The Gift of Restlessness
We’re longing for something new, something different. Is there a reason for our restlessness?
The list of things I covet may tell you that I violate the tenth commandment — the one about not coveting my neighbor’s stuff — on the regular. (It may also tell you I can be a shallow person with a penchant for cliché answers about world peace more suitable for a pageant Q&A than for an honest confession of the state of my soul.)
But my seemingly endless list of wants doesn’t only reveal my coveting issues. It’s a symptom of my restlessness. C.S. Lewis famously diagnosed this restlessness with these words:
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.
We live between Eden and eternity. As a result, we’re restless people.
We attempt to silence this restlessness in a variety of ways. Because if we can mute our restlessness, then we don’t have to deal with it.
We may numb our restlessness. Drinking or substance abuse is one form of anesthesia, but food, shopping, busyness and media consumption can serve as socially acceptable numbing agents as well. It is only when these behaviors become compulsive that we typically flag them as problems. But many of us resort to retail therapy or mindless binge-watching as a coping mechanism for uncomfortable, unsettled feelings.
Another way some of us deal with this sense of restlessness is by idealizing the past. Nostalgia dons rose-colored glasses and looks back at the good ol’ days as a treatment for the disquiet of the present.
For example, I have a friend who lives in a perpetual state of wistfulness for the idealized version of the 1930s that lives in her head — complete with extended, multi-generational family gathered around the radio after eating a wholesome, frugal supper together. (The bankruptcies, broken families and racial divisions that existed in this country during the Depression don’t exist in my friend’s imagination.) As a result, her present-tense life — the one she’s actually living — can never compare with the one in her imagination.
Restlessness has been for others a clarion call to take up (metaphorical) arms. During the last couple of generations, some have embraced culture war battles, diving deeply into political action, longing for change.
There is a real and ongoing tug of war as we seek to live out what it means to live in the world, but not be of the world (John 17:14-16). Some decide to escape that tension by choosing the safety of separation from the world. Others immerse themselves in the world, camouflaging themselves to blend in and avoid making waves.
Finally, some enjoy the luxury of a comfortable, satisfying, settled life. As a result, their restlessness is dialed way down. The idea of restlessness may be completely foreign to them.
I’ve known more than a few people who haven’t been touched by major loss or upheaval, and the notion of wandering may feel completely foreign to them. But when unwelcome change comes — as it does to most of us — the upheaval can create space for questions that never needed to be asked before: What is my purpose? Where is my life going, and why? And so their sense of restlessness begins.
The gift of restlessness?
Throughout my life, I’ve tried silencing my own sense of restlessness by resorting to several coping mechanisms. I’ve tried numbing myself with busyness. I’ve soaked my soul in nostalgia. I’ve joined culture war skirmishes. When everything in my life seemed to be going pretty well, I simply attempted to ignore it.
None of those coping techniques permanently quelled my restlessness, so instead of fighting it, I’m learning to embrace my wandering soul.
While restlessness is loaded with all kinds of temptations and invitations to sin, my sense of disquiet can also serve to focus my attention toward God.
No matter how many times I read it, I am struck by the response of Abram to God’s unexpected call in Genesis 12. Scripture doesn’t give us much of a backstory for Abram. We meet him when he’s already 75 years old. We learn elsewhere in Scripture that Abram’s father, Terah, served other gods (Joshua 24:2). In addition, Abram and his wife, Sarai, are childless, an issue of deep shame and sorrow in their culture. Abram’s life appears settled on the surface — he lived seven decades among his extended family. Yet he responded to the unexpected call of God:
Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1)
“Go” is a word a restless soul is uniquely prepared to hear. The Hebrew words lech lecha used here for the command “go” emphasize this wasn’t a casual suggestion. Lech means “walk” and “come” in addition to “go.” Lecha is a preposition that means “to,” “toward” or “for,” and gives intensity and direction to the “go.”
Lech lecha tells us the Lord is our launchpad. He is our companion on the way. And He is our destination. Lech lecha is the road map for a pilgrim’s journey. Restlessness can be a gift in our lives if we recognize God is calling us to live as pilgrims.
The word pilgrim often conjures images of stern 17th-century Puritans or a person on an epic journey to a religious shrine. But it belongs to each one of us who recognizes our restlessness is an invitation to lech lecha with Jesus. Restlessness can indeed be a gift if it is hitched to a desire to respond to the call of God in our lives.
Sometimes “go” means “stay put”
Not all wanderers are pilgrims. Not all who stay put are settlers. Pilgrimage is a posture of the heart, no matter how many zip codes we’ve had in our lives. My life of pilgrimage has meant many relocations, new churches and new jobs. Yours may mean learning to live as a pilgrim right where you are.
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard noted that our status as “pilgrims, strangers, and aliens in the world” will flow from a living faith in Jesus, adding,
Faith expressly signifies the deep, strong, blessed restlessness that drives the believer so that he cannot settle down at rest in this world, and therefore the person who has settled down completely at rest has also ceased to be a believer, because a believer cannot sit still as one sits with a pilgrim’s staff in one’s hand — a believer travels forward.
How can you live here and now with a pilgrim’s staff in your hand?
- Recognize your restlessness. In what ways are you numbing yourself so you don’t feel its discomfort? Are you coping with an uncomfortable present by looking toward an idealized version of the past? Are you reacting to the culture around you with anger? Or are you ignoring your restlessness?
- Identify and confess sin. Restlessness is not a sin, but a part of our human condition. However, the choices we make to quell our restlessness can lead us into sin. As you confess sin, remember that God is not one bit surprised by your wandering heart (Psalm 103:14).
- Ask God to show you the next step. God never gives us the entire map. He asks us to simply respond in trust for one step in His direction as He calls each of us to follow Him.
- Name your longing for home. Pilgrimage has a destination. As we wander homeward with Jesus, our restlessness is a part of what transforms us and touches those around us.
Psalm 84:5-7 (NIV) is a picture of our lives as pilgrims:
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.
We’ve been born wanderers. But the good news is that our restless hearts can be a compass God uses to guide us as we journey homeward to Him.
Copyright 2018 Michelle Van Loon. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Michelle Van Loon came to faith in Christ at the tail end of the Jesus Movement, and her Jewish heritage, spiritual hunger and storyteller’s sensibilities have shaped her faith journey and informed her writing. She is the author of five books, including “If Only: Letting Go of Regret,” “Moments & Days: How Our Holy Celebrations Shape Our Faith” and the forthcoming “Born to Wander: Recovering the Value of Our Pilgrim Identity.” Michelle is a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s women’s blog, In Touch magazine, and is the co-founder of www.theperennialgen.com, a website for midlife women and men. She’s married to Bill, and is a mother of three and grandmother of two. Learn about her writing and speaking ministry by visiting her website www.michellevanloon.com.