Unfulfilled dreams are a fact of life.

Popular wisdom tells us it is better to focus on the fact that a cup is half-full than that it is half-empty. Experience proves this most of the time: my body rolls out of bed more easily when I anticipate a productive day; my marriage works considerably better when I choose to congratulate my wife on the portion of the toast that is not burned.

Still, an important truth often gets sacrificed on the altar of optimism by the priests of positive thinking. The cup is half-full, but it is also half-empty. Why think about this negative side of things? Because spiritual maturity requires that we learn how to live with unfulfillment.

Few truths could be harder to learn in our culture. What makes unfulfillment about as difficult to swallow as cough syrup is the presence of a pervasive and pernicious influence, what we could call the false ideal of the full cup. The false ideal of the full cup ignores the empty half. It assumes all can and should be fullness and perfection. No such eschaton exists, in this life at least, but that matters not. Lies can powerfully direct lives.

The false ideal of the full cup affirms, as its doctrinal foundation, the belief that the most important goal in life is personal fulfillment and the pleasure that will come from it. From many pulpits this creed is proclaimed. The music we hear, the television we watch, the advertising we absorb, the magazines we read—all preach a gospel of self-fulfillment.

Perfect Marriage?

Consider marriage as one example. A girl dreams of having a husband, and her fantasy imagines a perfect one: tender and loving and always sensitive. Add to the picture a couple of kids who easily stand out as the cutest kids on the block, the brightest in school, and the best behaved in church. Life with this family will be lived in a beautiful house, the kind featured in Good Housekeeping.

Eventually the dreamer falls in love. Passions are intense; he seems so right. The premarital counseling, however useful for other mortals, offers little in her judgment, for she and her fiancé enjoy a relationship obviously made in heaven. By the time she discovers that he gets his undershirt dirty like everyone else, new dreams have emerged to sustain her.

She eagerly awaits the arrival of children, she budgets and saves for a new house, she cultivates a circle of friends. But then, usually somewhere in the midthirties, an inner change takes place. Depression sets in, and with it comes a vague restlessness, a nameless yearning. She still loves her husband and children. Nevertheless, she seems to have such emptiness within. Her dreams have come true—and that’s part of the problem. Reality never touches the false ideal. The husband has his difficult side, the children fight and fuss, and even a beautiful house can’t cure boredom. An indescribable hunger wells up from the deep recesses of her being, an intense loneliness overwhelms her.

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The boy also has his dreams. Too many Playboy magazines have been read, perhaps, and the air-brushed perfection of centerfold beauty becomes his fantasy’s image of a future wife. And he dreams of success in his profession, of course, and the material security and social prestige accompanying it.

He eventually falls in love, and falling aptly describes it, as he trips over his passion and plunges into a swift current, the undertow pulling him beyond all reason and perspective. But what fun it is to be swept along by such emotional intensity!

A few years later, though, he looks at the woman next to him in bed. Clearly she isn’t a Playmate of the Month. He gets up, shaves, and leaves his comfortable suburban home for a job (once his work, now simply his job), which perhaps made him successful according to all outward signs but now bores him beyond the telling of it. And like a volcano he erupts, spewing feelings of longing and depression and even anger. Once again, a sufferer of the false ideal of the full cup.

Two Words

It starts with just two words, a brief phrase that grows, when nurtured in the soil of discontent, into a large problem. Here are the words: If only … If only I were making more money. Then … Then things would be different, the ideal would be achieved.

The surrounding culture forcefully affirms such thinking. The human potential movement readily relieves the conscience of any nagging guilt about selfishness, assuring us that we owe ourselves the very best. (How can we truly love others if we don’t love ourselves first? How can we be much good to anyone else unless we solve our own hang-ups?) And the managerial ethos of our times provides hope that where there is a will, as the saying goes, there is a way. A nearly idolatrous faith in technical solutions to difficult problems sends us hustling off to enrichment seminars and bookstores and training retreats to learn just the right method. Do you have a problem in your relationships? Well then, here’s what you do: this and then this and throw in a bit of this—presto! Perfect marriage, model kids, fulfilled life. Just like a Chevy rolling off the line in Detroit.

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The truth is, we never reach the false ideal in this life. The cup from which we drink is also half-empty. Always. Christians and non-Christians alike live in a state of brokenness. Both human experience and Scripture confirm this.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow, in Motivation and Personality, theorized that in the hierarchy of human needs the need for “self-actualization” is the necessary final step for full development of the personality. “A musician must make music,” Maslow wrote, “an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be. He must be true to his own nature.”

Inevitable Disappointment

What Maslow correctly underscored, I think, is the restless need for fulfillment that stirs within us, and that perhaps propels certain individuals to relatively higher levels of achievement and relatively lower levels of discontent. But does anyone ever feel totally self-fulfilled? I doubt it. Certainly I have never met a person who experienced unambiguous peace, a sense that she has become all she was meant to be. And apart from our Lord, it is hard to think of historical figures who could have said as dying words, “It is accomplished!”

Alexander the Great conquered Persia, but broke down and wept because his troops were too exhausted to push on to India. Hugo Grotius, the father of modern international law, said at the last, “I have accomplished nothing worthwhile in my life.” John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States—not a Lincoln, perhaps, but a decent leader—wrote in his diary: “My life has been spent in vain and idle aspirations, and in ceaseless rejected prayers that something would be the result of my existence beneficial to my species.” Robert Louis Stevenson wrote words that continue to delight and enrich our lives, and yet what did he write for his epitaph? “Here lies one who meant well, who tried a little, and failed much.” Cecil Rhodes opened up Africa and established an empire, but what were his dying words? “So little done, so much to do.”

