Thirsty for God


by David Rensberger


As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God?
—Psalm 42:1-21


These words from one of the most beautiful and poignant of the Psalms, were written by someone who had been deprived of everything precious.2 The psalmist, an exile from the Holy City, was taken captive by enemies and taunted with the uselessness of his God. Driven along day by day, oppressed and tormented, the writer became as a hunted animal with tongue hanging out, panting for the one thing it needs to restore its strength. In those dismal circumstances, what was it that the psalmist longed for? It was not lost possessions or social status, not even friends and family. It was the presence of God. Remembering the times spent in the temple, at night the old songs came back, not to haunt but to comfort. And with that comfort came the hope of once again entering God's presence to offer praise.

This ancient exile's words have been taken up by countless generations of seekers. Perhaps some of them also have felt like strangers and exiles in the world (Heb. 1 1:13, RSV). Perhaps others knew only that within them something was unsatisfied, was restless, longing, and panting, though they hardly knew for what until they encountered the words of this psalm.

The Persistent Search

I discovered my own “thirst for the living God” through a similar undefined restlessness. I was a young man, a boy really, at college, lonely and isolated. I was looking for people who were like me—but that was difficult since I wasn't sure who I was myself! I also was looking for love, and in that summer of 1967 when I heard vague reports of young people dropping out and trekking to San Francisco to create new communities of love, I joined them. A few months into this new life, I began to encounter people and books that talked about another kind of quest for love. The counterculture was awash in the search for God. Despite being undisciplined (though I knew some people with great discipline) and often wildly eclectic (though I knew some people who had found a path and were sticking to it), this search was the expression of a genuine spiritual longing. Thousands of young people, who had had plenty of what the richest nation on earth could offer, now were content to live in meager, even primitive circumstances in order to pursue their quest for a new kind of life—a life lived in deeper contact with one another, with the earth, and with God.

It was in such circumstances, in California at first and then in New Mexico, that I discovered what I really was thirsting for was God. I found people like me. I found love. But most importantly I found inside myself a longing to know God, to be united with God, to live for and with and in God. I discovered what it meant to have a relationship with Christ. I also discovered that Christianity had a language for talking about such things, the language of Thomas a Kempis, Brother Lawrence, and other contemplatives.

I read a variety of books before I came to those writers and remember finding in one of them a story from the Sufi tradition. It told of a man who was sitting by the side of the road, sifting through the dust and looking closely at every handful as it poured between his fingers. “What are you doing?” someone asked him. “I am looking for my beloved,” he said. “You're not very likely to find her there!” came the answer, to which he replied, “My love for her is so great that I search for her everywhere, likely or not, until I find her.” The thirst for God is like that, a longing that will not give up its quest, however absurd it may seem. You may not have had to look in such odd places as the man in that story, or the boy in my story, on your own path toward God. The thirst is the same, however. Within us all there is a yearning that nothing—no thing, no created object, no person, no pleasure—can satisfy. We are athirst for the living God.

The Heart’s Desire

O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land
where there is no water. (Ps. 63:1)

What do you want? Not what do you wish for, what do you fantasize about, what have you added to your list of priorities, but what do you want? What do you long for? What makes your tongue hang out like that of a thirsty deer? What is your heart's desire?

We don't often inquire that deeply into ourselves, and if we do, we may not listen very closely to the answer. That is because the answer can be frightening. What we want, at the core of our being, often will take us out of the set paths of our lives and those of society. We want the thing that is no thing; we want what cannot be gotten by any effort or kept by any attentiveness or displayed for any admiration. We want God.

At the core of human identity there is what Blaise Pascal described as a God-shaped vacuum or hole. We are never really ourselves until that hole is filled. Once we recognize the hole within us, we are overwhelmed by a desire to fill it with the one thing—the no thing—that fits.

If you have felt that desire, you know how difficult it can be to explain or describe. It is a desire that is itself most highly to be desired. There is a very real delight in discovering the longing for God in ourselves, in finding that this is the desire underlying all our other desires. To have a longing is to sense that it can be satisfied; to recognize a yearning in ourselves is to recognize something of what we are capable of becoming. We are happy to discover our thirst for God because it is rooted in love. Our desire for God, like our desire for anyone we love, is something we delight in and cherish. As we long for our beloved, we know that we are capable of loving and being loved, and this brings us joy. Similarly, we are overjoyed by our love, our passion and our desire for God. Our joy is deepened because this love is for God, the very source and goal of our existence, the One whose love guides and animates all that is. To know our longing for God is already the satisfaction of a very great desire, and it delights us to think that this longing will one day find fulfillment.

Our longing, however, immediately tells us that we cannot fulfill it on our own and also that we will never be able to stop desiring its fulfillment. Because it is a longing for love, it can only be fulfilled with the consent of the Beloved. Because it is a longing for God, its fulfillment must take us where we are not capable of going on our own. Moreover, the discovery of the desire itself tells us that we are desired, that the One whom we love loves us—indeed, that this love has created our own desire within us. Already the object of our desire is helping us to fulfill it, by the very act of creating the desire. Our thirst for God cannot be quenched by our own efforts. We cannot satisfy this thirst unless the Living Water itself draws us forward, and both the awareness of our need for this help and the assurance that the need will be met come to us with the discovery of our thirst.

Our desire for God always struggles against our other desires.

