Why We Long for Revival

Most earnest Christians have a deep longing to see and experience a spiritual revival. Many regularly pray for it. But ask a hundred such Christians to describe what they’re longing and praying for, and you’re likely to get dozens of different answers, depending on how their cultural backgrounds, church traditions, theological paradigms, and personal experiences have formed their concept of what a revival is.

  • Some think of revivals primarily as large-scale historical events that result in many people converting to the Christian faith, leaving notable effects on the wider society (like the early chapters of Acts or the “Great Awakenings”).
  • Some think of revivals primarily as what happens when Christians in a local church or school experience renewed spiritual vitality and earnestness together (like what took place at Asbury University in early 2023).
  • Some think of revivals primarily as strategically designed and scheduled events that aim to evangelize unbelievers and/or exhort believers to pursue a deeper life of personal holiness and Christian service (like Billy Graham’s evangelistic crusades).
  • And some think of revivals primarily as what happens whenever an individual Christian experiences a transformative, renewing encounter with the Holy Spirit.

Now, apart from some debates over definitions (like what differentiates revival from renewal), most earnest Christians would agree that when the Holy Spirit moves in power to give new life to unregenerate people and renewed life to regenerate people, the results can look like all those descriptions — and certainly more.

But when earnest Christians long for revival, despite whatever concept and phenomena they associate with that term, they’re not really longing for that concept or those phenomena. If you were to ask those hypothetical hundred Christians to press deeper and describe what they most deeply long for when they long for revival, I believe the nature of their answers would be very similar.

‘It’s You’

To illustrate what I mean, let me describe a touching scene that occurs at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third book C.S. Lewis wrote in his seven-part Chronicles of Narnia series. After another wonderful Narnian adventure, just before Aslan sends Lucy and Edmund back to our world, Lucy says,

“Please, Aslan, . . . before we go, will you tell us when we can come back to Narnia again? Please. And oh, do, do, do make it soon.”

“Dearest,” said Aslan very gently, “you and your brother will never come back to Narnia.”

“Oh, Aslan!” said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices.

“You are too old, children,” said Aslan, “and you must begin to come close to your own world now.”

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”

“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.

“Are — are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name.” (247)

If you haven’t read the Narnia books, it’s important to understand that Lucy and Edmund hadn’t enjoyed merely a few childish, holiday-like adventures in Narnia. They, along with their two older siblings, had been Narnian kings and queens for decades. They had fought in fierce battles, and shed their blood and tears for its defense. They had loved and cared for its citizens. And their encounters with the great lion, Aslan, had transformed their lives. Narnia felt more like home to them than any place they’d ever been, and when they weren’t in Narnia, they longed to be there.

So, when Lucy says, “It isn’t Narnia, you know,” she’s saying something profound. There’s a deeper longing inside her than her longing for Narnia. It’s a longing that fuels her longing for Narnia. And she names it for Aslan in two words: “It’s you.”

Those two words reveal what makes everything about Narnia so wonderful to Lucy — in fact, makes Narnia Narnia for her: Aslan. Take Aslan out of Narnia, and would she still want to return? We can hear her answer when she says, “How can we live, never meeting you?” For Lucy, an Aslan-less Narnia is a lifeless Narnia.

It’s Him

The real reason earnest Christians long for revival is similar to the real reason Lucy longed to return to Narnia. Lucy longed to experience being close to Aslan; Christians long to experience being close to Jesus. It isn’t the manifestations of revival we most deeply long for, as wonderful as those manifestations might be. It’s the Source of revival we really want. We long for the Life that gives us life, sustains our life, and renews our life — that in Christ, by his Spirit, we might “be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19). If Jesus were to ask us what it is about revival that we want, we might paraphrase Lucy in our reply: “It isn’t revival, you know. It’s you.”

In saying it’s Jesus we most deeply long for in revival, we mean that we desire a more profound experiential knowledge (Philippians 3:8) of his refreshing presence (Act 3:20), his incomprehensible love (Ephesians 3:19), his all-surpassing peace (Philippians 4:7), and his immeasurable power (Ephesians 1:19). We desire all that the triune God, “the fountain of life” (Psalm 36:9), promises to be for us in Jesus. For Jesus is our great Fountainhead. For us “to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21), because Christ himself is our life (John 1:4; 14:6).

And in saying it’s Jesus we most deeply long for in revival, we mean that we desire his kingdom to come (Matthew 6:10) and for all who are appointed to eternal life to believe (Acts 13:48) — all those whom Jesus had in mind when he said, “I must bring them also” (John 10:16).

That’s why our longings for revival are not focused on our personal experience. In Christ, we are members of a larger body (1 Corinthians 12:27) of whom Christ is the life-giving head (Ephesians 1:22). Our life is bound up with our fellow members of Christ’s body, and we will not experience the fullness of Christ apart from the other members (Ephesians 4:11–13). So, we can’t help but desire revival both in the conversions of others whom Jesus must bring and in the renewal of all believers (including us) whose spiritual strength has weakened and whose spiritual senses have dulled.

It isn’t our imagined revival that we desire most. It’s Jesus and all God promises to be for us in him. Take Christ out of the event of revival, even if it had all the amazing, adrenaline-inducing phenomena we might associate with it, and would we still want it? No, because a Christless revival is lifeless revival. And would we be content if we were the only revived Christian in our church or community? No, because “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Echo of Jesus’s Desire

As Lucy and Edmund speak with Aslan, they realize they are near the border of Aslan’s country — a land they’ve only heard about, never seen, yet the one place in all the worlds, including Narnia, they most deeply long to be. But Aslan tells them that they can enter his country only from their own world (our world).

“What!” said Edmund. “Is there a way into [your] country from our world too?”

“There is a way into my country from all the worlds,” said [Aslan]. . . .

“Oh, Aslan,” said Lucy. “Will you tell us how to get into your country from our world?”

“I shall be telling you all the time,” said Aslan. “But I will not tell you how long or short the way will be; only that it lies across a river. But do not fear that, for I am the great Bridge Builder.” (246–47)

Reading this fictional conversation now, in my late fifties, stirs up the aching longing it did when I read it in my late childhood, nearly half a century ago. It was this painfully pleasurable longing that drew me back again and again to the Narnian chronicles as a boy (I don’t know how many times I read those books). I learned whom Aslan represented, and I wanted to meet him face to face. I shared Lucy and Edmund’s desire to actually be in his promised land and finally, as Lewis puts it in another book, to “find the place where all the beauty came from” (86). I still do.

So does everyone who encounters the real “Aslan” and comes to love and trust him. How can we not? For that deep longing is an echo in our souls of the deep longing Jesus has, which he expressed to his Father when he prayed,

Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:24)

It is this aching longing that fuels our recurring (we might say continual) desire to experience revival. But it’s not the mere experience of spiritual refreshment we desire; we long for the Place, the Person, where all the refreshment comes from. We long for what Jesus longs for: that we would be with him where he is, to see his glory.

To know that this is the core of our revival longings can help sustain our prayers for it. It can also protect us from disillusionment should we experience revival and all the confusing messiness that tends to accompany it. Because at the end of the day, it isn’t revival, you know. It’s Jesus.