There was a time, back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when one idea seemed to catch the imagination of evangelical Christians everywhere. It's not clear who coined it (although it was popularised in the lyrics of an Audio Adrenaline song), but back then you could barely listen to a sermon without hearing reference to the God-shaped hole inside all of us.
Like all popular ideas, the genius of this concept was in its simplicity. The Christian believer, trying to explain the need for God in a world of increasing comfort, could point to one mysterious appetite that no earthy pursuit could satisfy. You could get all the wealth and status in the world, but there would still be a nagging sense that something was missing and unfulfilled. As Blaise Pascal put it, in his defence of the Christian faith over 400 years earlier, there is an "infinite abyss" within a person, which can only be filled by "an infinite and immutable object ... God himself." There's a God-shaped hole, inside everyone.
Right? Well, this idea feels good to us, because it establishes Christians as the people who carry the secret of worldly fulfilment. But is it an entirely Biblical idea? After all, Jesus never speaks of a God-shaped hole, or anything close to it. Nor does Paul, Moses or any other great teacher in Scripture. It's not in the Bible.
There's another problem with the idea too - it plays directly to a consumeristic mindset. It says to the person who has everything: there's still one more thing to collect if you want the full set; that however successful you might be, there's still one more space to fill in the treasury. It itemises God as another thing that you need in order to be happy, alongside all the other things.
I believe that this kind of thinking has contributed to the concept of Christian faith as a lifestyle choice, and one among many. When we think of God as one of many slots to fill in our quest for happiness and fulfilment, then he becomes just another part of our life, alongside our career, our quest for the 'perfect' family, our devotion to our sports teams and favourite possessions. And when we think like that, the God-shaped hole becomes just another yearning, for which we can consume a solution.
God doesn't talk about himself like that. In fact in the Old Testament, we see God consistently asking one thing of his people. "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20 v 3). That's not just one of the Ten Commandments - it's the theme that recurs over and over again during God's sometimes tumultuous relationship with the Israelites. The way they consistently let him down and arouse his anger; the thing he is constantly forgiving them for is not a descent into personal sin, but a wholesale inability to follow that central rule. No other gods. They find it impossible to stop putting things on a par with God.
I think we still find it almost impossible today. And so, this concept of a God-shaped hole, while technically accurate since we were made for relationship with him, is unhelpful. In its place, I want to propose a different idea, and one which seems to me to flow through the heart of Scripture.
What if, instead of seeing him as another lifestyle choice, we truly made God our primary affiliation? What if instead of allowing him access to the fringes of our lives, we put him right at the centre? What would that look like?
To me that would be a shift of perception, toward recognising God's interest and participation in every single area of our lives. Where he becomes a lens through which we see everything else - our jobs, our relationships, our interests and our stuff. Instead of asking: where does God fit into my life, we might ask, where might my life fit into what God is doing in the world?
Along with some friends, I've been exploring this concept as a way of talking about God and faith with young people. It's why we've launched Satellites, a new UK event for young people, which launches in summer 2021, and it's why I've written We Are Satellites - a guide to putting God at the centre of your life for young and old alike.
The satellite metaphor is perhaps helpful, and surely has some flaws. But it's my best attempt at describing what our relationship to God should look like. We are in his orbit, to the other way around. To me, that's better than thinking of God as someone who completes our personal jigsaw.
Martin Saunders is the Director of Satellites, a new youth event from Youthscape. We Are Satellites is out now, published by SPCK.