I’ve recently taught a three-week class on desire for my church. It was fantastic to take a lot of what I’ve been writing about and have a conversation with real people around those ideas. My hearty congratulations to those who attended the class – they endured what probably turned into a cram session of the book. (When I was recently preparing for some speaking opportunities, my husband’s suggestion to me was, “Slow down, Jen. And not the book, please, not the book.”)
The first class session was called, “The Call and Caution of Desire,” and I thought I’d summarize the first half of my content here.
Six Invitations into Desire: How Scripture inspires a call to desire
But let me begin by reminding that I think that Scripture both calls and cautions us regarding desire. Without maintaining that important tension, we’re tempted either to draft versions of “Your Best Life Now” (you get everything you want from God) or “Your Best Life Never” (you shouldn’t even be asking God for what you want). Please stay tuned for the next part of the notes, when I talk about the “caution” of desire. Again, it’s a needed counter-balance for the human heart, which is disastrously prone toward disordered desire.
1. God Desires.
Why does God do anything? It certainly isn’t because he’s obligated to anyone. Consider that our actions are often driven by the impulse to seek approval, to manage opinions, to conform to expectations. We aren’t wholly free beings – as God is. He does what pleases him. He does what he wills – whatever he wants. And of course because God is ultimately good, he only does good. It would be out of character for him to want evil or to wish careless injury on his creation.
“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will (desire), they existed and were created,” (Revelation 4:11). This Scripture reminds us that Project Creation is the expression of God’s desire. The world was spoken into being – because God willed and wanted it so.
If we are made in God’s image, and God is a desiring being, we, too, can want. We should want. In fact, maybe when we are formed into a life of holy desire (living fully to love and please Christ), we become most free. Holy desire is then a redeemed expression of our imago dei.
2. God made a good world, a world in which desire made holy sense.
The world of Genesis 1 was very good. Yet there’s something to be understood about that goodness, something that matters for desire.
In the first chapter of Scripture, there is only one place where God’s commendation, “It is good,” is omitted. This is on the second day of creation, when God separates the sky from the waters.
v. 4 God saw that the light was good.
v. 10 God saw that the dry land was good.
v. 12 God saw that the vegetation was good.
v. 18 God saw that the sun and moon were good. V. 21 God saw that the animals were good.
But why the omission about the sky? God never explicitly states that the separation of the sky and the waters was good.
“The reason,” writes John Sailhamer, in his commentary on Genesis, “is that on that day nothing was created or made that was, in fact, ‘good’ or ‘beneficial’ for humanity . . . The land was still ‘formless; it was not yet a place where a human being could dwell.”
‘Good,’ according to the creation narrative, is only good insofar as it benefits God’s people. Good is good, not in any arbitrary or abstract way, but good because of God’s benevolent intention towards human beings. If the world was good, it would seem only natural for that goodness to inspire the desire of God’s people. In Genesis 1, desire made sense.
God is good. He wants good for us. So there should be no sheepishness about a life built on the desire for good. (Of course, the real trick is defining the good. And that’s another topic for the caution of desire.)
3. Every prayer is an act of desire.
What prayers in Scripture exclude the act of wanting? Even though we may not trust our desires (and our suspicions are right much of the time), how do we pray without them? How did Abraham pray without desire? Moses? Hannah? David and the other Psalmists? How did Paul pray without desire?
Can there exist, in the Christian life, a holy longing that doesn’t eventually become prayer?
4. The New Covenant is a promise of the conversion of our desires.
“Behold the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
God intends that we become an obedient people, who not only do his will, but want his will. God isn’t about managing our behaviors, and he isn’t only concerned with our beliefs. He want us to be a people thoroughly transformed – and desire is that depth of profundity. God wants us to be a people who want him and want his kingdom to come.
5. With the language of desire/idolatry, we can more easily understand our sin.
Desire is just another way of saying love. And love is just another way of saying worship.
To desire or love or worship anything more than God is idolatry. This is the nature of the 10 commandments: the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” provides the framework for the rest. Love God best – and you will not steal, kill, commit adultery, and covet.
When we’re caught in patterns of habitual sin, we do well to ask questions that examine our desires:
1. What do I want from this sin?
2. What am I afraid of losing if I give it up?
3. What is it about this sin that soothes? comforts? meets some deep longing in me?
Examining our desires is often a way forward – into the obscurity of our own hearts. Let’s be a truthful people: most often, we continue doing that which we want to do. And if we are persisting in sin, in some way, it’s because we want to. Getting to the root of that sin by way of desire (and by grace, asking God to pull it out), we move toward freedom and life.
6. To desire is to risk. And faith is always risk.
Read about Abraham in Genesis. Read Hebrews 10. There are never as many certainties granted to us as God’s people as we want. There is darkness. Confusion. And a perplexity about where God is headed. Desire (which, in the life of faith, is really prayer), is one way we risk faithfully on God: we risk on his power, his goodness, his wisdom. We believe courageously that Our Father doesn’t stand idly by but draws near – and preoccupies himself with us. We have to move into risking on this. I think desire is one way to take the leap.
The church doesn’t tell us often enough that desire is needed and necessary for our spiritual lives – (or at least that has been my experience). It has rightfully cautioned us about the risky business of desire. It has warned us that wanting will plunge us into discontent and greed. But maybe (maybe?) the people of God suffer for lack of want. That’s at least what C.S. Lewis posited in The Weight of Glory:
“If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Maybe we, the people of God, suffer a kind of spiritual anemia: we don’t pray, we aren’t engaged in mission, we don’t love God as we should because we’ve never been taught to move into the wanting that animates the holy life.
The people of God must want, and I’ve listed these six reasons, from Scripture, to make that case.