“What can this incessant craving, and this impotence of attainment mean unless there was once a happiness belonging to man, of which only the faintest of traces remain, in that void which he attempts to fill with everything within his reach?” —Pascal (Pensées)
by Steven Gledhill for FREEdom from MEdom Project
“We all know the dilemma of desire, how awful it feels to open our hearts to joy, only to have grief come in. They go together. We know that. What we don’t know is what to do with it, how to live in this world with desire so deep in us and disappointment lurking behind every corner. After we’ve taken a few arrows, dare we even desire?” —John Eldredge, The Journey of Desire
I have invested an awful lot of my time writing on the subject of desire with good reason. What I want is at the center of what drives behavior. I want to live my life to please God. I really do. But so much seems to get in the way.
The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions. Galatians 5:17 (NLT)
My desire to please God requires obedience into doing life His way. The issue is not trying to figure out which is the right door to open, wondering what’s inside Door #1 and Door #2. It’s not “Let’s Make a Deal”. The doors are labeled by what I learn from the Bible along with my life experiences. There is God’s way to make me rich, according to what He desires, and there is my way to get rich, according to what I desire.
Both ways are selfish. That’s right. Even God’s way is selfish in that it (whatever “it” is) is what God wants for His children; His creation. God wants the pleasure of my obedience. God being selfish is good! God is holy, sovereign and perfect. God wants for me like a father wants for his sons and daughters. My selfishness, on the other hand, is bad; it’s weak. It is corrupted by sin and leads to evil. One way leads to the hope of new life, and the other way leads to the certainty of death (eternal dying).
For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. Philippians 2:13 (NLT)
God is at the same time selfless. In His selflessness He has afforded me free will. Since I am not God, free will is a problem for me. The stuff placed up front behind Door #2 is attractive; even compelling. The adverse consequences that comes with the stuff behind Door #2 is buried deep, way in the back. So I don’t see what comes with the stuff that looks, smells, tastes, feels, and sounds so good.
There is a manifest that reveals all that is behind each door. Behind Door #1—God’s way—are things that are more of a humble nature and that don’t cast a first impression as the most attractive things I’ve ever seen (you know… things like love, peace, mercy, grace, patience, self-control, kindness, long suffering, and somewhere in the back… eternal life); not much flash in front. The things behind Door #2—my way—are much more pleasurable in their appearance (wealth, stuff, sex, revenge, more stuff, winning, sexy, advantage, a lot more money and a lot more stuff); lots of flash. The bad stuff is on the manifest as well, but when I look inside I don’t see the bad, only what looks real good. I suppose I am much more attracted to flash (even blinded by it) than substance.
Which door will I walk through?
Why do I want what I want? Why don’t I naturally want what God wants?
Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires. Psalm 37:4 (NLT)
What does this promise actually mean? It’s an awesome promise! But how is it realized in my real-life circumstances? What do I do with it?
King David wrote this psalm. It is said by some that he composed this psalm toward the end of his life, when he had finally repented for the mess that had been his life as king, having experienced redemption into innocence by the grace of God. But this man after God’s own heart did a Jekyll and Hyde kind of thing for most of his adult life.
We know David to be a conquering hero that saved an entire nation when he cut off Goliath’s head and defeated the Philistines. He wrote Psalm 23 and 51 and 139… You know “Search me and know me” and “Create in me a clean heart” and “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” He wrote beautiful words that reach deep and touch souls.
There was also the David that placed his carnal desires on a pedestal and pursued them relentlessly and ruthlessly.
Read 2nd Samuel and you might wonder if David was a serial rapist of sorts. The women submitted, but what choice did they have, really? He had the capacity for murder, you think abusing women didn’t come easy for the king?