The thirst for God also is a thirst for God's ways. Unlike any other love that we experience, we do not attempt to impose our will on this Beloved. Instead, we realize the hopeless inadequacy of everything that we may want. We prefer to let go of our own desires so that the will of the One we love may come about. However, when we actually see our desires slip through our fingers we are liable to cry out in pain, frustration, even anger. Our desire for God always struggles against our other desires. Again and again, we have to commit ourselves at ever deeper and truer levels to letting that desire have its way.

A friend of mine drew a circle on a large sheet of paper and said that we are always on the outside edge of the circle, trying to keep from being drawn any further in than absolutely necessary. “Why not go straight for the center?” she asked. Indeed, why dillydally around the edges instead of plunging into the heart of the circle, into its depths? If we want to be in the circle, why not go all the way in? That dive into the center of the circle is what Francis of Assisi meant when he prayed, “May the power of your love. Lord Christ, fiery and sweet, so absorb our hearts as to withdraw them from all that is under heaven; grant that we may be ready to die for love of your love, as you died for love of our love.”3

Our thirst for God will never be satisfied by taking an eye-dropper full of divine love and dribbling it onto our tongues. We want to lift the whole bucket and pour it over our heads. We want to swing out on a rope over the river, and let go, and splash naked into that deep, delightful pool. We want to be washed all over in the water of the love of God, and in the end to have absolutely nothing left to cover us but the holiness and the rightness of God's will. That is our utmost and ultimate desire; that is our thirst for God.

The Great Illusion

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have
no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk with.
out money and without price. Why do you spend your money
for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does
not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and
delight yourselves in rich food. (Isa. 55:1-2)

Although our hunger and thirst are for God, we are always trying to satisfy them with other things. We hunger for satisfaction, for real fulfillment. Not finding it, we stuff ourselves with food, and stuff our houses with gadgets and furnishings. We thirst for intimacy, to offer ourselves to someone who will receive us, who will know us to our depths and delight in us. When this proves impossible, we turn to sex and pornography in the unconscious hope that they will meet the real need that we hardly even know how to acknowledge as yet. We long to be taken out of ourselves, to find a realm beyond our limitations, a realm of freedom, wholeness, and joy. Not encountering this, encountering instead a world full of pain and frustration, we open a bottle or swallow a pill, and find only a frail, temporary freedom.

The longing to be real, to be loved, to be free is so strong and authentic, so impossible to satisfy with the objects of our mere everyday and superficial desires, that we are driven to seek its fulfillment beyond the everyday. If we don't know where to seek that fulfillment, or if we find the demands of the quest too alarming, we tend to fall back on our little pleasures and diversions, trying to plug the desperate void with them. Indeed, our consumer society energetically organizes these means of avoiding the quest for God, offering us a false quest that is sustained with enormous force and skill by the engines of economy, media, and government. It requires an equal force and determination to uphold the gospel's counterclaim that we will find ourselves only by emptying ourselves, that our real thirst is for the one thing that no economy or culture can produce. Those who have discovered that they are thirsty for God have a responsibility to hold up that thirst and the quest to fulfill it before a world that has deluded itself into thinking that it only wants a better brand of soda.

The Living Water

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail; they shall be satisfied.” (Matt. 5:6, REB)

On the last day of the festival—the great day—Jesus stood and cried out, “If anyone is thirsty, let them come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” As the scripture has said, ‘Rivers of living water will flow out from within him.’” This he said concerning the Spirit, which those who believed in him were going to receive. (John 7:37-39, my translation)

The great promise is that our thirst for God will be satisfied. Jesus, the endless source of Spirit flowing out like living water, calls the thirsty to come to him. It is when we hear his voice and turn toward it that our thirst begins to be quenched. And not our thirst only, for there is another promise in the gospel of John. For those who come to Jesus to drink, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). The Spirit welling up within us is capable of overflowing into the thirsty world around us, so that our thirst for God's will, our thirst “to see right prevail” in that world, can find satisfaction as the world itself drinks in the love of God.

Christians long have sought the desert, the dry and thirsty land, as a place to encounter God. The desert, the wilderness, has thus become a metaphor for the quest for God itself. Many people do find long stretches of wilderness in their spiritual journeys. What sustains us in such times is the promise that at the end of the journey, and even in its midst, there is water. From the most unpromising flinty rock, God pours forth a stream (Exod. 17:1-7; Num. 20:1-13; Deut. 8:4-16). Like the Israelites returning across the wilderness from Babylonian exile, we hope for sustenance in our desert journey.

The Glad Day

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. . . . For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. (Isa. 35:1-2, 6-7)

Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you: Do not fear, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring. (Isa. 44:2-3)

Our thirst for God will be satisfied. Once we have become aware of this yearning, once this passionate need and longing has opened up within us, we can hear a stream off in the distance gurgling toward us. We bend every effort to find that stream. However strong or persistent our efforts, though, they are insignificant compared with the mighty rush of water coming to meet us. Though we may try to slake our thirst elsewhere, the Living Water will find our parched mouths. It will not be our small dippers that finally bring the water to our tongues. Rather, it will be the desire of the Water itself to meet our need, the love of the One whom we have struggled to learn to love, that will overcome our last resistance and pour delicious satisfaction on our aching lips.

From “Thirsty for God” by David Rensberger. Published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, July/August 2000, Vol. 15, No. 4. Copyright © 2000 by The Upper Room. 

Photograph by John Royle / Unsplash

1All scripture translations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

2Psalms 42 and 43 actually form a single unit.

3Celebrating Common Prayer: A Version of the Daily Office SSF (London: Mowbray, 1992), p. 145.