Thursday, May 14, 2015

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

By Bert Gary

“Well, we wrote the song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”—which is a gospel song, pretty much. I mean, it doesn’t sound much like a gospel song the way we do it, but if you look at the lyric, the basic music, that’s exactly what it is.” 
From an interview with U2 guitarist, David Howell Evans, known as “The Edge”

The Irish rock band’s album The Joshua Tree topped the charts in the US and eighteen other countries, going on to sell over 25 million copies worldwide and making it one of the best-selling albums of all time. A number one hit from the album is a song of spiritual yearning with a distinct gospel flavor. The marching drumbeat and the ringing single-note ostinato on guitar are a percussive contrast to lead-singer Bono’s soaring, plaintive vocals. And the lyrics are a revelation. Bono penned a hymn of hope, a psalm of lament, and a profession of faith. The band is U2. And the song is “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

The songs on the album were born of the band’s newfound love of America—its lands, its people, and its music. Their photographer told them about the striking Joshua Trees of the Southwest US and suggested shooting them for the album photos. Bono, the band’s lead singer and lyricist, discovered that the Mormons named the tree after Joshua, the Old Testament commander of Israel, because it looked as though its “arms” were raised in prayer (though in the Bible it was actually Moses who raised his hand—holding his staff—to sustain a miraculous military victory for Joshua against the Amalekites in Exodus 17:11). Bono suggested The Joshua Tree as the album’s title and the band agreed.

There is a New Testament connection, too. The Hebrew name Yehoshua (meaning “God is salvation” or God’s gift,” often abbreviated to Yeshua) translates into English as both Joshua and Jesus, and Jesus died on a tree.

Galatians 3:13   Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us -- for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” (see also Deuteronomy 21:22-23 and Acts 5:30, 10:39, 13:29)

In this sense, the album title (The Joshua Tree) connects to Bono’s verse:

You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains 
Carried the cross of my shame 
Oh, of my shame, you know I believe it.

Whether U2 consciously matched the album title to this verse in “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” it is a fit. Yeshua did indeed carry the tree of shame, and his nail-scarred hands were indeed raised. As the chorus insists, however, even though the lyricist believes in the cross and has experienced its liberation from shame, he marvels and grieves that his heart still aches; his soul still yearns for something. He still hasn’t found what he’s looking for.

A man said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24) That same tension, that same paradox of doubtful faith or faithful doubt, that same ongoing spiritual struggle with which we, if honest, are all too familiar, seems alive and well in U2’s contemplative anthem. So universal is the experience, it seems, that Bono’s sacred song has touched our nation and his. Yea, verily, it seems to have touched the world.

There is in “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” the celebration of freedom (you broke the bonds), the admission of sin (I have held the hand of a devil), and the relentless search for . . . what? The song does not say. Perhaps that is the point. We all yearn for something essential that we struggle to name. Belonging? Contentment? Truth? Happiness? Peace? Faith? Joy? Love? Home? God?

The Apostle Paul likewise wrote of freedom in Christ, of sin that enslaves, and of a universal searching. He brought his message first to the synagogues and then to the agorae (plural of agora – a downtown marketplace) of the ancient Roman world. When in Athens, Paul left the door open for pagans and philosophers when asked to speak at the Areopagus, also called Mars Hill (Act 17: 15-34), by interpreting Athens’ religiosity as a spiritual search (though misdirected) for Yahweh, the one true God (and his Son, Yehoshua, though at the Areopagus that day Paul sensitively and astutely never mentions Yaweh or Yehoshua by name).

Paul noticed that the Athenians had all their religious bases covered, even displaying an altar “To an unknown god” so as not to inadvertently neglect and thereby offend any gods with which they might be unfamiliar.  The Apostle used the Athenian monument dedicated to an unknown god as his springboard to claim that there is one true God (without giving his name), a God who does not live in temples to be served by people as if God needed anything, a God who gives life and breath to all, and a God who appointed a day when the world will be rightly judged by a man, a human being (without giving his name), one who died but was raised by God from the dead as assurance to all.

 Paul’s message was to and for and about “all.” He noted that all of Athens appeared to be very religious. The one true God gives life and breath to all. All the world will be judged in righteousness by a man who died. But God raised that man to give assurance to all. And then, most poignantly, Paul claims that God made all people and nations so that they might seek for him, grope for him, and find him, though God is not far from them all. He even claims that within God we all live and move and have our being.

I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one.
But yes, I'm still running.