Do you remember the news stories of Saddam Hussein and his sons pillaging whatever they wanted from whomever they wanted? Do you remember the reports that they would fetch women so that they could have their way with them? There is a television show running now about a tyrannical dictator whose son is doing this, and in the first episode he’s having sex with a woman in her bedroom while her husband and son sit in the hallway waiting for him to finish gratifying his rabid desires… but at who’s expense?
Some three thousand years ago, the author of those beautiful psalms fetched the teenage wife of his star general, had her brought to his bed in the palace, and had his way with her, gratifying his desires. Then oops… she became pregnant. And when he brought the general back from the war on weekend leave and sent him home drunk to make love to his wife to cover up her pregnancy… oops… the general passed out at the gate overwhelmed by a heart of loyalty to those soldiers under his command and did not go to his wife. So King David ordered his star general to the front line to be dealt with in combat, which for all we know, meant taking arrows and spears in his back. David actually conspired to commit murder, and did just that.
And how about this passage from 2nd Samuel?
When David returned home to bless his own family, Michal, the daughter of Saul, came out to meet him. She said in disgust, “How distinguished the king of Israel looked today, shamelessly exposing himself to the servant girls like any vulgar person might do!” David retorted to Michal, “I was dancing before the Lord, who chose me above your father and all his family! He appointed me as the leader of Israel, the people of the Lord, so I celebrate before the Lord. Yes, and I am willing to look even more foolish than this, even to be humiliated in my own eyes! So Michal, the daughter of Saul, remained childless throughout her entire life. But those servant girls you mentioned will indeed think I am distinguished!” So Michal, the daughter of Saul, remained childless throughout her entire life. 2 Samuel 6:20-23 (NLT)
These “servant girls”, otherwise known as slave girls, were likely teenagers under David’s authority and control. So, what’s that about in this passage? What is really going on here? It’s kind of dirty and disgusting, isn’t it?
David was anointed by God king of Israel. But then power and control overcame the meek nobility that made him so attractive to God in the first place. Desire was put to the test. David became sick with desire. Read 2nd Samuel and you might wonder if David was a serial rapist of sorts. The women submitted, but what choice did they have, really? He had the capacity for murder, you think abusing women didn’t come easy for the king? For the man with so much power and control with no one to stop him, his life of depravity, if made honestly into a movie, would be unwatchable for the Christ-centered audience.
The king confessed his sin to God in what we know to be this beautiful psalm of repentance (Psalm 51), but David was often under the rule of his carnal desires and continued to (at least emotionally) abuse his wives, corrupt his sons, and take advantage (sexually) of young women living in the palace.
Desire Under Investigation
How about we now take a closer look at this matter of desire.
Desire is defined by Merriam-Webster as a feeling with two central elements. There is what I hope for; and there is what I wish for. Hope is the longing for what is ultimately satisfying. It is the dream that is delighted in, admired, and cherished. A wish is what ought to be. It’s what I crave and covet, and even obsess over. What I hope and long for I love and adore. What I wish was right now makes me hungry and thirsty. One is worth waiting for and moving toward. The other is what I will settle for since it is immediate and better than it was.
Jesus said to the people who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” “But we are descendants of Abraham,” they said. “We have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean, ‘You will be set free’?” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free. Yes, I realize that you are descendants of Abraham. And yet some of you are trying to kill me because there’s no room in your hearts for my message.” John 8:31-37 (NLT)
I have written plenty before about the role of ambivalence in the Christian life; the Christian life being recovery from my addiction to me. Jesus talked about being slaves to sin. He said that everyone is a slave to sin. David was a slave to sin. Apostle Paul wrote about being enslaved by sin to the point that even as a man that loved Jesus, loved God, and who loved life according to the moral standard of a Holy God, he betrayed the standard that is right relationship with God. Paul wrote about the insanity of trying so hard to live up to such standards to the point of feeling sick about it.
