What fills a God-shaped hole?

The Rev. Suzanne Wille, preaching

Sermon for Sunday, February 26, 2023
Create in us a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within us. Amen.

These days, when you ask someone
how they’re doing, 
the most likely answer you’ll get
is not “good” or “well” or, even, “none of your business,”
but “busy.”

That is now the most common response
to inquiries into our well-being: Busy.
“I’m busy—so busy!”

And for good reason.

We are busier than ever. 
An analysis of Christmas letters sent
since the 1960s indicates
that “references to ‘crazy schedules’
has risen dramatically”; 
another study “found that 
the percentage of employed Americans 
reporting that they ‘never had enough time’
rose from 70% in 2011 to 80% in 2018.”
I can only imagine what the percentage is now!

I know all these things
Because I read an article in the Harvard Business Review:
“Beware a Culture of Busyness”
the title warns, 
reminding us that mere activity
does not indicate 
we’re actually achieving anything
in our workplaces. 
Obviously, the same can be said
of schools and, gulp, churches.

The author offers suggestions
to employers about 
how to reduce this frantic pace,
reminding the reader that humans
need down time to be creative
and space and time for “deep work,”
which is very different from 
The multitasking most of us spend our lives on.

This is all important, of course, 
but in the middle of the article is a nugget
that makes clear that 
all the top-down strategies 
to create calm and give employees space
face a daunting truth:
We LIKE being crazy busy.
Well, at least we HATE being idle.
We get anxious when left alone
with our own thoughts. 
A famous experiment
“found that 67% of men
and 25% of women chose to press a button
to electrically shock themselves 
rather than sit still
with their own thoughts
in a lab room.”

And don’t we resemble that remark?
We who can’t stand in a line or, 
tell the truth, go to the bathroom
without pulling out our phones?

There is something in us
that resists calm, 
being alone with our thoughts, 
not being distracted, 
and, well, it goes all the way back
to Adam and Eve, 
at least metaphorically.

The reading we have today from Genesis
is the second creation story in the Bible
and while most of don’t read this literally, 
it does reveal some truths. 

This story is often used
as a way to explain the origin of sin
but I think rather that it gets at
the mystery of sin, 
how even when we are in 
a perfect situation, 
as Adam and Eve are here—
a garden with all they need, 
made in the image of God, 
given good work to care for the garden,
surrounded by lush fruit trees, 
from which they may eat freely—
yet even here, 
we humans demonstrate anxiety, 
insecurity, even suspicion. 
They can’t be quiet and peaceful, 
there is already something in them
that can be played upon, 
and it is the crafty serpent
who provides the shock, 
the distraction, by insinuating
that all isn’t as lovely 
as it seems in Eden.

Now, this serpent may not have been a snake,
and it definitely wasn’t Satan. 

Here we just have a chatty creature
who is also crafty and knows
how to stir up the paranoia
of the already anxious, insecure humans:   
“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from ANY tree in the garden?’”
“Well, no,” answers Eve, 
“just not from that tree, the one in the middle;
if we do, we’ll die.”

“You won’t DIE!” says the serpent.
“You’ll become like God, 
knowing good and evil.”

The woman and the man, 
forgetting that they are ALREADY like God, 
being made in God’s image, 
and suddenly desirous of that ONE tree,
ignoring all the other beautiful 
fruit trees in the garden,
threw away the peace and confidence
of living in Eden to try out something new. 

And they were shocked when they found
they were naked, and, suddenly, 
that that was a bad thing.

Somehow we humans have built within us
a strong longing for something . . .  else, 
something other than what we already have. 

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal
called this a “God-shaped hole,”
echoing St. Augustine’s words: 
“You have made us for yourself, O Lord,
and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

That longing is not a bad thing, 
and it appears to be part of being human—
there from the very beginning. 
But longing can sometimes become anxiety, 
insecurity, worry. 

When we feel that God-shaped hole
open in our chests, 
and we are restless and worried, 
insecure, feeling incomplete, 
well, an electric shock can seem like a good idea.

Suggestions that the One
you had trusted isn’t actually trustworthy
sound about right. 

The very thing
that you know will NOT turn out well for you
suddenly seems like the exact right thing to do.

I used to think our inability, 
MY inability,
to turn to God when that “God-shaped hole” opens up,
when the restlessness sets in, 
I used to think that was sin
and the age-old temptation to idolatry,
to put ourselves in the place of God—
to pluck the fruit from the tree we wanted
rather than receiving the gift
of the fruit God is giving us.

That’s probably true, 
but perhaps it’s even a little more worrisome:
we are hard-wired NOT to be still, 
hard-wired to be suspicious, 
to be anxious and jittery. 
I mean, Adam and Eve 
jumped ship pretty quickly, 
and evolution tells us 
that being on high-alert and anxious
is probably what kept
we smart but pathetically puny
humans alive out on the savannah,
surrounded by wild beasts.

But if that’s the case, well, 
then we’re bound to try to fill
that God-shaped hole, 
that restlessness with whatever shows up first:
donuts and defensiveness, 
scrolling cat videos on Instagram and self-reliance, 
being a control freak.
Well, at least those are mine.

What do you turn to to calm your restless spirit?

What presents itself to you 
as being the right shape 
to fill that God-shaped abyss in your life?

If you’re hoping that, 
like the Harvard Business Review,
I have a solution to offer, 
I’m going to let you down. 
I don’t have one.

But what I do have is a model:
Jesus in the wilderness.
After 40 days of fasting. 
he’s hungry, alone, vulnerable. 

We hear this story every
first Sunday in Lent, 
and it’s so well-known 
that we probably can’t see it anymore.

Yeah, yeah, we think.
It’s Jesus. 
This isn’t a real temptation.

But that’s not true. 
Jesus isn’t superman. 
Jesus was human, 
feeling the same things we do, 
tempted in all the ways we are. 
And the great Tempter 
arrives when Jesus is most vulnerable—
unlike Adam and Eve, 
by the way, 
who were cozy in a garden
with a God who was always 
wandering by wanting to chat 
with them in the cool of the evening.
No, Jesus was in the desert—
Freezing at night, 
Hot during the day, 
Famished, lonely.

At any rate, the Tempter comes
and offers Jesus all the things
that would assuage his gnawing hunger, 
his fears—and he had them,
his anxieties—and he had those, too—
inviting him to revel in his power, 
to show off so that the whole world
would know that he is the Son of God. 
The tempter tells Jesus,
“You never have to be alone again,
Never doubt again.
You can be surrounded
by adoring crowds, 
Can make the world
the way YOU want it to be. 
You don’t have to wait on God
to fill that aching need inside.

But Jesus turns back again and again to God—
trusting God’s word, 
Trusting God’s love, 
Whole in his identity
As God’s child, beloved.

He is truly tempted, 
And he’ll be tempted again,
But Jesus shows us
that when you’ve got
a God-shaped hole in your life—
and we all do—
there is only One who can fill it.
1. Waytz, Adam. “Beware a Culture of Busyness: Organizations must stop conflating activity with achievement.” Harvard Business Review. March-April 2023. p. 60.