The God-Shaped Vacuum

If we don’t fill it up with God, it’ll fill up with something else
1999-02-25

Those of you who have read my book We’re on a Mission from God know that in that book (and everywhere else) I frequently refer to the "God-shaped hole" we have in the center of our hearts. ("Heart" as in emotions or souls, not as in "the thing that beats and moves your blood around.") It’s a way of describing that need we all have for God. My theory has always been that, when that hole isn’t filled with God, we try to fill it with other things, like material possessions, money, drugs, sex -- whatever we can find.

I always assumed that I first got that idea from Augustine, who said, "Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee." But recently, I heard a more direct reference to this from another Church Father, St. Ambrose. I don’t know if I heard this particular reference before, but I know it puts the God-shaped hold idea into ever clearer focus. Ambrose doesn’t talk about a God-shaped hole, but rather about a God-shaped vacuum. Changing this concept from a "hold" to a "vacuum" gives it a whole new level of meaning -- a level I’d never really through about before.

Okay, what’s the deal with a hole? It’s there. You can stand over it, you can look into it, you can set things right on its edge if you’d like to. As long as you’re careful, you won’t fall into it, and neither will anything else. If you leave it alone, it’ll leave you alone.

But the same isn’t true of a vacuum. A vacuum is active. It wants something inside of it. It needs something inside of it. And so, it sucks at everything around it. It draws things toward itself. It isn’t picky about what it’s drawing in, it just needs to be filled.

I don’t know about you, but the void in my heart is much more like a vacuum than an ordinary hole. When I’m feeling unsatisfied, it’s amazing what my heart can draw into its center. I can thumb through a catalog and find that one dress or painting or sofa that will make me happy forever. I can ride in a nice car and know that I would never feel want again if I could just own a vehicle like this. Friends, dates, parties, clothing, furniture -- it doesn’t matter. If I’m near it and it’s attractive to me, shloooop, there it is, trying to rule my world.

Of course, none of it fits. It’s like trying to fit a sofa-shaped object into a God-shaped vacuum. I wind up feeling unsatisfied, disappointed. I have what I want, and I’m still not perfectly happy. I still want, only now I want more. But more doesn’t satisfy me. On and on it goes.

The problem with a vacuum is that, when too much stuff is clogging the opening, nothing can get in at all. And so it is with God. We can try to fill that void with all of the pretty stuff we can find. The void won’t be filled, because everything else is the wrong shape. We won’t be satisfied. But, as long as all of that junk is clogging the opening, we can’t get what we really need, either.

God belongs at the center of our hearts -- at the center of our lives. At the very deepest level of our souls, we want him there. We long for him. It’s that aching emptiness we fell in the world, the emptiness that doesn’t fill up, no matter how many nice toys or nice people we have around us. But we can’t let him in until we’ve unclogged things a little.

None of this means we have to give away all of our possessions and live in squalor, or to separate ourselves from other people. We just have to make sure those things are far enough away from our hearts, and from our affections, that they’re not in the path of the suction. That is what the saints called "detachment." Things are nice, but we recognize them as things. People are wonderful, but we don’t set them up as gods. Only God is God, and he goes in the middle.

Once we’ve done all of this, and our hearts are being constantly filled with God, it’s amazing how different the things of the world can look. Sure, they’re still pretty. We still like them and enjoy them. But we don’t build our lives around them. We appreciate people, but instead of seeing them as means to fill our needs, we see them as creatures of God, and love them as He does.

And we know how God loves them, because we know Him. He’s always with us. He’s the one we’re carrying around in that former vacuum in the center of our hearts.

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