I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Romans 7:21-24 (NLT)
King David said this about his misery, tortured by opposing desires in conflict:
My guilt overwhelms me—it is a burden too heavy to bear. My wounds fester and stink because of my foolish sins… I am exhausted and completely crushed. My groans come from an anguished heart. You know what I long for, Lord; you hear my every sigh. My heart beats wildly, my strength fails, and I am going blind. My loved ones and friends stay away, fearing my disease. Even my own family stands at a distance. Psalm 38:5-64-5, 8-11 (NLT)
Ambivalence is resistance to recovery from sin addiction because it gives power to wishing what ought to be right now; that which feels better than it was. I might not be content to the extent that my joy is complete, but I feel closer to feeling content then I was when I give in to what I crave. Ambivalence is having more than one desire that I am equally motivated to pursue even though they are in direct opposition with each other. It is the war within. It is in these ambivalent feelings that I end up settling for immediate gratification (flash over substance) that is at it’s best fleeting. The more I settle for what gratifies the deeper I fall into what comes with it.
Enter the sin nature of fallen man. Enter the chemical biology of the human brain prone to pursue pleasure at great risk to reason and sensible sound judgment. The functions of the limbic system of the brain (dopamine: pleasure, relief, serotonin: mood, energy) when stoked are incredibly powerful and influential and able to override the judgment centers of the brain that allow inhibition and caution. The pleasure systems of the brain fuel feelings of ambition, lust, and greed. As these feelings interact and drive the motivation to defy common sense, ‘go’ behavior is launched into the senses until emotionally-driven selfishness takes over and intellectual reason no longer stands a chance of retaining its senses.
Paul wrote a great deal about this matter of desire. He wrote about spiritual desire and the desires of the flesh (carnal desire). Merriam and Webster also wrote about desire, suggesting that there is desire that takes an approach that is of higher sustainable value in that it is about what in the end satisfies; something hoped for with premium standards. Then there is desire on the lines of instant gratification; sacrificing higher standards for the purpose meeting current expectations. I could have ‘this’ but ‘that’ will do for now. The problem is ‘this’ comes from a place of purity with God-centric reward and intellectually makes the most sense, while ‘that’ comes from a place of self-centered, egocentric expectations and hitched to it are unintended real-life consequences.
They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires… Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning… They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too. Romans 1:25-26, 28-32 (NLT)
What? How did we go from settling for instant gratification to heinous wicked sin and hating God? I might have problems chasing immediate gratification that, when I am honest, even I know falls short of what really satisfies, but just because I have less-than-adequate weak-minded ambitions doesn’t mean that I hate God. I haven’t killed anyone!
To be fair, there are parts of verses 26 and 27 from the passage above I left out since they refer to homosexual behavior and I didn’t want that to be a distraction from the larger point. Lust for the sex of someone that is not your Biblically-defined marriage partner is sin whether it is homosexual or heterosexual. Christians will often judge those with same-sex lust but then give a pass to those with heterosexual lust. Either, when acted upon outside of the Biblical framework of marriage, are equally sinful.
On the list of egocentric desire gone wrong is selfish pride, boasting, quarreling, deception, hate (resentment and jealousy are in this camp), deception, gossip, betrayal, conspiracy, and malicious behavior (vengeance is in this camp). Some of this list probably hits a bit closer to home; at least for me it does.
For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind. James 3:16 (NLT)
Desire Under Invasion
When Adam fell into sin, something changed. What God created pure became infected with this idea to settle for less than God’s best. There is this notion that letting God control my life is somehow a bad thing because I don’t want anyone telling me what to do, even if it’s God! Even if it’s for my good? How does that make sense? Yet I’ll live as though it makes perfect sense.
In relationship with God, led by the Spirit of God, my soul has a fighting chance. The Holy Spirit is my assurance that I am known by God in relationship through Jesus Christ. He affords me the sensitivity and motivation to hold to what is best and ultimately satisfying. Yet, at the same time, my carnal sin nature continues to fuel the pleasure centers of my brain that want to venture into what I am now aware are the darker uglier places that I know cause me harm.
