There are times in the lives of most Christians when a vital force inserts itself into our consciousness and demands to take over. We see someone, and we crave.
Sometimes we want and can havewith God's and everyone's blessing. Desire does take place between husbands and wives, sweetly, as in the wistful songs by the husband-and-wife duo Over the Rhine. After recovering from a near-divorce, Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler put to music this aching confession: "You're my water / You're my wine / You're my whisky / From time to time. / You're the hunger / On my bones / All the nights / I sleep alone."
But even married people who feel this marvelous hunger in their bones are occasionally broadsided by unwieldy yearning. Misguided cravings do not discriminate between the single and the married, the celibate and the promiscuous. They plop onto your lap unannounced. You see someone, and suddenly you want to do somethingoften, something that is not yours to do. Like it or not, think healthily about it or not, pray against it or notdesire happens.
What do you do when it pays its impromptu visits? Indulge in thought only? Deny it's there? Seek an exorcism? Curse yourself? Eat chocolate?
Nancy Trejos wrote in The Washington Post about another unreliable solution. She described how some Shiites, the majority who have regained power in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, have resurrected an odd custom from before Saddam. Mutaa, or "enjoyment marriage," is a contract that provides already married men with a religiously sanctioned opportunity to have sex with someone other than their wives. All a guy has to do is support the willing woman financially. The mutaa can last a few minutes or several years. If it sounds like prostitution, that's because it is, say women's rights activists. But Shiite Muslims argue that mutaa provides humanitarian aid to war widows and young divorcees. How noble is that?
Such moral evasions aren't just a Shiite thing. King Solomon pretended that his polygamy wasn't harming anyone. Then there are the happily married people who go to church, yet find themselves illicitly entangled.
Before her death of cancer in 2003, psychologist Shirley Glass, named by The New York Times "the godmother of infidelity research," described trends of what she called "the new infidelity." One, Glass noticed a rise in emotional affairs between colleagues since women started getting traditionally male-dominated jobs. Two, Internet interactions were contributing to the rise of thrilling imbroglios. Three, even though they involved no sex, emotional affairs could be more threatening to marriages than one-night stands. (The myth of a soulmate not only creates marriages; it destroys them as well.) Four, Glass reported that most people who had affairs didn't go looking for them and reported having satisfying marriages.
My conversations with Christian women echo these findings. They are attracted to their husbands. But on certain occasions, they find themselves wanting other people, often men they meet through work. Intimacy developed in Christian settingsBible study groups, churches, ministries, and seminariescan catch us off guard. As men and women work together for a cause greater than themselves, their common vigor makes them attractive to each other. Church fathers and mothers discovered long ago that spiritual intimacy and sexual intimacy are kissing cousins. So it was only half-jokingly that my friend and I swore in our senior year of Bible college that we wouldn't pray with a man during the first three dates. Why get so cozy?
Desire happens. Even to the most pure-minded among us. And it is notin and of itselfsinful. As Augustine taught, desires must not so much be denied as rightly ordered. There's a spacebe it smallbetween yearning and sin, between desire and giving in. In this moment, we get to choose. We can choose to follow at our urges' behest. We can choose the way of denial. We can choose to drown in shame. We can call a friend. We can pick up a good book, the Good Book perhaps. We can flee temptation by whatever means work best for us.
I try to subvert the devil by giving thanks. Desire triggers a prayer in me, something like this: Thank you, God, for giving me eyes to see and for sight. For giving me dreams to dream and for dreaming. For the beauty that suffuses the world.
It's not a formula, and it's not a given. It may not work for everyone. But for me, it's a way out. I refuse to wallow in guilt over getting caught in sudden delight, something that Godas I readily point out to himwired inside me. So I thank him instead. Once an honest conversation takes place between me and God, the misguided desire loses its intensity. "There, there," I say to it. "You've made your point. I am alive in a beguiling world."
And a familiar hungerfor the man I wed seven years agoreturns to my bones.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Other Taste and See columns include:
'Ordinary' Delights | Let us praise the consoling banality of good. (March 13, 2007)
Dating Jesus | When 'lover of my soul' language goes too far. (December 6, 2006)
To Russia with Fury | Sometimes charity means anger. (October 9, 2006)
What (Not All) Women Want | The finicky femininity of 'Captivating' by John and Stasi Eldredge. (August 1, 2006)
A Velveteen Apologetic | How two creatures dig a rabbit hole in my disbelief. (April 1, 2006)
What Would Jesus Buy? | Saving the world one cashmere sweater at a time. (February 1, 2006)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.