So much for the high achievers, we might think. But what about us normal folks? Are not spiritually mature Christians, at least, exempt from this problem? After all, they possess the promise of a fulfilled life: the Spirit of God dwells in their hearts. Christians sometimes feel discontent, granted; but is that not because they have let slide the discipline of discipleship? Do they not simply need to pump up their pooped-out piety?

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The apostle Paul, writing to believers in Rome, honestly faced the brokenness of human life. In the middle of his great theological affirmation of the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, in the soaring eighth chapter of Romans, he recognized “the sufferings of this present time” (8:18). He was not thinking about minor irritations, mind you, but sufferings—deep hurts, unrelieved pains. And the problem extended beyond isolated individual cases. As Paul saw it, everything was affected by it. “The whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (8:22).

The tense of faith’s verbs makes a critical difference. When it has to do with complete victory over evil, when it has to do with the healing of all sickness, when it has to do with piecing together the broken fragments of life—we cannot honestly speak in the present tense, but only the future. We will have the full experience of God’s salvation (it is not in question!). But for the time being—well, the apostle himself writes: “[N]ot only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23). Yes, we do have the Spirit of God, but only the first fruits of the Spirit’s presence. We live constantly with partial fulfillment: the cup is always half-empty. It is not simply that we think it would be nice to have more. No. We “groan inwardly.” Longing bursts forth from the depths; we live in hope, not in fulfillment.

Suffering Used By God

But the news is not all bad. The suffering in itself is not good; however, in the hands of a good God it can serve good ends.

First, it provides us with an opportunity for growth. When afflicted by unfulfillment you either get better or you get bitter. Those who have accomplished much in life, who seem to have lived so nobly, have often done so in spite of their hurts. Plato was hunchbacked. Demosthenes, the greatest orator of the ancient world, stuttered (the first time he tried to make a public speech, he was laughed off the rostrum). Homer was blind, as was Milton. Sir Walter Scott was paralyzed.

It will not do to think you have been dealt a particularly bad hand and therefore, “if only” things were different, everything would be rosy. Circumstances will never change that much. Wordsworth said that his greatest inspirations often came to him in the night, so he had to teach himself to write in the dark. We, too, have to learn to live in darkness.

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And what we learn is more than how to get accustomed to the dark. We learn how to be obediently faithful; the muscles and tendons of our faith get toughened enough to stand in the storms of life. If Jesus, although he was the Son of God, “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8), do we really think we can graduate into the presence of God without the lessons of suffering in the school of faith?

The God toward whom we grope, sometimes in the darkest of circumstances, already holds us and will not let go. Some things can only be learned by experience, and the experience of suffering teaches us the faithfulness of God. Paul wrote, “A thorn was given me in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7). Who knows what it was? Maybe no one but God ever knew; maybe it was too embarrassing to mention; maybe it was so well known he did not need to be specific. In any event, it made life hard. So Paul did what we ought always to do with thorny problems: he prayed. He asked for relief.

Once, twice, three times he banged on the door of heaven, but nothing happened. The thorn remained firmly buried in his flesh. Something else opened for him, though. He entered into a new understanding, a deeper faith. He learned that while there are many things you can do without, there is one thing you cannot do without, one thing that so transcends in importance everything else it can scarcely be compared.

The one thing he discovered, in the midst of his suffering and maybe only because of his suffering, was this: God’s grace is sufficient. Sufficient for what? He doesn’t say, and perhaps that is part of what he is saying. Just sufficient. Period. Enough to make it possible to endure. Enough to keep you going on the journey even though you have stumbled and bloodied your knees. Enough to keep you moving when all spiritual stamina is spent. Enough to keep your eyes on the distant horizon even though it is too dark to see much of anything.

And that peering into the future leads to the second way in which the pain of drinking from a half-empty cup can be put to good use by a good God: The suffering of the present generates hope. “We rejoice in our suffering,” Paul wrote, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us …” (Rom. 5:3–5). Unfulfillment makes us stretch forward and squint our eyes with expectation toward the time of fulfillment. Longing is a driving power, a restless energy pulling us forward into God’s future.

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Bertrand Russell tried to describe his inner longing this way: “The center of me is always and eternally a terrible pain—a curious, wild pain—a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite, the beatific vision—God. I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found, but the love of it is my life; it’s like passionate love for a ghost. At times it fills me with rage, at times with wild despair; it is the source of gentleness and cruelty and work; it fills every passion I have. It is the actual spring of life in me.”

The Christian Hope

The Christian’s hope is also often “a curious, wild pain,” but unlike Russell’s it has a specific object. We yearn not for a ghost, but for the God who became flesh, the God of our redemption, the God of the future who will consummate his loving purposes for creation. “Thy kingdom come,” we pray. Why? Because God’s reign has not yet come in fullness. We “groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23).

We need to discover what we really want. We mistakenly think we know: a new relationship that will fill our emptiness; a new job that will satisfy our restlessness; a new spiritual experience, more ecstatic than the last, that will transport us to the heights; another house or car or toy that will provide a more lasting escape. So we hustle about from one new thing to the next, always on the move, because nothing ever fills the void. C. S. Lewis somewhere said that we err not by desiring but by desiring too little. What we really seek, if only we knew it, is God. Our thirst can only be quenched with a full cup of his presence, with the pure, two-hundred-proof distillate of his love filled to the brim and overflowing.

If this life offers all the joy to be found, then by all means reach out and grab all you can and hold tightly to whatever happiness you have managed to find—and get used to the feeling of despair when it slips through your fingers. But if fulfillment rests with God, with One who transcends our life and times, then by God’s sufficient grace lift your eyes beyond the brokenness of the present, stretch your vision toward God’s future. Hope provides power for endurance; hope clears enough ground amidst the tangled undergrowth of our restless longing to give patience a place to take root. Hope helps us live with the reality of a half-empty cup.

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