I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. Romans 7:14-15 (NLT)
I do what I know deep down I do not want to do; so why do I do it?
Because what I want to do in relationship with God is to tap into the part of desire that is pure; the higher things hoped for. The egocentric in me, however, wants according to my pleasure-seeking sin nature; the shallower things that ought to be if I am going to feel content. So what I do not want to do, something in me (drawn by the pleasure centers of my brain fueled by my sin nature) wants very much to do it. Thus, I am ambivalent to wanting to surrender into obedience in relationship with my Higher Power, Jesus Christ. I am resistant to intentionally pursuing God-centric desires that He has installed in my spirit to more adequately quench my thirsting soul. My soul pants for living water in relationship with God. So why then do I indulge in the ritual of pouring poison down my throat?
Desire Under His Influence
Desire in and of itself is a good thing. To experience pleasure… is a good thing. God created pleasure. He created desire. He created desire and pleasure to be good and fun. What is joy? Joy is to be enjoyed. What is peace… freedom from discomfort and discontentment? Actually, peace is just that. We weren’t necessarily created to live in peace since opposition and oppression was never the intention. Peace is in the equation now since we have been oppressed by sin and its nature. We were not created to need freedom. To need freedom would mean that we are bound and oppressed. Freedom is comes when we realize absolute peace, and peace comes when we are free.
We were, however, created for the purpose of experiencing joy in union with God. And the day is approaching when we who know and are known by Jesus Christ will be having the time of our lives with Him while loving one another—when the time of perfection comes (1 Corinthians 13).
But for now…
Thank God that when I am weak, He is strong. When I lack integrity, God’s grace is sufficient! When I sin, God is faithful and just to forgive my sin, having acted on my behalf in mercy at the cross. When I lack judgment, God pours into me wisdom, without finding fault.
Are you ready for something amazing and beautiful?
After all of this talk about the ying and the yang of desire, check this out from the Word of God:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1 (NKJV)
Why do I settle for less than God’s best? Because I struggle to believe that God truly loves me. If this were not so, I wouldn’t so easily jump the gun on His blessing. All through history, the icons of the Bible jumped the gun on God’s blessing, going all the way back to the beginning with Adam and Eve; Abraham jumping the gun on the promised son, and so forth.
The writer of Hebrews is addressing the very nature of desire and the issue of faith that gets in the way of surrendering to the process of provision and promise in relationship with the Father who didn’t even spare His Son to ensure that we have all that we need for today, tomorrow, and forever. Our Creator desires to give us what we hope for that ultimately satisfies, while also providing what ought to be to better for our quality of life today. What I must do is be in an attitude of prayer; the receiving position for blessing. God knows my need and He desires to fulfill my expectations.
My heart for fulfilled desire is hungry. My soul thirsts. My spirit, in relationship with God wants what God wants and has for me. My soul, even in relationship with God, craves pleasure as it was created to do. But sin has so corrupted what I find pleasurable that my thirsty soul seems to settle for whatever comes that looks and tastes good… you know… like all that cool stuff behind Door #2. It’s what Paul admitted was his problem; that which led to doing what he knew deep down was not satisfying.
“To live with desire is to choose vulnerability over self-protection; to admit our desire and seek help beyond ourselves is even more vulnerable. It is an act of trust. In other words, those who know their desire and refuse to kill it, or refuse to act as though they don’t need help, they are the ones who live by faith. Those who do not ask do not trust God enough to desire. They have no faith. The deepest moral issue is always what we, in the heart of hearts, believe about God.” —John Eldredge, The Journey of Desire
What am I expecting ‘ought to be’? Is it the power of His presence? Is it a word of knowledge? Is it the experience of God’s mercy and love? Is it divine security over the life of my family? Is it for my children and grandchildren to experience sweet fellowship in relationship with Jesus? Is it a bigger house? Is it a newer car? Is it a promotion at work? Is it a healthier body? Is it more and better stuff?
