At a recent family gathering my brother and I, slightly bored and looking for amusement, surfed the internet for exotic cuts of meat that we joked we might cook for a family meal. Armadillo, anyone? Puffin soaked in fresh goat’s milk? Zebra leg roast at $100 a pound? Idle diversions aside, this incident shows how easily North Americans with sufficient cash can coddle nearly any desire we might have. It doesn’t matter that my local grocery store doesn’t stock smoked crocodile, because I can order fifteen pounds on the internet for the “sale price” of $1,000.
Eating $1,000 Australian crocodile qualifies as desire gone amok in almost anyone’s accounting. So you may be surprised to hear me say that desire is the fuel of Christian spirituality. I’m not talking about superficial desires like sampling exotic meats, however. Instead I have in mind deeper desires such as a longing for justice and peace, a yearning for holiness, and most important of all, a desire for communion with the Triune God.
Christians usually don’t think of desire as fuel for Christian living. More likely we regard desire as something sordid to reject. And indeed, disordered desire can pull us in directions away from God. Think of the desire for power that might lead to war or sexual abuse, or of the desire for fame that might lead to narcissism.
Yet well-ordered desire is an essential feature of God’s own life. Scripture is not shy in speaking of God’s desires. For example, in response to Israel’s lament that “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me,” the prophet writes of a God who yearns for Israel: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (Is. 49:14-16, NRSV). In a prayer in John, Jesus articulates his passion for communion with his followers: “I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory” (17:24). Scripture conveys that throughout creation and redemption, God passionately yearns to connect with us in relationship. Desire draws God out of the divine self into the mission of creating us and relating to us.
Just as desire is essential for God, so too is desire essential for us as we live in response to God. Biblical writers freely express their human desire for God. “Whom have I in heaven but you?” asks the psalmist, for “there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you” (73:25). Jesus himself honors our longings, noting that “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6). These deep desires motivate us to respond to God’s initiatives.
Desire, then, fires the relationship between God and humanity. As I said a moment ago, this does not mean that every desire on the human side is holy. Some of our desires may be flawed in their motivation while others may be evil in their effects. Therefore desires are something for us to discern prayerfully, to channel more fruitfully through spiritual practices, and to offer to God for use in the missio Dei. Let me say a bit more about each of these three.
First, in spiritual discernment we probe and sift our desires. Spiritual discernment generally needs to navigate through multiple complexities. Like a layered casserole, some of our desires are easy to recognize because they lie close to the surface of our awareness, while others are buried and take some digging to uncover. Desires can be good, neutral, or harmful to ourselves or others. Desires may at first appear innocuous, but upon further examination turn out to be contrary to God’s desires. Given a nearly endless capacity to fool ourselves, we also need to listen carefully to the insights of other people. Responsible discernment takes these complexities like these into account.
Second, we can help to channel our desires in directions that bear good fruit. This is one of the gifts provided by spiritual practices such as prayer, study, worship, meditation, service, peacebuilding, Sabbath, and dozens of others: practices train our desires to flow in more beneficial directions. In fact, desire and spiritual practices live in symbiosis with each other. Our desire provides the energy for us to engage in spiritual practices, while spiritual practices in turn shape our desires to conform more closely to God’s desires.
Third, God purifies and alters our desires as we participate in the missio Dei (mission of God). We can understand God as a fountain of outpouring love so urgent and passionate that it must find expression in mission. God is by nature and character missional. As we willingly join this mission that God already has up and running in the world, we will probably discover that one dimension of God’s mission is to gradually purify our desires. When we say yes to God’s call and engage in ministries of congregational, communal, professional, or international service, God may knock off the rough edges of our desires. Or God may opt for a more thorough transformation of our desires through experiences like the dark night.
In any case, our hungers and thirsts slowly become more aligned with God’s desires until at some level we are united with God in desire. We want what God wants. Desire not only pulls us and God closer together, but it also becomes the ground of our abiding friendship with God.
~ Dan Schrock