosea 2:19-20, 23)
King David also anticipated this eternal and divine filling of the vacuum:

  • You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. (Psalm 16:11)
Closer still, looking towards this salvation, we can savor the presence of our Savior:

  • Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8-9)
However, it is not just Christians who long for this painful emptiness to be filled. Rather, the entire history of humankind testifies that we have been desperately trying to fill the void by proving our significance or worth. We have sought money, power, accomplishments, influence, and popularity in a futile attempt to fill the vacuum.

Perhaps there is no sight quite as ludicrous as humanity in pursuit of something – some recognition, house or piece of clothing – that will satisfy but never finding it. Yes, we find it for a few moments, but then, again dissatisfied, we hunger for more. When the richest man of the world was asked, “How much more money will you need to be happy,” he answered, “Always a little bit more!” Such satisfaction is always elusive.

In The Significant Life, attorney George M. Weaver provides many examples of the absurdity of our quest for self-importance to fill the crying vacuum:

  • Salvador Dali once said, “The thought of not being recognized [is] unbearable”…Lady Gaga sings, “I live for the applause, applause, applause…the way that you cheer and scream for me.” She adds in another song, “yes we live for the Fame, Doin’ it for the Fame, Cuz we wanna live the life of the rich and famous.” (7)
Writer Gore Vidal had been very transparent about this:

  • “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” (58)
Clearly, this drive for significance tears at friendship, dividing apart instead of bringing together. Comedian Al Jolson had also reflected our pathetic condition:

  • According to his biographer, “He once had a team of performing elephants fired because he thought the audience liked them too much.” (59)
For some, the closest they can come to immortality is the acclaim of the crowd. Even the fantastically successful never outgrow this quest. Napoleon laughably boasted:

  • There is no immortality but the memory that is left in the minds of men… History I conquered rather than studied.” (12)
People attempt to fill the vacuum of insignificance in many different ways, even those who seem to have made it. Weaver cites President Lyndon B. Johnson as an example of this:

  • According to one commentator, “It is a curious footnote to history that long before he ran into trouble, Johnson had turned central Texas into a living monument to his heritage and his journey to the summit (the L.B.J birthplace, the L.B.J. boyhood home, the L.B.J. state park, the L.B.J. ranch and more).” (22)
If the vacuum had been created to be satisfied only by a divine relationship – a relationship with our Maker and Savior - filling the vacuum on our own is merely another form of masturbation.

Our attempt to fill the vacuum can appear even more absurd:

  • In 2005 Joseph Stone torched a Pittsfield, Massachusetts apartment building… After setting the blaze, Stone rescued several tenants from the fire and was hailed as a hero. Under police questioning, Stone admitted, however, that he set the fire and rescued the tenants because, as summarized at trial by an assistant district attorney, he “wanted to be noticed, he wanted to be heard, he wanted to be known.” (44)
Evidently, this drive for significance is so powerful that it can overrule the moral dictates of conscience. One mass-murderer gunman explained in his suicide note, “I’m going to be f_____ famous.” (45)

How pathetic but also how human! Some have the resources to pursue significance in a socially approved way; others do not. Is there really much of a difference between these two groups?

This drive for significance can even override all other considerations. On December 8, 1980, Mark David Chapman, a zealous fan of the Beatle, John Lennon, first obtained his idol’s autograph before gunning him down. He explained:

  • “I was an acute nobody. I had to usurp someone else’s importance, someone else’s success. I was  ‘Mr. Nobody’ until I killed the biggest Somebody on earth.” At his 2006 parole hearing, he stated: “The result would be that I would be famous, the result would be that my life would change and I would receive a tremendous amount of attention, which I did receive… I was looking for reasons to vent all that anger and confusion and low self-esteem.” (47)
Absurd? To the max! But are we more rational? Superficially, we might look better than others, but are we really better? Both groups are narcissistically pursuing an impossible goal and have rejected a God who has promised to elevate us in a way that only He can. Instead, we have opted to go our own way, even if it means addiction to things that cannot satisfy. Perhaps we are all Mark David Chapmans struggling to fill the vacuum with whatever the available means, even if it means social disapproval:

  • More than two hundred people confessed in 1932 to the kidnapping and murder of the infant son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh. (50)
The need for self-importance is so powerful that people are willing to pay almost any price for it. However, observing the meaninglessness of this pursuit, some have converted this absurd quest into a quest for virtue. It might take the form of a moral-crusader.

The religious leadership of Jesus’ day also sought to fill the vacuum, but with impressive religious displays instead of the real thing – the unshakable love that comes from God, the source of all being and self-definition, the one who can definitively tell us who we are and affirm it. Jesus continually exposed the do-gooder perversion:

  • "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full… And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:1-2, 5)
Instead of courting God, they courted the approval of man to their own detriment. While God offered us an eternal marriage where we would find fullness of joy, we rejected this offer for the immediate but fleeting esteem of man.

What if we considered our pathetic condition - pursuing things that can never satisfy but enslave and addict? What if we were able to see that our absurd strivings are universal? Perhaps we might see that we have lost our way.

Adam and Eve lost their way. They had sinned and refused to confess it. Instead, they took matters into their own hands and thought they could escape God’s scrutiny and cover their shame with fig leaves. We have been doing this ever since. However, our fig leaves are dollars, PHDs, possessions, and recognition. Should we not instead be asking:

  • How can I escape my jail of meaningless striving? How is it that humanity is characterized by the same futility? Is there any remedy? What must I do to connect with the Savior? What response does He want from me?
According to the Bible, the way up is the way down, humbling ourselves to confess our sins, recognizing that we are utterly incapable of filling our own vacuum. Here’s how the Apostle John put it:

  • If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. (1 John 1:8-10)
Confessing our sins is also to confess that we are unable to fill our vacuum. When we humble ourselves in this manner, He will lift us up.

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