A Theological Interpretation of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”

In 1987, U2 released their critically-acclaimed album, The Joshua Tree. The second single from the record, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” went on to become one of the band’s biggest hits, ranking on numerous “best rock songs of all time” lists in the decades since it’s release.

What follows is a theological assessment of the song’s lyrics:

I have climbed the highest mountains

I have run through the fields

Only to be with you

Only to be with you

I have run, I have crawled

I have scaled these city walls

These city walls

Only to be with you

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

Bono’s world-weariness bleeds through from the song’s opening lines. The song adopts the perspective of one who has seen much, from great heights (climbing highest mountains) to regrettable lows (crawling). And yet, there remains a certain dissatisfaction, a deep desire to pursue meaning. This is assumed in the title — that there IS, in fact, something to be looked for, some great purpose for us to discover. Perhaps this helps explain the song’s enduring popularity: it is an ode to universal human restlessness and the quest for meaning, albeit backed by gospel choir and shimmering guitar.

I have kissed honey lips

Felt the healing in her fingertips

It burned like fire

This burning desire

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

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

These verses imply the pursuit of varied things — human love, physical healing, religious experience, even giving in to temptation — with the same end result. These have left the narrator feeling cold, empty, devoid of true life. In this regard, Bono channels the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, the famous Jewish text that comes as close as anything to biblical existentialism. The Preacher who declares the message of Ecclesiastes systematically lists his many attempts to find “the good life” — through power, through sex, through wealth, through wisdom. In the end, his assessment is similar to Bono’s: these all leave us wanting a bit more.

I believe in the Kingdom Come

When all the colors will bleed into one

Bleed into one

But yes, I’m still running

You broke the bonds and you loosed the chains

Carried the cross of my shame

Of my shame

You know I believe it

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

Bono confesses the great Christian hope: a Kingdom yet to come when all is blended together in perfect union. To leave no doubt as to the distinctly Christian nature of this hope, he adds the line about carrying the cross of shame. And yet, he continues, there is still a sense of incompletion in the present, a yawning awareness that even though history ends in glory for those who believe, our present days are often marked by numbing ordinariness. But the song ends on a buoyant note, for even though Bono remains actively searching, he does so as one fully convicted with hope.

C.S. Lewis once said that if we find within ourselves a desire for which no earthly satisfaction can be found, perhaps this is evidence that we were made for another place altogether. This seems to be the running reflection of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Or, to put it differently, in the famous words of Augustine centuries ago: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

This entry was posted in Culture, Eschatology, Faith, Hope, Music, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A Theological Interpretation of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”

  1. Chip says:

    Good summary. The only thing that I would add concerning the lyrics is that given Bono’s tendency to use feminine terms/imagery for the Holy Spirit (see, e.g., “Mysterious Ways,” “The First Time”) and/or God in general (see, e.g., “Wide Honey,” “Elevation”), you can justifiably argue that the first half of the second verse is still about seeking God rather than worldly experience. The interpretation can go either way in that case.

    One thing that few people remark on is the studio opening, where after a slow musical buildup, the listener is assaulted by a wall of guitar sound followed by Bono’s “Mmmm hmmm.” CCM magazine said back in the ’80s that The Joshua Tree is a rare Christian album that starts in Heaven and then descends to Earth rather than vice versa. I think of that wall of sound as the descent to Earth, and then Bono’s first vocal utterance as placing us firmly in gospel music territory — a musical genre of finding God amidst difficulties.

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