What is influencing my desire that shifts the motivation from experiencing satisfying fulfillment to settling for “good enough for now”?
These are questions pertaining to desire that is wishing what ought to be. What is wrong with any of those questions? Nothing really. They are questions that can consume our attention. The thing to understand is that when I am consumed by the desire to grow in relationship with God to the place of intimacy that can be experienced without measure, I am so enraptured into communion with God that I am far less preoccupied with the material questions that are human to want, but take on a different meaning in the context of intimate relationship with Christ.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. Romans 12:1-3 (NIV)
My expectations are changed in communion with Christ because I am so much less about wanting what I expect, and far more focused on wanting what He expects. This is paramount to the God-centric experience because it isn’t really for God’s benefit. God does not become more or less satisfied because of anything I do for Him. He delivers to my soul satisfaction when I am in pursuit of Him and His righteousness (God’s best!).
“Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:33 (NLT)
Here is what I love about the Word of God. It is so intuitive to the problem of desire for someone with free will like me who is not God. The Spirit of God is so acutely sensitive to this problem of desire in the fallen nature of human beings that He breathed into the writers of the Word incredibly discernible scruples to articulate exactly what is needed for the edification of His people. So Jesus instructs me to aim high for the things that will truly derive contentment, while then trusting Him to provide “all these things” that ought to be until the time of perfection comes. And as I recognize that it is indeed God providing, I am in touch with the evidence that He is aware and engaged in my daily experience.
“If God is for us then…” Then what? Whom shall I fear? I can trust the evidence. The evidence is God filling my hungry heart; quenching my thirsty soul.
I lift my hands to you in prayer. I thirst for you as parched land thirsts for rain. Psalm 143:6 (NLT)
What if the Scripture passage below from was understood for what God wants for you and I to experience in the best of being in relationship with Him?
For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. Philippians 2:13
God loves us loving Him. But he is already pleasure personified. What if what He really wants for us to understand is that living to experience Him engaged and working in and through us is what brings on the reality of our experience into His good pleasure? It is about what God wants and us wanting what God wants. In other words, delight in that! Delight in the experience of the pleasure of God and see if there is anything else you could possibly want.
I am made whole in Him, not because of anything I can do, but in fellowship with my generous Savior (rescuer, redeemer) and Lord (authority, master). He has redeemed my life. He has set me free! He has released me from my debt and bought me back after I sold my soul into slavery unto sinful, carnal desire. He has changed me into something and someone new, transformed who and what I am by rewiring my entangled, scrambled mind. Each day that I surrender to the practice of recovery God’s way, He installs His thoughts and intentions into my thinking process to the point that I have desires that are higher and bigger in purpose. I am less occupied with what gratifies in the short-term, and far more interested in and motivated by what satisfies long-term.
Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires. Psalm 37:4 (NLT)
When I am in that place, delighting in things hoped for in intimate fellowship with God, He delivers beyond my expectations. It is the most real, tangible experience that is truly beyond description. It is only rational in a spiritual sense, but as I stated, it is so so real.
Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Ephesians 3:20 (NLT)
So faith is believing God for the tangible reality of my deepest desire. Faith also lies in the tangible reality of what I wish ought to be in my present circumstances… in my marriage… concerning my children… daily provision and protection. Faith is also in the tangible reality of my relationship with God as it ought to be. It is to be experienced to the extent that even my “wish” desires are centered on making the most of what ought to be experienced in relationship with God.
Like innocent children that absolutely trust their father in the moment, as well as for the happiness to come, because of the assurance in their belly that they are loved by daddy, I will rest easy when I come to absolutely trust in my Father, because of the assurance in my soul that I am loved by my daddy.
Thank God, my daddy is zealous and jealous for my attention and affection. Thank God, He is selfish about what He wants for me. Thank God, it means everything to Him to put His best into me and into my life.