In this verse Bono speaks to the universality of the kingdom of heaven and its coming unity, when he sees all colors and creeds “bleed into one.” But believing, again, does not ease the pain of the longing. Until the kingdom comes in fullness, and even though we live and move and have our being in it now, we long for its coming completed unity. Now, in the meantime, the yearning drives us, and sometimes drives us crazy. That is why we run. We run through the fields, we climb the highest mountain, we hold the hand of the devil in our blindness and desperation, and we search for union in a lover’s embrace.

I have kissed honey lips
Felt the healing fingertips
It burned like fire
This burning desire.

Yet nothing works. We are indeed still running because, beyond the fields, the mountains, the fingertips of a lover, the hope of the kingdom, and even the freedom of the cross, we still haven’t found what we’re looking for, or perhaps who we are looking for.

I have run, I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls
Only to be with you.

U2’s song of spiritual groping syncs powerfully with the Apostle Paul’s speech to the Athenian philosophers.

Acts 17:26-27  “From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,  27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him -- though indeed he is not far from each one of us.” (emphasis mine)

This may disturb some but it thrills me: U2’s gospel song is more biblical—specifically it has more in common with Paul’s approach to evangelism—than the modern evangelical playbook. Do you see it?

One will not likely find a universal human feeling of discontent in the message of modern evangelicalism. It troubles me that church insiders wear the cloak of false certainty. But it is even more troubling that the certainty crowd tends to shame fellow insiders who risk sharing their longings and questions, and that they judge outsiders as wholly separated from God. Can a dominant corner of the church today have forgotten the words of Jesus—that the admission of lostness is the beginning of being found, that the recognition of blindness is the beginning of sight, and those who seek will find? How can any of us lord our certainty over anyone else? How can followers of Jesus take it upon themselves to separate the sheep from the goats? How can one prodigal judge another prodigal?

The official music video for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was shot in the streets of Las Vegas, Nevada on Palm Sunday, the day on which Christians around the world remember and celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem, “the city that stones the prophets and kills those who are sent to it,” the city whose children Jesus desired to gather together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but they were not willing (Matthew 23:37). The Irish rockers strolled the “commercial agora” of US’s “Sin City” singing and playing their gospel of spiritual yearning to anyone and everyone with ears to hear. More than a performance, it seems to me, the video shows an interaction, a dialogue, a meeting of minds, and a sharing of hearts.

The agorae that Paul frequented were open public squares with colonnaded sidewalks lined with shops, public gathering halls, libraries, fountains, and, yes, temples—lots of them, temples to gods and goddesses and emperors. U2 sang before the casino-temples that line the Las Vegas Strip, not unlike Paul sharing his gospel song before temples dedicated to the worship of Venus, Herakles, and Augustus. In Corinth, for example, some dozen temples have been excavated on or adjacent to its commercial agora. How insignificant and counter-cultural Paul’s small house-church there must have felt!

While in conversation with some philosophers in the Roman agora of Athens, Greece, Paul was invited to speak at the lofty Areopagus, a place where the intelligentsia gathered to hear and debate new ideas. Paul went. And as the Jew from Tarsus stood before the philosophers atop the Areopagus, above him the Parthenon loomed, pronouncing from Athens’ lofty Acropolis that Athena ruled as the goddess of the city. If the gospel belongs in “Sin City,” then Paul was in the right place. So was U2.

Today, modern evangelicalism seems of two minds about the marketplace. On the one hand, they shy away from the agorae lest they tarnish their reputations among the “sinners”—or to put it in the vernacular, lest they should “mess up their witness.” On the other hand, compelled to enter the marketplace to “save sinners from ‘hell,’” they do so in packs with tracts and rehearsed psychological-pressure techniques based on death, fear, and threats of afterlife torture. None of that on the Areopagus from Paul. None of that on the Las Vegas Strip from U2.


1.      He met people where they were in the marketplace and began relationships.
2.      He joined in conversation there and at the Areopagus when invited.
3.      He included himself with them by speaking to a universal search for God, a universal spiritual yearning behind all misguided religious impulses, establishing common ground and standing with them in the search.
4.      He lastly spoke of a just man appointed by an unnamed God of all, a God who raised that man from the dead as assurance to all people.


1.      He did not intrude uninvited to deploy impersonal, decisional, fear-based, death-focused, hell-centered, hit-and-run, psychological pressure techniques to emotionally manipulate them.
2.      He did not mention the name of Jesus, using respectful relational restraint.
3.      He did not label them or judge them as separated from God, because Paul did not believe they were, and he said so boldly and repeatedly.
4.      He did not give an altar call, take up a collection, pass out a tract, or invite them to church.

I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone.

