In a book I recently reviewed, the author warned readers about the dangers of human desire, which he seemed to view as an obstacle to Christian obedience. His advice was simple: “Write out all the things that you have wanted from life. Finally, draw a cross over it as a symbol that you are offering it in sacrifice to God, saying, ‘Not my will, but yours be done.’ ”
On the surface, the advice seems wholesome. Isn't the Bible insistent about the deceitfulness of the human heart (see Jeremiah 17:9)? Can we really trust ourselves to want? Like this author, I had long been sympathetic to the idea that human desire was unequivocally corrupt. I wanted to write. Bad. I wanted to decorate my home. Greedy. I wanted to share more of the domestic responsibilities with my husband. Selfish. If a desire surfaced, I rallied to submerge it, counting every act of crucifying my desires a step toward losing my life (Matthew 16:26). To refuse was to forfeit the soul.
Only more recently have I examined my instinctive fears about desire. Some have proved reliable, other unnecessary. In fact, the more I have studied, the less tenable the notion of abandoning desire has become. Indeed, with more careful reading of the Scripture and other theological writings, I have felt invited into desire and have even come to believe that desire is necessary for a life of faith.
In this two-part article, I want first to briefly examine four common suspicions about desire. In the second-part, I want to propose four important reasons for recovering desire for our spiritual formation.
Suspicion 1: Desire is to blame for sin.
When I became a Christian late in high school, I had enough history of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll to understand that desire was the rogue member of the human personality that needed to be cuffed and gagged.
And in one sense, desire is to be blamed for sin. James told us in his epistle that evil desires can lure us into temptation (James 1:14-15). However, later in his letter, when confronting readers' petty jealousies and bitter quarrels, James identified how they'd mishandled desire. They had failed to pray about what they wanted, wrangling instead with one another. When they did pray, they prayed with corrupt motives, and this revealed the “adulterous” state of their hearts (James 4:1-4).
The trouble, according to James, wasn't that these people had indulged the act of wanting. The compromise came with the character and content of their wanting. James didn't propose they abandon their desires. Instead, he pointed to the need for the redemption of their desires, that they be more faithfully and fully oriented to God and his purposes.
Suspicion 2: The heart is untrustworthy.
As heirs of the Enlightenment, we are naturally suspicious about our hearts and overly optimistic about our minds. We credit objectivity to our thoughts and beliefs, subjectivity to our feelings and desires.
As an example of our exaggerated confidence in our ability to think and reason, one popular book written to teach women Bible study methods suggests that students of the Word should “let the mind lead the heart.” “The path of transformation runs from the mind to the heart, not the other way around,” the author claims.
But the Bible never demonizes the “heart” and valorizes the “mind” as moderns do. In fact, in the original Greek and Hebrew, these words aren't as discrete as they are in English. “Heart” in the New Testament, as defined in Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary, stands for a person’s “entire mental and moral activities, both the rational and emotional elements.” “Mind” is “the seat of reflective consciousness, comprising the faculties of perception and understanding, and those of feeling, judging, and determining.”
Biblically speaking, there’s no clear divide between thinking and feeling, and we cannot enforce a moral hierarchy on the two. As fallen human beings, our thinking and feeling are equally corrupt, our beliefs and desires, equally redeemable.
Suspicion 3: The only desires that count are the spiritual ones.
As a younger Christian, I was always curious to know if there was anything legitimate to want. The answers to my persistent questions about desire were always the same: want God, and nothing else will matter.
On the one hand, it’s entirely true that we must desire God more than anything. That is the nature of obedience to the first commandment, and the psalmist expressed this singleness of heart when he prayed, “The one thing I ask of the Lord—the thing I seek most—is to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, delighting in the Lord’s perfections and meditating in his Temple” (Psalm 27:4). On the other hand, the answer—to want God alone—doesn't deal adequately with the decisions we must make about other desires, nor does it reflect the nature of prayer in the Bible.
G. K. Chesterton said it well in The Everlasting Man when he compared Christianity to Buddhism. He wrote, “Christ said, ‘Seek first the kingdom, and all these things shall be added to you.’ Buddha said, ‘Seek first the kingdom of God, and you will need none of these things.’ ”
Suspicion 4: The Bible states plainly that desire is sinful and selfish.
Translators of the Scriptures make difficult interpretive decisions, and this is no less true when handling the words for “desire.” As one example, which I've already cited here, in James 1:14 translations differ significantly. In the ESV and NLT, translators adhere closely to the original: “Each person is tempted…by his own desire(s).” In the NIV and NASB, using contextual clues from the passage, translators qualify the word “desire”: “Each person is tempted…by their own evil desire [or lust].”
In the Greek, desire, or epithymia, can connote something positive. In such instances, it is often translated “desire” or “longing.” However, epithymia can also connote something sinful, and there it is translated “coveting,” “craving,” or “lusting.” Sometimes biblical writers chose their own qualifying words for desire, as in Galatians 5:17, where Paul used the phrases “desire of the flesh” and “desires of the Spirit” (ESV).
It's simply not true that the Bible vilifies “desire,” and students and teachers of the Scripture must responsibly reflect an understanding of how these words function in the original language.
Clearing these and other unfounded suspicions about desire can prepare us to receive desire’s many good gifts.
Jen Pollock Michel is the author of Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith. She lives in Toronto with her family.