What a Frozen Face Taught Me about Fulfillment

Article by Ryan Johnson 

It was the coldest rush of water I can remember willingly submitting myself to in my life. I had just dived headfirst into the Sognefjord, the largest and deepest fjord in all of Norway. As soon as I was in, I knew I wanted to get out, but the memory was unforgettable. It was a last-second decision.

As we were returning to our bed and breakfast for the night, the color of the sky as the sun was setting, provided enough distraction to almost drive us off the road. I told my sister who was traveling with me, “I’d love to dive in headfirst someday.”

“Why don’t you now?” she replied. I informed her that I lacked the proper attire for such an experience, but she rejected this notion, pointing out that I was wearing clothes, which is more than what’s needed for a “polar plunge.” I got down to the trusty undies and went for it!

If the setting sun over western Norway is a painting, it’s the kind that makes you want to linger a bit. Sure, there are other masterpieces in the museum of the world, but this one deserves more than a moment’s glance.

As we drove back to our temporary residence, the muscles below my eyes were frozen in a smile. I’m not sure if it was induced by glacier-fed waters or the joy of experiences that foreign travels afford – most likely a combination of the two.

When I eventually returned to America days later, it wasn’t long before I was on Google maps exploring the world for the next conquest. Should I venture to Greece? Perhaps Peru? The ever-popular Iceland? The next adventure. The next unforgettable experience.

I’m sure we can all think of a time when our travels brought us to some sort of euphoria we couldn’t find had we stayed home. But I’m not so much interested in the experience in and of itself, as much as the coming back.

It’s interesting that these wonderful experiences (and they are wonderful) leave us wanting more. How many experiences does it take to make you “experienced?” How many cultures do you need to encounter to be “cultured”? Unless you’re a cup of yogurt, it’s tough to say.  

Millennials, the much-debated group of people I find myself in, have a habit of choosing experiences over things. They’d rather have that painted sunset, mountaintop view or beachside fire, than the down payment, shiny watch and big screen TV. We’ve had the benefit of knowing that owning a house or a new car doesn’t actually make you happy. Not that they make you sad, just that there is something missing.

I think this is rooted in a truth that stuff won’t fulfill you. As an old mentor of mine likes to say, whoever dies with the most toys, still dies. But the experiences we so often look for instead, that even I place on a higher level than material goods, tend to fall short of that fulfillment we seek as well. The problem for me was that I could never figure out why.

Ever since I graduated college in 2015, I’ve slowly noticed friends of mine struggling to thrive with the realities of real life. And as humans tend to do, they began to look for fulfillment prior to hitting the “quarter-life crisis.”

This drive for fulfillment often manifests in several ways. We can pour ourselves into our jobs with the goal of the next promotion or a good review for a raise. We can become obsessed with finances, focusing on driving up our net worth by cutting down debt or aggressively hitting 401k contributions. We’ll turn our eyes to relationships, wondering if marriage and a family will free us from our emptiness, only to find that we still get lonely sometimes, even with a girlfriend or spouse.

But even as I saw these avenues fail to fulfill myself and others, I could at least understand the principles behind why they didn’t. They are all gifts from the Lord. But the erring is when the gift becomes the focus.

It is good to work. Even the first man, Adam, was given work to do before the presence of sin in the world (Gen. 2:15).

It is good to be financially savvy. God wants us to be wise as stewards of what he has given us (Proverbs 13:11, Luke 19:12-27).

It is good to find a wife. Quite literally. “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22).

But these good things are not where our fulfillment comes from. Our fulfillment comes from the Lord, who is the giver of these good things. Knowing that the good he sends us would not fulfill our deepest desires, he sent one more good thing. His son Jesus. In this gift there is no want. He is the living water in whom we “will never be thirsty again” (John 4:14).

In light of this awareness, you’d think it would be easy enough for me to answer the question of  “why experiences don’t provide fulfillment in life?” Yet the question lingered on for me. How can God redeem experiences? How can he be our focus, when our experiences are seemingly unrelated to him?

The answer, of course, is that they are not unrelated to him at all. I can recall months ago walking alongside Lake Nokomis here in Minneapolis pondering this very thing, when the music in my headphones sung out the answer I had been looking for all along:

When through the woods and forest glades I wander

And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;

When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur

And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze:


Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee:

How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

For surely the experiences themselves are redeemed in that they bring us to our knees – whether through beauty in the journey or beauty in the hearts of those we meet along the way. Only in the Lord can the soul feel alive and sing to its savior, and as Christmas time and that Holy Night reminds us, to feel its worth. Or as I like to call it, fulfillment.

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