Why we long to belong

To ‘belong‘ is one of my favourite English verbs, while ‘home‘ is the noun that brings a warm glow to my heart.

Re-reading that best-loved parable of Jesus in Luke 15:1-32 I found the word ‘home’ five times in the New Living Translation of this chapter and eight times in The Passion Translation, although, surprisingly, the word does not actually feature in the Greek text. I also felt a frisson of surprise when I realised afresh the reason that our Lord told these three stories about missing belongings and their homecoming: lost sinners were being brought home, not to a place but to a person!

‘The Jewish religious leaders and experts of the law . . . grumbled and complained [when] dishonest tax-collectors and other notorious sinners . . . gathered around . . . Jesus, . . . saying, “Look at how this man . . . welcomes them all to come to him”’ (15:1-2 TPT).

However, even though the prodigal’s brother was (to quote his father) ‘always with me by my side’ (verse 31), the lad seemed still to lack any sense of belonging. The religious leaders, too, were beside Jesus without belonging.

We used to sing these lines in my boyhood days:

Once heaven seemed a far off place till Jesus showed his smiling face.

Now it’s begun within my soul; ‘twill last while endless ages roll.

O hallelujah, yes ‘tis heaven, ‘tis heaven to know my sins forgiven.

On land or sea, no matter where, Where Jesus is ‘Tis heaven there.

Beware of ‘the familiar’

Irish author John O’Donohue offers some simple insights into the dynamics of belonging based on his Celtic heritage and culture. He could easily have been contrasting those two brothers when he wrote:

‘The awakening of the human spirit is a homecoming. Yet, ironically, our sense of familiarity often militates against our homecoming.’

When the younger son ‘finally came to his senses’ (verse 17), he actually ‘came to himself’ (English-Greek New Testament). That awakening of his spirit while still ‘far off’ was for him already a homecoming. As Hegel the philosopher said:

‘Generally, the familiar, precisely because it is familiar, is not known.’

Moses’ experience of an awakening after four decades ‘far off” from his boyhood home, minding sheep in the back of beyond, is an excellent example of the blinding effect of the familiar. He must have become very familiar with every humble, insignificant thorn bush in that whole vast territory. What a shock, then, when one of those well-known acacias seemed to speak to him!

‘Familiarity enables us to tame, control and ultimately forget the mystery‘, and the familiar becomes ‘one of the most subtle and pervasive forms of human alienation.’

Surely the prodigal’s brother sensed a similar shock on hearing the excitement of a party in full swing within the familiar setting of his father’s mournful house. He is a perfect example of O’Donohue’s discovery that:

‘There is nothing as lonely in the world as that which has hardened or grown cold. Bitterness and coldness are the ultimate defeat.’

We live in an era of widespread addiction to social media. Although celebrities claim to have thousands of ‘followers’, mostly with anonymous ‘user names’, it all seems to cultivate more loneliness – despite the apparent obsession with the topic of ‘relationship’!

How does one ‘come to oneself’?

According to O’Donohue:

‘One . . . absolute . . . essential is ‘silence, the other is solitude [which] is different from loneliness. When you are lonely, you become acutely aware of your own separation. Solitude can be a homecoming to your own deepest belonging.’

Ponder this weighty quotation:

‘If you are afraid of your solitude, or you only meet your solitude with entrenched or impoverished thought, you will never enter your own depth’, which means you never ‘come to yourself’.

What kinds of things prevent true solitude? O’Donohue suggests three main categories of inhibiting factors:

‘Often . . . the possessions [you] have, the work [you] do and the beliefs [you] hold are manic attempts to . . . wallpaper [the] void [in your soul, causing] you to remain an inner fugitive, driven from refuge to refuge, always on the run with no place to call home. [But] when you acknowledge the integrity of your own solitude, and settle into the mystery, your relationship with others takes on new warmth, adventure and wonder.’

Possessions were the prodigal’s downfall; he took his inheritance prematurely and squandered it. Work was the older son’s trap. And their false mind sets had to be destroyed if they both were going to get into God’s will for each of them – which is ‘a beautiful life, satisfying and perfect in his eyes’ (Romans 12:2 TPT). The repentant prodigal’s homecoming brought him abundant warmth, worth and wonders! Such wholesome and meaningful relationships await us all in the Father’s house, the community of Christians. Sadly, the story ends without telling us if the older son remained trapped in the merely familiar, or if by repenting he entered the warmth, worth and wonder of divine family life.

A sense of belonging fulfils one’s longing

Longing and belonging are related words, both coming from the same Latin source, longus. The ‘be’ syllable simple intensifies the verb to ‘long for’, giving the sense of ‘to yearn thoroughly’ with a prolonged desire for connection to our proper place [as in High German belangen = to reach, and hence arrive at], a place of familiarity – not just superficial familiarity, but intimacy.

Although biblical Hebrew and Greek do not capture ‘belonging’ in a single word, the heartbeat of the word ‘longing’ can be found throughout the Greek New Testament. Here’s how Paul used it in his second letter to his spiritual children in Corinth. When Titus returned from Corinth Paul was reassured of their progress, so he wrote (2 Corinthians 7:15-16):

‘When he told us how much you long to see me . . . and how loyal you are to me, I was filled with joy,’ especially as he recalled how he had reprimanded them on all sorts of issues in ‘that severe letter to you’. Thankfully it had ‘produced godly sorrow in you’, and ‘a longing to see me.’

He also wrote of his own longing for his resurrection body at Christ’s return:

‘We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies. . .  While we live in these earthly bodies we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die, and get rid of these bodies . . . Rather, we want to put on our new bodies.’ (See 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 NLT).

*Let’s linger longingly and enjoy our present privileges and our future prospects in the Lord!

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