Trying to Fill The “Forever Empty”

Thanks to Justin Dyer for today’s guest post:

Two thoughts – one from Tim Keller and one from Louis C.K. – came to mind as I watched the 2015 NCAA national wrestling tournament in St. Louis a few weeks ago. In a short study of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, Tim Keller describes coveting as an “idolatrous longing” for something other than God. Of course, Keller doesn’t claim any novel theological insight here. Christians have long insisted that only God can satisfy our deepest desires. Looking to some created thing rather than the Creator as our ultimate source of satisfaction is worse than futile: it is idolatrous.

Following Augustine’s famous prayer that his heart was restless until it rested in the Divine, Christians often claim that we have a hole in our hearts that only God can fill. Put this way, the claim sounds trite, perhaps, but it reflects a deep reality that many atheists and agnostics appreciate and acknowledge even if they do not share the Christian’s hope that the hole can or will be filled. In an interview with Conan O’Brien, the skeptical comedian Louis C.K. insightfully described the experiential reality as a sort of deep melancholy: “Underneath everything in your life,” he said in a spot-on diatribe against cell phones, “there’s that thing. That empty, forever empty. You know what I’m talking about?” Later, he sharpened the point: “Just that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone, you know. It’s down there.”

After years of competing in, and now watching, the NCAA wrestling tournament, I’ve grown to see that the deep disappointment so many athletes experience during this competition is the result of a misplaced longing, a kind of covetous quest for honor or approval. Elite athletes often try to fill the void—that “forever empty”—by being the best at what they do. For wrestlers, this means winning a national title, something they dream about from the moment they start wrestling at 6 or 8 years old. By the time they get to college, it becomes an all-consuming desire. Many think about winning a national championship daily, if not hourly.

University of Iowa wrestler Luke Eustice’s experience, chronicled in 2002 as part of the ESPN documentary series “The Season,” is typical. On camera, Eustice describes how he writes repeatedly in his journal of his desire to be a national champion. With a nostalgic chord playing in the background the film’s narrator observes that his “words were as much plea as prayer, and he wrote them everyday.” The camera then pans out to show a clip of Eustice losing in the national finals just a few weeks later. Understandably, he was crushed.

Yet many of those who do reach the pinnacle of their sport end up insisting, like Tom Brady after winning his third Super Bowl, “God, there’s gotta be more than this.” Winning, too, it seems, offers no lasting satisfaction. If sports are so apt to misdirect our longings toward illusory goods that ultimately fail to satisfy us, even when we win, is the pursuit of athletic excellence then bad for our souls? Not necessarily, but it certainly can be. Like any good thing, athletic success can take hold of our hearts and become an object of covetous desire; it can tempt us to break the Tenth Commandment.

Christian athletes should instead compete well and strive for excellence “as unto the Lord,” recognizing that perishable crowns cannot put their hearts to rest. In an odd way, this knowledge should make Christians more successful in competition. It is one of life’s paradoxes that those who are afraid of losing seldom become great. And the Christian, whose hope is in the Lord, has nothing to fear.

Of course, diagnosing a problem is easier than curing it. As an athlete, I was never quite able to put this knowledge to work in practice. But the principle applies to the whole of our lives, and I was reminded of it once again as I read to my son from his toddler’s prayer book after the NCAA championship finals ended this year:

Please give me what I ask,

Dear Lord,

If you’d be glad about it.

But if You think it’s

Not for me,

Please help me do without it.

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