The Pearl of Great Price: some reflections on the human experience of longing


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The first version of my book 10:10 was actually called “Something’s Missing,” inspired from the hundreds of conversations I’ve had over the years with people who have used these exact words. I’ve heard it from people both outside and inside of the church, and am convinced that struggling with a deep, spiritual longing is core to the human experience. Though we eventually changed the name of the book, I still believe that addressing the dynamics of “something’s missing” is key to spiritual transformation. The following chapter was the centerpiece of the original book, and was intended to help put language around this phenomenon. 

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The trained ear can hear the cry of something’s missing emerging come from every corner of culture.

You can hear it in music.

When I was young, U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” became an instant hit. It was as if U2 had put words to the internal longing of an entire generation, and we claimed this song as our anthem. It was also a popular slow dance song at our high school dances in the 90’s. I was one of those guys awkwardly holding the girl’s waist as we tried to feel romantic over life being so full of despair…what a Casonova I was.

More recently is John Mayer, one of the popular musicians of this decade who has experienced tremendous commercial success. The signature song off of his multi-platinum album “Heavier Things,” was aptly titled “Something’s Missing.”

Once again an artist seemed to put words to feelings that many people were experiencing. “I’m dizzy from the shopping malls. I searched for joy, but I bought it all. It doesn’t help the hunger pains and a thirst I’d have to drown first to ever satiate. Something’s missing and I don’t know how to fix it. Something’s missing and I don’t know what it is at all… I can’t be sure that this state of mind, is not of my own design.”

You can hear it in Hollywood.

In the movie “Old School” Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, and Luke Wilson headline the story of three men struggling with the lack of meaning in their lives. The funny, but strangely sad solution they come up with for addressing this void is to try and recapture the lost memories of their college days. During one of the frat parties they throw, Will Ferrell has an unforgettable exchange with one of the college students who try to get him to share a beer. Ferrell declines, because he has a ‘big’ day tomorrow. His description of the big day:

“Well, um, actually a pretty nice little Saturday, we’re going to go to Home Depot. Yeah, get some wallpaper, maybe get some flooring, stuff like that. Maybe Bed, Bath, & Beyond, I don’t know. I don’t know if we’ll have enough time.”

Is there anything wrong with Home Depot or Bed, Bath, & Beyond? Of course not. The filmmaker is bringing us to the deep conscious revelation that something is missing. Will Ferrell’s character has supposedly accomplished the American Dream. He is safe. He is comfortable. But he is bored. And worse, he is empty. Something is missing.

You can hear it in the best selling books.

In 2010 one of the most influential voices to emerge was that of Jane McGonigal, who released a best-selling book, Reality is Broken. McGonigal is a world-class video game developer, and the title of her book is also her explanation as to why she has been so successful. She believes that she has tapped into a common human experience. When people look at reality, they see something that is broken, and they are desperately searching for some escape into a life of greater excitement and meaning. Listen to her describe it:

“These gamers aren’t rejecting reality entirely. They have jobs, goals, schoolwork, families, commitments, and real lives that they care about. But as they devote more and more of their free time to game worlds, the real world increasingly feels like it’s missing something.”

Her message that large number of people feel like something is missing has been picked up by leading periodicals including The New York Times, Fast Company, and The Harvard Review. It clearly hit a societal nerve.

Whether its U2, John Mayer, Will Ferrell, Jane McGonigal, or a host of other cultural voices, there is a clear social consensus acknowledging the reality that something is missing. This in turn creates quite an interesting conundrum for those who follow Jesus. On one hand, when we hear the voices of culture crying, “something’s missing,” we instinctively reply, “of course there is!” At the foundation of our belief system is that very fact. We believe that humanity has broken its relationship with God, and that the corresponding result is a huge spiritual void at the center of our being. We assume that honest and aware human beings will continue to recognize this, and are therefore able to celebrate any ways that artists (or anyone else) contribute to the collective enlightenment process around this.

