As a new convert and good evangelical, the U2 song used to trouble me. It carried such a great Christian message: ‘You broke the bonds and you loosed the chains / Carried the cross of my shame, You know I believe it’. But then (as I saw it at the time) it went and undermined it with the line ‘but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’.
What was all that about? How could you so clearly believe in Christ and the gospel and yet not be satisfied, not have found what you’re looking for? It made no sense to me.
And I recall a Soul Survivor festival (UK youth charismatic event) where they, clearly feeling the same, changed the lyrics to ‘I’ve finally found what I’m looking for’.
The end of the journey?
For me at the time, becoming a Christian was the end of the journey, not the beginning. I’d been seeking something and now I’d found it. I’d been lost and now was found, had been blind and now could see. Conversion was the happy ending to the story. There might still be some things to learn and the rest of life to live, but in many ways I’d already made it (I thought); the rest would just be fine-tuning, and putting into practice what I’d received.
One of my favourite quotations at the time was Augustine’s ‘You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’. I’d experienced the restlessness and rootlessness, the feeling of being spiritually adrift in a troubled sea. My understanding was that I’d now come home to that place of perfect peace and rest in God. From this point on I might experience occasional difficulties, but I would never again feel that restlessness or alienation – or so I imagined.
After the wedding
We see a similar phenomenon in romantic books and films. There the story almost always ends at the wedding, or even just at the acceptance of the marriage proposal. Everything after this point is apparently mere postscript, with an implied happily-ever-after where everything’s going to be plain sailing.
But of course, in real life the wedding is just where the real challenges start. House-buying, careers, kids or not kids, money issues, sex, in-laws, psychological and emotional baggage… all of these and many more things crowd in and ensure that marriage is far from an uneventful happy-ever-after of blissfully gazing into one another’s eyes. (And of course in truth it would likely get pretty dull if it were.)
It’s the same with the Christian life. Getting to the point of conversion, of accepting Christ as Lord and saviour or however you want to describe it, is in many ways only the start. If we expect everything after this just to be a happy-ever-after of answered prayers and spiritual bliss – or even just of smooth-running Christian service – we’re in for a bit of a shock.
And if we think that once we’ve accepted the gospel then we’ve found everything we’re looking for, end of story, we’re also likely to get some surprises – not all of them pleasant. If we think that we’ll never feel restless or rootless again, we may need to think again.
The Protestant paradigm
I think this problem owes much to the paucity of the Protestant paradigm of salvation. It’s a simplistic before-and-after story of being lost in sin and then found and saved by God in an all-important one-off moment of conversion. After this you’re set firmly upon the straight and narrow path to heaven; the rest is simply an assured epilogue of growing in faith, understanding and good works as you’re sanctified by the Spirit.
But for many (perhaps most) the Christian path isn’t like this. Many have grown up in faith and cannot point to any particular moment or event of conversion. Others may have committed their lives to Christ, lapsed and then re-committed several times over the years. For some, there may be a long period of gradual conversion rather than a single event. And for many, their faith and beliefs have changed enormously over the years till they look back on their conversion beliefs as simplistic and even partly mistaken – though, like me, they may still hold on to Christ.
The evangelical gospel
I’d also suggest that the overly-simplistic Protestant paradigm derives in turn from an attenuated evangelical gospel. It’s a gospel which tends to focus solely on the twin events of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and largely ignores or sidelines the rest of his life. “Jesus died for your sins and rose again that you might have eternal life” – and that’s pretty much it.
But as I’ve written before, there’s so much more to Christ than just the cross. The cross is of huge importance of course. Without Good Friday and Easter there’d be no Christian faith. But Jesus’ life is so rich, so full, so important that we lose out tragically if we focus solely on one end of it to the exclusion of all else.
Above all we lose sight of Jesus himself – his fascinating, multi-faceted, vibrant, dynamic, category-defying character – if all we value are his death and coming back to life, two events in which he was largely a passive participant.
Evangelicals might argue that we can never get to the end of the wonder of the atonement, and in some ways they’re right – though I think that in reducing the atonement to the single dubious theory of penal substitution, they cut off most of the potential wonder.
But I think it’s yet even more true that we can never get to the end of Christ. We can follow him all our days – for all eternity – and still encounter fresh surprises (and fresh challenges).
Still haven’t found…
So these days I entirely understand how U2 can affirm the Christian creed yet append ‘but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’. Indeed, I think the former almost implies or requires the latter.
Accepting the gospel and receiving Christ is only the start. We’ve embarked on the journey of becoming fully human and fully alive, but we’re a long way off its fulfilment. We won’t finally find what we’re looking for this side of the River; every time we think we’ve found it we’ll be called on further and in deeper.
After all, what we’re looking for ultimately is nothing less than the full redemption of the entire cosmos, including the full redemption of our own selves.
I view the Augustine quotation slightly differently now too. Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in God; but the rest they find now is only partial. It comes and goes, glows and fades. It’s a foretaste but not the fulfilment. The perfect, unbroken peace is yet to come.
So if you’ve been a Christian just a short time, you have so much more ahead of you (including both joys and challenges, difficulties and fresh discoveries). And if you’ve been journeying for a long time and you’re feeling bored or restless or dissatisfied or just plain tired, that might not be a sign that you’re losing your way, but may rather be the stirring of grace.
Perhaps God is calling you out of wearying busyness to a deeper, truer rest for a time. Or perhaps he’s stirring you up from a place of boredom and constriction to a place where your soul can expand and breathe and flower again.
Not having found what you’re looking for is not a sign of apostasy but a sign of faith. It means you’re still alive, still travelling, still growing, still learning. Keep looking and you’ll keep finding, and then finding that you still need to keep looking…