“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.”
Luke 21:34 (NRSV)
I’ve always loved the quote from Blaise Pascal (the sixteenth century writer and philosopher): “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each [person] which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator.” I’ve thought of this as the God-shaped longing that lives in my heart.
In scripture, the heart is the part of the human anatomy most frequently used to define the whole person. The heart represents the whole person in all our distinct humanness—our thinking, planning, willing, feeling, worshiping, interacting. When we are not living up to our best, the scripture describes our hearts as rebellious, unfeeling, callous, or idolatrous. And it is within the heart that God works.
We lose heart (Gen. 42). Our hearts are glad (Ezek. 4). God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ezek. 4). There are generous hearts (Ezek. 35), hearts which are stirred (Exod. 35). God gives new hearts (1 Sam. 16) and replaces hearts of stone with hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36). And God gives us the great commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). Jesus advises us in Luke 21 to “be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down … by the worries of this life.”
As I look toward my transition into retirement, I find myself longing for time to do new things, for rest and spaciousness. For the opportunity to open my heart and my life to the movement of the Spirit in the next chapter of my life.
As I’ve become increasingly aware of my longings, I have a confession: I have a tendency to fill this God-shaped hole in my heart with all kinds of things that are not God.
When I feel a longing, I fill it with the New York Times crossword puzzle or scrolling through the news. I fill it with chocolate. I fill it with binging the latest hot series on my favorite streaming service. I fill up my heart with distractions. I’m wondering: What is filling your heart today? Is it filled with love? with hope? with God’s Spirit?
What’s filling your heart? Is it the clutter of busyness, of distractions, of commitments that stretch beyond your capacity? Our hearts are full to brimming with busyness. How can there be room for anything more? Even for some time to pray each day?
What’s filling your heart? Is your heart filled up with “the desire for more”? More money. A better job. That new phone. There’s this gnawing ache inside that needs to be filled. And we fill it with wanting, with shopping, with acquiring more stuff. And we have no room for God.
What’s filling your heart? Is your heart filled with fear and worry? Fear about the latest COVID variant. Fear for the safety of your family or your children. Worry for the future of this fragile world, in danger from our human ways. Fear of illness, or death, or being alone. Does fear or worry fill up your heart so that there is no room for God’s presence?
Mother Teresa advised us to empty our hearts of what is useless because even God cannot fill what is already full. (The Secrets of Mother Teresa’s Sanctity, p. 121. Susan Conroy. © 2002 by Susan Conroy. Published by Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division.)
We are invited to clear away the clutter in our hearts so that we have room for the Holy One. So that we have room to feel that longing, to fill that longing with the love, hope, peace, and joy of God.
We are invited to watch for, listen for, feel for the God-shaped longing that lives inside each heart. We’re invited to clear away the clutter in our hearts. To let go of busyness, wanting more, worry and fear … all those things we put into that place of longing inside our souls.
How do we empty cluttered hearts? I think it’s a life-long process. Hearts fill up so easily with distractions and worries. For me, the emptying starts with the desire to make a space for God. God created us with that empty place inside our hearts that only God can fill. Once I have the desire to fill that empty space with God, I can work on my awareness—I have the courage and motivation to look into my heart and see what needs to be emptied out.
Sometimes it’s easier—like the clutter of busyness. I can make choices about my busyness and be intentional about carving out time for reflection and prayer. Other times, it’s harder. I might need some extra help to empty my heart when it is filled with an addiction, crippling fear, or the pain of old wounds. I can ask God for help. But I might also need help from a pastor or therapist who knows how to enable healing.
Once I am aware of what is filling up my heart, I can work on emptying out what shouldn’t be there. Emptying cluttered hearts—it’s like keeping up with the clutter of a house. It’s an ongoing task of finding what shouldn’t be there and putting it somewhere else—to make room.
My wish for you is that you listen for that God-shaped longing inside of you. Let yourself feel the longing … even if it is unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Pause in that moment and pray this prayer from the writer of Psalm 42: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.”
Beth A. Richardson serves as the director of prayer and worship life and Dean of The Upper Room Chapel. Her latest release from Upper Room Books is Walking in the Wilderness: Seeking God During Lent.
Photograph by Chang Duong / Unsplash