But we also expect the presence of “something’s missing” to disappear once we become a Christian, right? When we placed our faith in Jesus, we theoretically eliminated that void. Hence our conundrum: we love Jesus, follow him faithfully, yet still carry this gnawing sense that something is still missing. What now?

When you come to this point – and I am convinced that every devout Christ follower will – you will find yourself at a critical crossroads. If you choose to be brave enough to embrace this growing reality you will find it pushing you in one of two directions. Embracing this reality will either push you towards a deeper, richer experience of God, or it will push you down a path filled doubt, struggle, and at times even despair.

I’m not meaning to use hyperbole here. It’s just that I’ve walked with so many men and women that are in the midst of this struggle, and the way in which they ultimately resolved it had tremendous implications on their overall spiritual vitality. Though there is so much potential for growth during these seasons, too often I’ve seen people go down the second path in a way that caused tremendous pain.

I think of someone like my friend, Jonathon, whose story bears resemblance to many of us that have tried to make sense of this reality. Jonathon truly loved God and was a devoted follower of Jesus. But that didn’t prevent him from having to navigate this persistent reality that something felt like it was missing. It showed up in many pockets of his life, and each time it did it seemed to push him farther away from God.

He was active in a small group at his church, for instance, but found that the weekly gathering only agitated the reality. Each week a different person would share a testimony about a way that God was working in his or her life during group time. Jonathon would consistently experience contradictory feelings during these sharing times. On one hand he would be excited for that person, and could authentically cheer on their growth. But he would have a simultaneous feeling of doubt and depression as he did. Each person that shared a way that God was moving seemed to only shine a spotlight on his spiritual stagnation.

A similar dynamic would happen on Sundays at church. He would come in, hoping to meet God in a profound way. During the singing time he would look around, and it seemed that everyone was having a powerful time of worship. During the sermon it would seem that the message was resonating with everyone, with multiple congregants furiously writing notes. He wanted to experience vibrant worship and hear the voice of God during the service like everyone else seemed to be doing, yet he seemed to be watching it all happen more like an outsider.

The most difficult environment of all was his alone times with God. Jonathon had grown up in a church environment that emphasized the importance of “quiet times,” an exercise where a believer dedicates a portion of the day to study, prayer and reflection. Though some of his friends had resisted because it smelled like legalism, Jonathon had always appreciated the discipline. His quiet times had consistently created space for him to experience God, and maintaining this spiritual practice the regimen was not difficult for him.

But now those quiet times had become dry as well. Jonathon remained disciplined, yet each time he carved out time to be alone with God his frustration grew. He genuinely longed to know and experience God, yet God seemed strangely distant. Increasing his fervency around Bible reading, prayer, and various spiritual disciplines didn’t seem to help. Something was missing.

Seeds of doubt began to be planted in Jonathon’s mind, and it didn’t take long for them to blossom and take on a life of their own. Instead of small group being a place where he could try to crack the code, it started to become an instigator for his emerging cynicism. He would listen to people talking about God, and he would wonder if they were just faking in an attempt to look super spiritual to their friends. At church on Sundays his posture began to also change. Rather than coming in with a sense of expectancy, he began to dare God to show up. He’d show up late, passively sit through worship, and then pick apart the sermon. And quiet times? Those began to quickly disappear from his daily life routine.

Have you ever found yourself caught in one of these spiritual death spirals? Maybe your reality of “something’s missing” shows up differently than it did for Jonathon, and maybe you don’t find yourself giving in to discouragement as quickly as he did. But my experience suggests that for many devout Christ followers, this set of dynamics lives just under the surface, ready to set loose at any moment.

I call it the “dirty little secret of spiritual life.” It’s the secret that no one wants to know, and no one wants to share. It whispers to us that we are incapable of being fulfilled, even after we have found the answer to our quest for truth. When I have a good secret, I’m tempted to whisper it to a friend who’ll admire my exclusive knowledge. When I have a dirty secret, I’m tempted to hold it in forever because let’s be honest. Who is going to admire me for knowing that I have the truth on my side, yet am not experiencing true freedom? This dirty little secret is shared by more Christ-followers than we feel comfortable admitting. Not because Jesus isn’t enough, but because we don’t see it through with Him, or don’t know how to.

