Without fail, Scripture describes our walk with God—abiding in Jesus’ love—as inseparably linked to passionate desperation. Should we be surprised, then, that over the years, so many enduring voices in the history of Christianity have spoken boldly of their desperate longing for God’s love? Theologian Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430) said, “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance”—words that mirrored his own journey from despair to the Father’s heart.[i] Medieval mystic Catherine of Siena (AD 1347–1380), who described God as “a fire of love,”[ii] closed every letter with the spiritually amorous words, “sweet Jesus, Jesus Love.”
Look, it would be tempting to think that these biblical characters and other historic followers of Jesus are in some special category. But no—they are men and women like you and me, with the same hopes, fears, challenges, joys, and sorrows. What sets them apart is that the essence of their relationship with God was never about biblical commands or spiritual disciplines; it was about their desperate, passionate love for him. In the early twentieth century, a young Chinese village girl, commanded by Communist soldiers to “trample the cross and live,” instead lifted her hands heavenward and sang “Jesus Loves Me”—as their guns blazed, sending her to glory.[iii] We’ll do a lot for someone we believe in.
We’ll sacrifice everything for someone we desperately love.
In recent months, I’ve been deeply moved by author Mary DeMuth’s memoir Thin Places, where she details the trauma of her childhood sexual abuse and the years of recovery that followed. As she reflects on how she survived such horrific, painful betrayal, she decides to read her adolescent diaries for clues to her spiritual perseverance and grit:
As I read these journals I see something startling: my heart. Bleeding all over those journals twenty years younger, a pattern emerges. I am insanely in love with Jesus Christ. I trip up . . . but even in my straying, He’s constantly on my mind. Pen to paper, I shower Him with affectionate words. I scribble His messages to me. I devour the Bible and memorize its beauty. God sees me, and I also see Him. And love Him.[iv]
“I am insanely in love with Jesus Christ.” Those words leap at lightning speed into my father heart, bringing tears because of Mary’s little-girl pain and the unspeakable violation she endured—and hope because her words reflect a desperation for Jesus and his invincible, conquering love, even when the enemy is at his diabolical worst. A desperation necessary for anyone in any era to consistently abide.
Because the reality is—please don’t miss this—we’re created in the image of a passionate God to long for and search for something or someone to be profoundly, desperately passionate about! Or, as George McDonald put it in a nineteenth-century sermon, “The soul God made is . . . hungering.”[v] If we’re not desperate for him, we will be desperate for something else. Casually following God won’t cut it. Eventually the bright lights and compelling promises of other lovers will lure us away like Disney’s Pinocchio, who meant so well but still ended up on Pleasure Island, braying like the donkey he had become. Some years ago, the prolific Porphyrios said it this way: “When people are empty of Christ, a thousand and one other things come and fill them up; jealousies, hatreds, boredom, melancholy, resentment, a worldly outlook, worldly pleasures.”[vi] Invitations to passion, all.
Think about it—King David stepped away for just a moment from his desperate pursuit of God . . . and quickly moved toward the passion of adultery, calculated betrayal, and murder. Or consider Demas, a serious Jesus follower and one of Paul’s closest companions (Colossians 4:14; Philemon 24)—of whom Paul says in his last letter, as he awaits Roman execution, “Demas has deserted me for love of this present world” (2 Timothy 4:10, author’s paraphrase). He could have said, “Demas stopped reading his Bible and lost his faith” or “Demas wasn’t disciplined enough, so he couldn’t handle the pressure.” But instead, Paul uses language of passion—Demas left because he loved the world. We can only guess the details, but it’s clear that in Paul’s mind, for a long while, Demas was in love with Jesus. At some point, for whatever reason, Demas’s passion waned, and very soon his empty heart found another lover: the world and what it promised him. Then, when the spiritual battle got too intense, he walked away.
The truth is, without desperation in our love relationship with God, everyone eventually walks away. We might walk ten steps into lukewarm complacency, a hundred yards into discouragement, or five miles into apostasy—but I promise, everyone walks. And absolutely no one continues to abide.
