Living Well With Unsatisfied Longings

We don't have to live at the whim of our longings, nor must we disown them.

The romantic dinner date, the perfect family portrait by the tree, the too-cute kiddos in their festive outfits. Scrolling through Instagram can quickly turn into my nightmare before Christmas. At first glance, it seems many of my friends have been cast in a real-life Hallmark movie, complete with hot chocolate, matching flannel PJs and cozy evenings by the fire.

And I am left outside in the cold, biting wind of comparison, my face pressed up against the glass. I watch their Christmas festivities unfold through the windowpane of my phone, and my heart aches. Their smiles and laughter only serve to highlight my loneliness and lack.

In a profound way, the holidays reveal our unsatisfied longings. The desire to be known and loved. Seen and valued. To connect and belong. How easy it is for social media to make us envious bystanders of others’ lives—wishing, hoping, yearning for what we don’t have.

Maybe you face yet another year with no one waiting under the mistletoe. Or you’re immersed in family drama that leaves you wishing for peace and quiet.

Perhaps you grieve a life or relationship tragically snuffed out. You wonder how you can go on alone, and if it’s even worth putting up the tree.

Maybe you drive home from yet another holiday party convinced that you’re not thin enough, handsome enough, or popular enough. Or you’re stuck in a job that leaves you with zero time off and far too much stress.

Whatever the less-than-perfect world you’re living in this Advent season, you likely feel the angst. It seeps in amid the carols and cookies and the flurry of shopping. When we lay our heads down at night, it’s there—unruly, irksome, and refusing to be silenced.

What to Do With Longing?

We ache for Eden . . . the world that God created and described as “good.” The Hebrew word here—towb—means beautiful, bountiful, and brimming over. Yet when we look at our lives and our world, we often see very little towb.

Instead, we live with taavah. Desire. Longing. Yearning. “I groan because of the tumult of my heart,” the psalmist writes. “O Lord, all my longing [taavah] is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you” (Ps. 38:9). Ever been there?

In a culture that values speed and efficiency—from 5G wireless to same-day shipping—it’s easy to view unfulfilled desires as a plague to eradicate. Whatever your heart longs for, go after it at all costs, our world whispers. You deserve to be happy!

King Solomon took this route: “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure” (Eccl. 2:10). And the outcome? “Everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Eccl. 2:11). Faced with disappointment or shattered dreams, we are left confused and jaded. Life can begin to feel empty and intolerable.

Yet where our culture urges us to indulge every longing, the church often teaches us to disown them altogether. After all, our desires are “fallen,” right? Surely, these yearnings will only lead us into temptation. Your heart is deceitful and cannot be trusted, well-intentioned leaders admonish. Forsake your longings. Renounce your desires. Only then can you follow Jesus.

Yet here, perhaps, we confuse suppression and sanctification. Unbridled, our longings can destroy us, but if we destroy them, we also destroy a part of the image of God affirmed in creation. Is there a better way?

An Echo of the Divine

“Jesus is the incarnation of God’s furious longing,” Brennan Manning reflects. What if, perhaps, longing isn’t the enemy, but actually a key to our salvation?

After all, it was aching longing that propelled Jesus to leave the glories of heaven and take on human flesh. Burning desire for you and I birthed Immanuel—God with us. Passionate love drove our Savior to the cross “for the joy set before him” (Heb. 12:2). From “it is good” in Genesis 1 to “it is finished” in John 19, God’s plan of redemption is fueled by longing.

How might our lives be different if we began to see longing, perhaps especially unfulfilled longing, as a doorway to experiencing God more intimately and knowing ourselves more deeply? In the words of C.S. Lewis,

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 . . . earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country . . .

Could it be that desire is not something to be managed, masked, or tucked away shamefully, but rather, an incredible gift that awakens our souls? Our heart’s deepest yearnings hold important clues to our true identity and purpose. They are an echo of the divine.

Our journey is not unlike that of the Pevensie children in The Chronicles of Narnia. Step inside the wardrobe of longing, and you’ll be transported to a whole new world. There, you’ll be faced with a choice:

You can gorge on Turkish Delight, idolizing your desires and pursuing them at the expense of everything else.

Or, you can join Aslan in bringing new life to a cold, dark world, where it has for far too long been winter, but never Christmas.

Content . . . and Yearning

Come in out of the cold, biting wind of comparison, Jesus whispers. I am your true home. I feel the anguish of your unfulfilled dreams, your loss and longing. And I am with you. The story isn’t over yet.