Many (most?) followers of Jesus, despite believing and loving God, still have this gnawing sense that something is missing. And how you choose to address and interact with that reality will have a HUGE impact on your overall spiritual vitality.

In the next chapter we will look at what is missing, and that’s obviously important. But before getting to that, I’m certain that we first have to figure out how to approach it. When you love Jesus but feel something’s missing, how do you approach it? Your approach has a direct impact on how you interpret the reality, and how you interpret the reality has a direct on your posture as you move forward.

There is a parable from Jesus that has completely transformed my understanding of the phenomenon of something’s missing, and within it lies the clues to properly interpreting and responding to this reality. It’s the passage of Scripture I bring every person to when they are grappling with the void they feel and are searching for a way to move forward in a transformational way:

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13.44-46 nkjv)

This is the shortest parable that Jesus ever tells, and it’s amazing that he is able to tell two separate, vivid, stories in the span of just three verses. Don’t you wish your pastor could learn to be this brief and pointed? (I’m sure my congregation does!)

Through each of these fictional characters Jesus teaches us something important about the phenomenon of something’s missing. The first story is important, because it solidifies our understanding of what it means to be a Christ follower in the first place. The second story is important in a different way, because it creates a road map for the man or woman who already follows Christ, but still feel like something is missing.

Character 1: The joy of discovering God’s grace

In the first parable of “something’s missing” we see a vintage conversion story. Jesus uses three concepts to tell the story of salvation:

> Spiritual Poverty – This first character that Jesus introduces us to is financially destitute. In 1st century Palestine vacant fields were everywhere, and you could purchase one for a price that would seem like pennies to most of us. Yet upon the discovery of the hidden treasure, he has to liquidate everything he has to buy the field. Therefore he had almost no money or possessions to begin with. He lives in economic poverty, and that serves as an analogy for our spiritual condition apart from God. Salvation is not a mostly-good person picking up some new rules and religion; instead it is a spiritually bankrupt person inheriting the riches of Heaven through the grace of God. That is the importance of Jesus including this detail – for this man “something’s missing” points to the discovery of the saving grace of God.

> Spiritual Riches – To demonstrate the overwhelming nature of the riches of God’s grace, Jesus chooses to use the image of a “treasure hidden in a field.” Treasure is used repeatedly throughout Scripture to portray the magnitude of the riches that come to us upon conversion1. We are God’s treasured possession (a phrase repeated throughout Scripture), and the discovery of that truth carries life changing potential within it. However, as potent as that truth is, it often remains unseen – hence the detail of the treasure being hidden just under the surface of a field that was in plain sight to everyone. But once the scales come off our eyes and we see the magnitude of the riches, everything changes. The Apostle Paul uses similar imagery as this parable to describe the process of moving from spiritual poverty to spiritual riches: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8.9).

> Lordship – This is not the term Jesus uses in the parable, but it is the single best word in Scripture to summarize the response the man’s natural response to the discovery of the treasure. In order to claim it, he needs to first sell everything he currently owns. This presumably required a certain level of risk, yet he happily embraces that risk. Giving up everything he currently has is a small price to pay in order to step into the extravagant, life that was awaiting him. That is the picture of lordship in the New Testament – to claim forgiveness of sin without a corresponding surrender to the lordship of Jesus is seen as implausible. It reveals that the recipient never really understood the reality of sin or the magnitude of the treasure. When we see both sin and grace clearly there is only one response: a joyful giving up of our old life and a correspondingly excited move to follow Jesus with full abandon.

As we can see, the first story is clearly a parable about “something’s missing” – it’s the description of how a person becomes a Christian. My guess is that Jesus’ telling of the story resonates with how you already understand the Bible’s view of salvation. It might use slightly different imagery, but it’s the Gospel message most us have come to know – in our sins we were destitute, but through grace we have become rich.

