The Gospel and Northerness; or, Preaching to the Why

C.S. Lewis called it “Northerness”. An overwhelming, bittersweet longing in your gut when confronted with the stark, harsh, beauty of the world. It rests heavy on a man’s heart and in his mind before bleeding into a sense of deep joy. Joy that I am very small and there is something very, very big of which I am a part.

I won’t try to improve on Lewis’s own description of northerness, found in Surprised by Joy:

Pure “Northernness” engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity… and almost at the same moment I knew that I had met this before, long, long ago. …And with that plunge back into my own past, there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country, and the distance of the Twilight of the Gods and the distance of my own past Joy, both unattainable, flowed together in a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss…

It’s important for us to understand what Lewis means by “joy”. He says in the same book, “[Joy] is that … unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”

N.D. Wilson beautifully explains the moments that bring on a sense of longing for more in his book Death By Living:

Those moments in life when we realize that we are standing in open jaws, when we feel so small that it arrives with a dominating immenseness—when the stars are suddenly no longer twinkly things, but massive seething explosions punctuating an unimaginably cold and near-infinite nothing—those are the moments when we feel our true size, our true pitiful (feed me three times a day, keep me breathing, beat my heart once a second, don’t let me stay underwater for too long, don’t let me get hot, don’t let me get cold) dependence. Those moments are when we yearn. That yearning, that groaning against the curse, that desire to feel all that can be felt in a given moment, is how I think of northerness.

This sense of joy is the reason people flock to the Grand Canyon. It’s why families save for years and years to drive to Yosemite. It’s why a walk through the redwoods gives us such a childlike sense of wonderment. It’s why my Californian friends were so disappointed to learn that the namesake of Round Rock, Texas is just a little round rock. They wanted so badly to feel small standing next to some great giant circular boulder, towering over the central Texas plains. What they got was a little stone and a lot of disappointment.

We all long for and seek out things that make us feel small because it reminds us that we are part of something infinitely bigger than ourselves.

In Ecclesiastes 3:11, the Teacher says, “God has made everything fit together beautifully, but he has also placed eternity in the human heart.”

What the Teacher means is that God has woven together existence in beauty that goes beyond our capability of description. He has created an existence so vast in scale that we cannot possibly comprehend. And in His wisdom, He has placed a God-sized hole inside of our hearts so that we seek out this beauty, this magnitude, just to remind ourselves, in the deepest recesses of our souls – in a part of us that we don’t even recognize as existing – that we are missing something we should not be missing. He has set everything in its place, in its time, and all of it shouts His name because it shows us just how small we are.

Isaiah 55:12 looks forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises when mountains will shout God’s glory and trees will clap their hands. But Romans 1:19-20, says that the trees of the field are clapping their hands now, and the mountains and hills are singing now, screaming at the top of their lungs to remind us of our Creator.

As Christians, this truth, this universal longing for God, should profoundly affect the way we preach the gospel. The concept of northerness should change preaching from an argument or a set of instructions into a reminder. It is a presentation of a story of which we are all a part, and a reminder that we have a place within it.

The idea of northerness is one that many of the greatest marketers and business leaders have tapped into, but they call it something else. Simon Sinek (seen below) calls it “The Why?”

Successful leaders, Sinek says, don’t present a product and how it works as an answer to why you should buy something. Rather, successful leaders address the deep purpose that must be addressed. Why do we exist as a company? Why do we need this product? Why must we go to the moon? After answering the Why, they proceed to the how and the what.

Watching this video, I was struck with how often I and other Christians present the gospel as an answer to a question that no one is asking. We say, “Hey you should be saved. By praying this prayer. Because you want to go to Heaven and be with God.”

Well, no, not really. I don’t think I want that at all.

N.D. Wilson comments, “I don’t remember one particular lecture from my entire senior year of high school. And maybe a couple from my time in college. But those lectures happened to me. I engaged with them in the moment. They were never meant to be permanent.”

Preaching the gospel too often becomes a lecture happening to an audience. This is not the way it was ever intended. I know that because all of creation is designed to show people that there is more than this finite existence.

We’ve been seeking fulfillment in a billion different things that never satisfy. Things that turn to dust in our mouths. Relationships that end by death or changes of heart or geography. Identity in jobs – until we get too old or too replaceable. Identity in abilities until all of a sudden I’m 35 and my basketball prowess on the court has changed from a quick first step and a smooth jumper to cheap fouls and old-man-elbow rebounding techniques because my body just doesn’t do what I want it to do anymore. And in everything we try, every pleasure sweet on our tongue, every shiny new product we attempt to sedate ourselves with, we are never satisfied. Because you and I are small, and we were made for much, much more than the latest iphone and houses full of stuff.

So we preach the gospel with all the gusto of some sort of three-step eternal insurance policy?

My brothers, this should not be so.

The gospel is an invitation. Preaching – our communicating the gospel – should be a raucous shout to come drink the living water and never thirst again. Preaching is a plea, joining in chorus with the yearning in each of our souls for more – for joy made complete.