So, if desperation is essential to abiding in Jesus’ love, how do we get desperate and stay desperate for him? I’m a little afraid of sounding cliché, theologically unsophisticated, or simply “not deep,” but here’s what has become self-evident to me: We start living with desperation when we get honest about how desperate we really are. In other words, when we begin to own the depth of our pain, emptiness, and loneliness—and the inability of other lovers to meet the needs of our heart—we’ll find ourselves desperately longing for Jesus in a way that moves us to seek him and his love, moment by moment, like never before. This is exactly what John of the Cross declares in his Dark Night of the Soul, a mystical treatise birthed in 1577 during nine months in a Spanish prison. John says the darkness is where “the yearnings for God become so great . . . that [our] very bones seem to be dried up by [our] thirst” for him—and a deep longing for “Divine love begins to be enkindled in [our] spirit.”[vii] In other words, it’s in the darkness—whether the natural darkness of living in a fallen world or a specific, personalized darkness allowed by God’s severe mercy—that our desperation for him is born, a desperation we must allow ourselves to consistently feel if we want to consistently abide.
My friend Clarence was raised in an abusive home, got out as soon as he could, and by age twenty was an apprentice ironworker. He shared with me recently, “Today it’s different, but when I first started, if you didn’t do what all the guys were doing, they didn’t want you around.” That meant drinking and drugging—even on the job.
“I was high every day up on the iron, sometimes hundreds of feet in the air,” Clarence said. “Every time my foot slipped, what came out of my mouth was ‘O, God.’ But when I didn’t fall, I’d go back to thinking, God is for old people. I can’t believe I survived.” Clarence worked iron for thirty years and loved it. “We got a lot of respect from the other trades,” he remembered. “Their respect kept me from thinking about how I didn’t respect myself. They made me feel bigger than I was.”
Along the way, Clarence became a heroin addict. But he also met and married Alberta, who introduced him to the love of Jesus. He started going to church, went to treatment a few times—but never stopped using for very long. “I was convinced I could do life my way,” Clarence told me.
By the time Clarence and I met, God was mercifully allowing Clarence’s life to fall apart. “After I retired,” he said, “it got so bad that five minutes after Alberta left for work in the morning, I’d be off to buy dope. I got scared I was going to die because I knew how many times I should have died already—falling drunk off the iron, an overdose, or getting beat in the dope house. And . . . I was petrified I was going to lose my family. I hadn’t just come to the end of the road; I’d hit a wall that had fallen on top of me.”
Finally, like the prodigal son, Clarence “came to his senses” (Luke 15:17, NLT). After a long pause, he whispered, “I had no other place to go . . . but Jesus.” Desperate, Clarence entered a Christian treatment center, got clean, and lived clean for two years. And then he relapsed. Remember, desperation isn’t a one-time fix but a lifetime way of being with Jesus. “I was so embarrassed and afraid of how people would look at me,” Clarence remembered, “but I went back to the same treatment facility anyway.” It was there, during his seventh time in rehab, that two miracles occurred. First, when he was in detox, a staff lady spoke directly and powerfully to his shame. “Don’t forget, my brother,” she said passionately, “Jesus forgives us seventy times seven.” Clarence wept. It was a turning point. And then, for the seventh time, Alberta said, “I love you, Clarence. God loves you. Get well.” Miraculously, this time around . . . her words landed.
That was five years ago. Today, Clarence is a well-loved and respected husband, father, grandfather, and brother. He leads both a men’s and a Narcotics Anonymous group at our church. And his relationship with God? Last night, I called Clarence and asked. The phone got quiet—and then he said, “The truth is, I just can’t live without him.” Indeed.
[i] Jesse Carey, “15 Augustine Quotes that Helped Shape Modern Christian Thought,” Relevant, August 28, 2014, https://relevantmagazine.com/faith/15-augustine-quotes-helped-shape-modern-christian-thought/.
[ii] See her poem entitled “My Nature Is Fire.”
[iii] Susan Bergman, “Twentieth-Century Martyrs: A Meditation,” in Martyrs: Contemporary Writers on Modern Lives of Faith, ed. Susan Bergman (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 2.
[iv] Mary E. DeMuth, Thin Places: A Memoir (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 213. Emphasis added.
[v] George MacDonald, “The Voice of Job,” accessed October 1, 2020, http://www.online-literature.com/george-macdonald/unspoken-sermons/22/.
[vi] As quoted here: “A Quote by St. Porphyrios,” Hagia Sophia (blog), April 15, 2018, https://orthodoxyhasguts.wordpress.com/2018/04/15/a-quote-by-st-porphyrios/.
[vii] Saint John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, trans. E. Allison Peers (New York: Image Books, 1959), chap. XI, scanned in 1994, http://www.carmelitemonks.org/Vocation/DarkNight-StJohnoftheCross.pdf.