If the story ended there it would be a helpful recap of salvation, but would do little to help us with our ongoing problem that something is still missing. Once we’ve discovered the grace and love of God, that feeling is supposed to be gone, right?

That is where this second story becomes so intriguing. He too is missing something, but it’s no longer salvation that’s missing. He knows and loves Jesus, yet is still on the search for something more.

Character 2: The intense pursuit of the fullness of life

The second story that Jesus tells in this parable connects us directly to the tagline of this book: finding the fullness of life that we all long for.

Where do we see that in the story?

Let’s start with the contrast of the economic status of these two characters. The first man is dirt poor, and has no realistic options for that to ever change. Not so for the second character – we are introduced to him not as a pauper, but as an already wealthy businessman. He is a merchant of pearls, an upper middle class vocation. While the starting point for the first character is economic poverty, the starting point for the second character is abundance and wealth.

Why is that significant?

By introducing him as a wealthy businessman, Jesus is presumably sticking with the theme of the discovery of God’s grace and love. The first person had not yet discovered it – hence the poverty – but this second person is already rich. He’s already discovered the treasure of God’s grace.

And yet, despite his riches, something is clearly still missing for him. Though he’s already experienced abundance, he is not satisfied. Though he is already in possession of a stable of beautiful pearls, he has an insatiable desire to search for something that he does not yet have.

Can you relate with that? I sure can. There have been numerous eras within my walk with God that I have been aware of my abundance and yet still longed for something more.

That is one of the reasons I love this parable so much. If you knew Jesus was going to tell a story of somebody that discovered grace for the first time alongside the story of someone who had already discovered grace, which would you guess was conscious that he was missing something?

If your logic works like mine, you would guess that the first person would be the one with the ache that something’s missing. If one of them is on the search for a different life, it should be the first one, right?

Look at the parable again, and this time do it through the lens of something’s missing. The first character is clearly missing something – upon his discovery his life is changed forever. But the ironic thing is that it he wasn’t consciously aware that something was missing. And he certainly was not an active search for that which is missing. Instead, the discovery of the treasure of grace becomes the catalyst for a new vision. In a single moment he sees the possibilities that have been opened to him, and he quickly moves to seize the opportunity. But until that moment he didn’t have the means for seeing the vision.

Now look at the second character. He is the one who has already come into possession of priceless wealth, yet from the moment we meet him he is clearly aware that something is still missing. That awareness provokes him into action, and he goes on a manic search for the “pearl of great price.” Jesus describes the intensity of his posture like this: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls…”

The English word “seeking” communicates the idea, but the Greek word Jesus uses underscores just how intense his search process is. The word is zēteō, and while that can be translated as seek, it is just often translated as crave, require, or even demand. In other words, the pursuit of the pearl of great price is of no small consequence to this second character. The beauty of the pearls that he already possesses has ignited an even greater hunger within him. If necessary, he is willing to turn over heaven and earth to find more of the beauty that he has already experienced.

It is within the story of this second character that we discover the secret to correctly interpreting the reality of something’s missing.

When Jesus tells this story, do you see anything that would suggest that his intense search was a bad thing? Does the reality that something’s missing say anything negative about this second character? Does it reflect poorly on his understanding of God or grace?

The answer to every one of those questions is a resounding “no!” This character is burdened by the reality that something’s missing, and that becomes his greatest virtue. The experience of God’s grace didn’t make him complacent – it made him hungry.

The beautiful pearls become a metaphor for God’s grace and love, and they act as an agent of change within his life. This merchant has been given the great gift of being able to lay his eyes upon beautiful pearls. Once he does, he gets a taste for that beauty, and he becomes hungry for more. This hunger is in no way discrediting the pearls he has already acquired, and his pursuit is not about trying to prove some type of point about his spiritual valor.

It is far simpler than that. It is almost primal. Beauty provokes a hunger for more beauty. Abundance stirs a longing for more abundance. The experience he has with those pearls convinces him that even more is possible, and he won’t rest until he finds it.