To me this verse is about religiosity. Speaking in tongues is paired with holding the hand of a devil, meaning that a beautiful gift of the Spirit can, in the hands of broken human beings, tragically degenerate into the deadly peril of religious proving, posing, boasting, and judging. And for Bono to be warm in the night but cold as a stone means that even though the warmth of the Spirit is ever-present, broken human beings create religious proving grounds that leave one cold as a stone idol. Religiosity, then, is the human capacity to take the Spirit’s generous gifts and universal warmth and pervert them, marketing them for the sake of self-serving (idolatrous) exclusivist institutions bent on body-count momentum and revenue generation. The hand of a devil is as cold as stone indeed. Why cannot we humans have Spirit warmth without devil idols entering into it?

Sent by the Spirit first to the synagogues, then to the agorae of the ancient cities of the Roman Empire, the Apostle Paul had no squeamishness about entering either place, he did not worry about “messing up his witness,” nor did he judge anyone as separated from God or use threats-of-hell fear-tactics to convert them from their “godless” ways. He crossed the thresholds of Jewish synagogues and pagan marketplaces alike, he began relationships of respectful conversation, he spoke of the yearning for something that all humans of every nation and race experience, he took the position that while gods and temples were evidence of a universal spiritual impulse, these gods and temples were not what we yearn for. He pointed to one God who made us all, and he pointed to one man whom God sent to all, a man who died and rose from the dead as God’s assurance to all. Interestingly, Paul never mentioned that God-sent man’s name—demonstrating both reverence for that name and an unwillingness to hurl that name at his hearers. More interestingly, he never spoke of “hell.”

According to Scripture, the prototype missionary, the model evangelist if there was one, the Apostle Paul never used any of the words translated (or mistranslated) into English as “hell.” Let that sink in: Paul never wrote or spoke the word, ever. “Hell” was not in his vocabulary. If the word had been important to Paul or if it had been important to the gospel (good news), would he not have used it at least once? How can it be, then, that “hell” is number one in the playbook of much of modern evangelicalism? The whole point of their “gospel” is to save people from God’s hell-bent intention to roast “sinners.” How can anyone who proudly calls himself “evangelical” replace so comfortably (and so ignorantly) Paul’s evangelical message and method with one whose foundation is fear of “hell”?

If Paul had followed modern evangelicalism, his address at the Areopagus might have been different:

Vain ignorant philosophers, superstitious pagan polytheists, unsaved idolatrous heathens, unrepentant sinners separated from God: Do you know where you are going when you die? You are all going to hell where God will torture you in fire forever unless you repent of your sins, promise to clean up your act, accept Jesus Christ into your heart, make him your personal Lord and savior, and find yourself a Bible-believing church. Amen.”

It is so ironical. Those evangelicals who claim to be concerned that God will judge me have already judged me as separated from God and hell-bound. Why? Because I do not put “hell” first. In their view, those who do not put “hell” first are going to “hell.” God, save us from circular reasoning, and, while you are at it, save us from ourselves.

But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.

Paul declared to the Areopagites of Athens that God made all of us, gave all of us places to live, so that in our home countries and each of us in our own way “. . . would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him -- though indeed he is not far from each one of us.” (Acts 17:27) Not might, but would search for God. All of us, he said, quoting one of the Areopagites’ popular poems (lyrics!), all of us live and move and have our being in him, for we are all his offspring (Acts 17:28). There is no separation. Paul preached that he and they were in the same boat sailing for the horizon in search of the same home.

Is this the searching that C.S. Lewis wrote about—this yearning, this inconsolable secret, this overwhelming sensation of wanting, this urgent craving, this aching desire, this longing beneath all longings that dominated his life?

“I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described.” (Surprised By Joy, p. 17)

 “It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want.” (The Problem of Pain, p. 146)

“Apparently, then, our life-long nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off . . . is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.” (The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, pp. 15-16)

C.S. Lewis describes it as dissatisfaction, restlessness, and homesickness. This homing instinct thrills, taunts, and even drives to despair. As U2’s pounding, relentless chorus insists, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

I could tell you what I believe it is, this inescapable, universal “thing,” but it might ring hollow to you, as others’ pat answers often do for me. I could give it a name, but it has been my experience that naming it does not make the excruciating bliss go away. Paul leaves it unnamed at the Areopagus. U2 leaves it unnamed on the strip in Las Vegas. I will do the same here.

Their song is a proclamation to the world and an open-armed invitation to yearning hearts everywhere. U2’s gospel is for “you, too.”

This blog entry is also the Cover Article of the Summer 2015  CWR (Christianity Without Religion) magazine. To see the gorgeous layout, click here.