There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.— Blaise Pascal
The French Christian Philosopher Blaise Pascal said “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.” Pascal used the word vacuum as opposed to hole or void because not only does a vacuum describe an empty space which can be filled, but a vacuum has suction, it draws things into the space. God places that space within us, but paradoxically it is also God’s Spirit that creates the need for the space to be filled. God places within us a desire for himself.
A professor named Joseph Campbell spent his life studying the spiritual beliefs of many cultures, both ancient and modern. He discovered that people in most cultures and times sense something or someone beyond themselves. This gets played out in elaborate belief systems, concepts of divine beings, and religious rituals. It is also more personal and innate. Most people have a sense of right and wrong – good or bad; all cultures have some kind of moral code and justice system. In fact justice is something we come to expect at an early age. How quickly a youngster whines, ‘it’s not fair’ which points to a sense of moral order in the universe (at least their universe). I remember fighting with my brother and sister over who had the most gingerale in their glass. If it wasn’t me, then it wasn’t fair. There is a great story of an umpire who got caught speeding. He pleaded for mercy explaining to the officer his reasons for going so fast. He got a huge ticket anyhow. A short while later the same police officer was up to bat at the season opener. He recognized the umpire as the man to whom he gave the ticket and in that awkward moment asked how it went with the ticket and judge. “Better swing at everything,” came the reply. We are all umpires in one way or another. When we witness real injustice such as seeing the perpetration of human atrocities, our inner beings scream that it is just plain wrong and should not be happening! While moral views might differ, it appears morality is encoded in human DNA. There is a sense of how things ought to be and how far we miss that mark. For these reasons, my fellow humans beings give me cause to believe. Some argue that what we our feelings, thoughts, will and creativity are no more than the random firing of synapses. I just can’t go there. I marvel as we laugh at a story someone tells or the joy of being with another. I can’t explain the pleasure experienced in watching a sun set or the inner response to an incredible piece of music. I can’t imagine the pain I feel for one who is hurting or the depressing weight of dreams not realized are just random feelings.
The Bible tells us that God too has a deep sense of justice. God created us as unique, independent individuals who are loved by him and can respond to that love. Sometimes we are the ones who miss the mark and sit on the wrong side of justice. God knows we’ve done wrong and that justice is required. Like the umpire, our way is to plead for God to ignore our offence or knock down our ticket. God’s way is different, in Jesus Christ the ‘ticket’ is paid and we are forgiven. And so beyond all human, cultural evidence my best reason for believing is Jesus. It was through reading what Jesus said, taught and did that the vacuum in my soul was filled and I am a believer. Jesus, who is the most trustworthy person I can think of, said God exists and loves us. The theologian George MacDonald wrote, “I can only say with my whole heart that I hope we have indeed a Father in heaven; but this man [Jesus] says he knows.” With such strong reasons to believe we might think that there would be no room for doubt, but that’s still not the case. I have many good reasons to believe and yet I know that I walk by faith which by definition is not sight. Faith is to trust and commit to that which cannot be ‘absolutely’ proven. Yet, in spite of my own unpredictable heart, I was startled as I reread the story at the end of Matthew. The disciples seemed to have plenty of reason to believe in Jesus. They were eye witnesses to his resurrection from the dead. They saw him; spoke to him; even touched him. And still, “some doubted” (Matt 28:17).
In speaking of coming to faith the philosopher Kierkegaard spoke of the need to take “a leap of faith”. Somehow we need to leave our doubts behind and take the risk of believing. The theologian John Ortberg uses an illustration when talking about our faith – the trapeze. There are three ‘movements’ to being on a trapeze – letting go, waiting and being caught. Letting go is the first movement of faith and in fact it’s the only one we have control over. But letting go is not easy.
One of the greatest passages in the Bible describes all the things that Jesus had to let go of in order to be faithful to his Father and his mission. We read these incredible words,
Jesus Christ, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave … he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. (Phil. 2: 6-8)
Christ let go of his divine status, wealth, power, glory and regal position. He even let go of his relationship with the Father and life itself. Because he knew the Father’s love, he had faith in his Father’s purposes. He trusted God would be faithful and so he let go.
It shouldn’t surprise us that during his lifetime Jesus told many people to let go of the things they clung to in the hopes of being full. He told the rich young businessman to let go of his trapeze called money. He told a woman to let go of her lover. He told Martha to let go of her need for outward perfection. He told religious leaders to let go of their preconceived pious ideas. He told his disciples to let go of their lives and follow him. God asks us to let go. To trust him. To risk. The author of Hebrews just before he wrote about the significance and meaning of faith told us we are to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely … to run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2). What are you clinging to? What do you depend upon to make you whole? What in your life is filling up the space meant for God? Do you need to let go of a relationship that does not honour God? Are you attached to money and possessions? Is there a secret addiction that you can’t admit even to yourself? Are you obsessed with your body image or health? Or perhaps your trapeze bar is more internal than external. Do you need lay aside a grudge? Are you hanging on to past hurts and injustices? Do you need to let go of your ego and pride? Can you learn to lay aside power and be a servant?
Letting go is difficult because it creates fear. What will life be like if I let go? Letting go puts us into freefall. We’re left up in the air with nothing to do but wait to see what will happen. As Ortberg puts it, “Waiting is the in-between time when I have responded to God but things are not yet the way I want them to be. I keep obeying. I keep on trusting. And I keep holding out my hands.” In saying that things are not the way “I” want them to be, Ortberg is reflecting the discomfort we feel when life is disorienting. Our waiting is filled with anxiety because we are out of control and out of our comfort zones. Frankly, I prefer to hold something in my hands – a map, 7 key principles, a horoscope or fortune cookie – anything in fact. Waiting helps us to realize that having let go, directions won’t help us. We are in the midst of the unknown, the spiritual abyss. We are like Paul who said, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13: 12). This period of waiting is often a time of doubt. We wonder if we’ve done the right thing. If we’ll be okay? If God will come through for us? If we will be forgotten? If we will fall and if life from here on in will be filled with pain? There is no turning back now. We need to go through with it. Having said that, waiting can also be exhilarating. Letting go gets our adrenalin pumping. Anything is possible! We are filled with expectancy and hope. The future may hold new and exciting things. We discover what we’re capable of. We learn new things about God. As we wait for another set of hands to grasp our hands, faith and doubt hang with us in the air.
As Jesus died he prayed, “Into your hands I commend my Spirit” (Lk 23:46). Jesus believed that God was the Great Catcher. He’s not the God of sweaty hands. His grasp is like iron; he never lets go. Sometimes though, God surprises us. He purposely misses the first time and we find ourselves doing another mid-air summersault. Or he catches us by the feet. Or, as Jesus experienced, He misses us altogether; He lets us fall. It’s then we discover he has become our safety net. He is still the one who catches us. However he does it, once God has hold of us, we are safe. Not because things are now the way “I” want them to be, but because things are the way God intended them to be from the beginning of time.
Truth be told, every single human being faces the day when we must let go of the trapeze called life. Who will catch you? Every day I reach out in faith to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. But what really counts is that every day God in Christ reaches out to me and holds tight. When we’re in the hands of God doubt is no longer possible and faith is no longer needed. When we’re held by God are we completely free.
Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” In the process of letting go we find that our hearts are at rest only in God. And when we are resting in the arms of the Great Catcher, we discover that God too is at rest in the God shaped vacuum of our hearts.