That is why this parable has come to mean so much to me. I lived for too long with the incorrect assumption that the reality of something’s missing must mean something is wrong with me and my faith. I’m now convinced now that it is just the opposite. Hunger should be embraced and nurtured. With this parable serving as a model, I have tried to adopt the attitude and posture of this second character.

When I experience glimpses of the beauty and love of God, I want that provoke a hunger within me to pursue more of the beauty and love of God. When I experience glimpses of the fullness of life within Christ, I want that to provoke a hunger within me to pursue even more of the fullness of life within Christ.

Through this parable I have learned that being hungry for God or dissatisfied with the status quo is not a mark of something being wrong with my spiritual condition. It’s just the opposite – those hunger pangs are signs of life! The hunger for more comes directly from the heart of God. The desire to experience the fullness of God is a desire that God smiles upon. God wants us to be in touch with those hunger pangs, and God wants us to follow that thread all the way back to the heart of God.

God has placed an unquenchable thirst inside of us designed to propel us on a search for the pearl of great price. The more of God we experience the more we should want. The more we are aware of the pain associated with something’s missing, the stronger the desire becomes to find the answer. The stronger the desire becomes, the more intensely we pursue God. The more intensely we pursue God, the more of God’s fullness we end up discovering and experiencing. The more of God’s fullness that we discover and experience, the more transformed we become. The more transformed we become, the more we realize that something’s still missing.

This theme resounds throughout the pages of Scripture.

King David was called a man after God’s own heart. In Psalm 42 David cries out, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul longs after you, o God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”

The prophet Isaiah declared, Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” (Isaiah 55.1)

In his sermon on the Beatitudes, Jesus says, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5.6) and follows that by saying, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all else will be added to you.” (Matthew 6.33)

This hunger leads us to the heart of God, until one day we will hunger no more. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst… For the Lamb at the center before the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water…” (Revelation 7.16-17)

That is what the parable of the pearl of great price has taught me. Through this story, Jesus created a model that influences how I view the reality of something’s missing. I hope it does for you too.

If we see the reality of something’s missing as a sign of failure it will take us down a path of discouragement and frustration. But if we can learn to see that as a sign of life we position ourselves to experience new levels of spiritual growth and transformation.  If we see something’s missing as a confirmation of our hypocrisy rather than an affirmation of our hunger, we will continue to hide rather than allow ourselves to be found. The vision of abundant life in Christ is designed to be so alluring, attractive, and compelling that we would turn over heaven and earth to get it, thus encouraging an ongoing hunger rather than starving our faith as a result of feeling as if we have failed God and ourselves.

Until then, may this be our prayer:

“O God, I have tasted thy goodness, and it has both satisfied me and made me thirsty for more. I am painfully conscious of my need of further grace. I am ashamed of my lack of desire. O God, the Triune God, I want to want Thee; I long to be filled with longing; I thirst to be made more thirsty still.” (A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God) 

End Notes:

1 – The word ‘treasure’ is used frequently in Scripture to describe the magnitude of God’s grace. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew people were consistently referred to as God’s “treasured” possession (Exodus 19.5, Deuteronomy 7.6, 14.12, 26.18, Psalm 135.4, Malachi 3.17). Jesus often referred to our “treasure” in Heaven (Matthew 6.20, 19.21, Mark 10.21, Luke 12.33, 18.22). Job said that being able to hear the words of God is like treasure (Job 23.12). Isaiah said that the salvation of God is like treasure (Isaiah 33.6). Paul said that the all-surpassing power of God was like treasure (2 Corinthians 4.7) as well as the gift we have to know God through Jesus (Colossians 2.2-3).

Photo Credit: Daniel Bonnell

Follow @danielhill1336

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5 thoughts on “The Pearl of Great Price: some reflections on the human experience of longing

  1. Pingback: The soul craving I (and I think we) have for worship | Daniel Hill's Blog

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