Desire is a fire that burns in our souls. Desire is that which motivates and fuels us. Vitally important, and yet, we most often live with only a vague sense of how desire works in our lives. Frequently, we long to desire deeply but find ourselves trudging through life, tired and worn down. Or, we find desires in our lives that seem to control us and take us places we don’t really want to go.
Pure, true, deep, holy desire is present in all of our lives. Alan Jones, in his book Soul Making, writes that “Human beings are a longing for God.” The challenge of that statement is two-fold: first, desire is all too often buried under myriad concerns and burdens; second, desire gets misdirected. We misunderstand the nature of our desire and direct it toward things that are not its true target.
When we feel desire, of any kind, we can be sure that buried underneath burdens, sinful patterns, and/or misunderstandings is a desire for God. It has even been suggested that the man who knocks on the door of a brothel is actually knocking for God. And, rather than desire being something to fear, C. S. Lewis famously wrote:
“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.”
In the New Testament writings, we find the concept of lust which is described using the Greek word, epithumia. This word could be translated as “over-desire.” The connotation would seem to be that of a desire which, rather than hitting its target, overshoots and hits a target for which it is not intended. This would nicely explain why lusts (for power, money, sex, etc) never seem to quite satisfy or perhaps only for a season. And, the desire for those things is really a desire for relationship with God, only misdirected.
Whether we understand them as too-big or too-small, the net effect is the same. We have what the ancients called “disordered desires.” Our desires need to be “right sized” and directed well. We can feel pretty helpless. So, what do we do? How do we see our true desires directed by God?
I would suggest four things:
- Don’t suppress desire. Desire is a beautiful, power thing. When desire is suppressed, it becomes more powerful under the pressure. Pay attention to your desires because they are telling you something. To ignore desire is to let it run rampant in the corners of our unconscious self. Look at desire (holy, unholy, or unknown) and notice what is truer and deeper. Discern how an “unholy” desire is really a desire for God. Brother Curtis Almquist suggests: “Our desires are worth listening to. They do need to be brought into the light. Many of us – certainly I – need help sifting through our life’s desires to see where they need to be deepened or purified, where they are connected to God’s gift of life for us.”
- Pray your desires. Let God shape and redeem them. In the Psalms, we see our forefathers in the faith wrestling with God in prayer. Some of the things we observe them praying would certainly not be classified as pure desires but it is bringing desire to God that sanctifies desires. “One of the best pieces of spiritual advice I ever received from a spiritual director was to pray for anything that I desired, even if that desire seemed sinful. It was a kind of ‘prayer shock therapy,’ designed to break through dualistic thinking patterns and begin integrating prayer with life as we actually experience it, rather than as we might wish it to be.” (Br. Robert L’Esperance, SSJE)
- Practice gratefulness. Many of our misdirected desires are the result of jealously and lack of gratefulness. The last of the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20 encourages us to let go of covetousness. Covet is a desire word, and it means that we are desiring someone else’s life. It is perhaps no coincidence that after the challenges to be honest and honor others, the capstone of the ten deals with gratefulness and desire. Arthur Simon shares: “When things are valued too much, they lose their value because they nourish a never-satisfied craving for more. Conversely, when things are received as gifts from God and used obediently in service to God, they are enriched with gratitude. As sages have said, contentment lies not in obtaining things you want, but in giving thanks for what you have.”
- Practice humility. When Jesus said, “Come to Me” in Matthew 11:28. He shares that life in Him is one of rest. Rest is a place of satisfaction and peace and quiet, even in the midst of life’s storms. I think of Jesus asleep on the boat in the midst of a storm. Jesus said “come and rest” and we find that rest as we learn His way of being which He described as gentleness and humility. Gentleness and humility are perhaps two sides of the same coin. Gentleness is strength under control … we might even say it is desire under control. Humility is the acknowledgement that God alone can direct our desires and strengths. As you experience desire today, practice humility by not suppressing, by praying, and by expressing gratitude. The result? A gentleness that leads to peace and rest!
Think through this list of four ideas … how and when can you practice them today?
Father, so many emotions and desires flood through my heart and mind each day. Desires to honor You and do life with You, and quite often desires to do my own thing or to do the “minimum” rather than entrust myself to You as a way of life. I don’t want to hide anything from You. So, give me the courage to talk to You about the desires of my heart even when, on one level, I don’t want to. Give me the wisdom to see how any desire is truly a desire for You. Give me the eyes to look at life with gratitude. Humbly, I accept my life as it is, not as I might like it to be. You are enough. Amen.