What are we to do with a deep desire for something that God hasn’t given us?

We get it, cognitively, that nothing in this world will truly satisfy our souls, but some days, I still struggle to live into the words of the Apostle Paul: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil. 4:12). Whether married or single. Whether childless or raising a passel of kids. Whether healthy or laid up in bed. Whether we have meaningful careers or menial jobs.

If I’m honest, I still cringe a little bit hearing this passage. It’s easy to read between the lines that contentment means disowning my longing and killing my desires. Yet perhaps, contentment doesn’t mean that we don’t want, but instead, that we trust God with our wanting.

Rather than holding a collective pity party, how might tuning into our desires—as important, though not ultimate aspects of who we are—change our experience this Christmas?

How can we live well, even thrive, in the tension between what we want and what God has given? From my own experience, I don’t think it can happen without intentional, gut-honest, face-to-face relationships. Desires are often messy and confusing. At times, they can even feel shameful. It takes courage to let our longings lead us into community rather than isolate us. We need friends who create the space to grieve together over what we don’t have and celebrate what we do. To hold our dreams for the future loosely and embrace fully where we are right now.

Instagram and Facebook fall short in cultivating these soul-shaping relationships that we so desperately need. As Shauna Niequist reflects, “Community happens when we hear each other’s actual voices, when we enter one another’s actual homes, with actual messes, around actual tables telling stories that ramble on beyond 140 pithy characters.”

We all need safe spaces to stare unfulfilled longing in the face, and also put it in its place. To give voice to our hopes and fears, and also know that these aren’t the ultimate or final realities. To wrestle through our questions and make meaning of our yearnings.

Why would God give so many of us a desire for a spouse with no one on the horizon? In a church culture that often idolizes marriage, I’ve occasionally been guilty of discounting Christian community. But marriage, for all its benefits in this life, only echoes the divine, eternal marriage, in which we all—you and I together—will be joined as one. Might God be calling us to take our bonds with brothers and sisters in Christ as seriously as our vows?

Why would God give so many of us a desire to love children, and then withhold the opportunity to birth or raise them? Could it be, perhaps, to sensitize our hearts to the 400,000 foster children across the U.S. and the 132 million orphans worldwide who also ache to belong? Might God be calling us to serve and advocate on their behalf?

Perhaps our longings aren’t ultimately about getting what we want, but are actually clues to our calling.

Harnessing our Desires for Good

Contentment is not the annihilation of desire, but rather the collective declaration that “I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:12). It’s choosing to believe that our ultimate joy is not dependent on having a ring on our finger or a child in our arms.

No, I’m not dating Jesus. And yes, I pray and ache for a family one day. But that doesn’t mean I’m paralyzed, less than, or somehow unable to walk out my calling today. “Don’t be wishing you were someplace else or with someone else. Where you are right now is God’s place for you. Live and obey and love and believe right there” (1 Cor. 7:17, MSG).

Real life starts now—not when you and I arrive one distant day at a certain destination like landing our dream job or walking down an aisle. Harnessing our desires for God’s kingdom requires that we hold loosely to our “right” to happiness. Because sometimes, God says “no” or “wait.” Or perhaps He is silent on the matter. And often, the things we think will make us ultimately happy, won’t, while the things we could never dream of even asking for bring us breathtaking delight when God orchestrates them.

Advent is a collective invitation to tune in to our deepest yearnings and discover in Jesus the “joy of every longing heart.” So, this holiday season, be skeptical of the Hallmark movies and carols claiming to hold the key to happiness. Lean into your longing and reclaim desire as a gift, but let it drive you toward action, connection, and service—not desperation or despair.

Jesus’ passionate longing moved Him to leave heaven in pursuit of you. What good might your longings propel you toward? And if you disown them, what might this world miss out on?

Copyright 2016 Laura Captari. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Laura Captari

Laura Captari is a psychologist in training and doctoral student at the University of North Texas. Her research explores the interplay of relationships, faith, and culture. Specifically, she investigates pathways to resilience and post-traumatic growth following trauma and loss. Laura previously served on staff with the American Association of Christian Counselors, and is the co-author of Dangerous Christian, Face to Face, Be Rebellious, and Orphan Justice. Laura is passionate about advocating for and serving at-risk populations, including foster/adoptive children, sex trafficking victims, and refugees. Laura is an avid traveler, sporadic runner, and shameless coffee fanatic.

Related Content