“Desire in the context of faith? Isn't that an oxymoron?”
My friend's reaction to the subject of my recent book, Teach Us to Want, was familiar to me. She was even articulating what had been my own longstanding misconception about desire—that in relation to faith, desire was always foe, never friend.
Her reaction is typical of the evangelical church's understanding of desire today. There is more suspicion than embrace of human wanting, and I've addressed some of those suspicions in the first part of this article. What is less clearly understood about desire, especially by people tethered to the ideal of holiness, is its potential for good. Desire, as we'll come to recognize, is no different than fire. Yes, forests and hearts ablaze with unrestrained force can produce devastation. But fire and holy desire can also produce a warmth and vitality without which we would be sadly and strangely numb.
Gift 1: Desire helps us pray.
The prayers in the Bible model for us the appropriateness of longing in the life of faith. Perhaps the Psalms are the strongest case study for desire's role in prayer. These recorded song-prayers are not sanitized of desire. They don't meekly refrain, “Thy will be done,” as if blithely surrendering to whatever God has planned. Instead, they teach us the real struggle of every human heart to trust God in a world amidst enemies and death, anger and loneliness, terror and despair. “O Lord, why do you stand so far away? Why do you hide when I am in trouble?” (Psalm 10:1). Desires and disappointments drove the psalmists to summon God, even shake him by the shoulders, and this risk of transparency moved them into greater trust.
It is often easier to choose formalities with God, and desire-less prayer can feel safe. But when we tell God honestly what we want, we have the chance to declare something about his character: that he is good. Desire can build a bold intimacy with our Father in heaven. As Tim Keller wrote in his recently released book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, as we pray our desires, we begin to realize that “God will either give us what we ask or give us what we would have asked if we knew everything he knew.”
Gift 2: Desire helps us change.
In a sermon titled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” a 19th-century Scottish theologian argued that spiritual transformation is not simply about sin-avoidance. It accomplishes little, said Chalmers, to warn people of the destructive powers of sin and insist they forego its temporary pleasures. Long lists of don’ts are ineffective for helping people change. Instead, Chalmers promoted a strategy for spiritual transformation that endured. He suggested people supplant their old love of sin with a new affection for Christ. “If the way to disengage the heart from the positive love of one great ascendant object, is to fasten it in positive love to another, then it is not by exposing the worthlessness of the former, but by addressing to the mental eye the worth and excellence of the latter.”
Christ is true and good and beautiful. As we learn to treasure him, we begin to embrace his highest and holiest desires for our lives—the love of God, the flourishing of our neighbor. Incrementally, we find our divided allegiances healing, our inner contradictions reconciling. In pursuit of better desires, our obedience transforms from mere duty, and we begin seizing the joy promised to God's obedient people all throughout the Scriptures: “Let the godly rejoice. Let them be glad in God’s presence. Let them be filled with joy” (Psalm 68:3).
Gift 3: Desire helps us worship.
In his important book on desire, James K.A. Smith insists that human beings are primarily worshipping animals. Smith disposes of the idea that we are primarily oriented to the world by our mind and conscious beliefs. Instead, he suggests that we are guided through the world by our desires. Every human being is in pursuit of the good life, and this motivates the majority of our decision-making, whether we recognize it or not.
Smith's anthropology allows us to see the importance of desire in the discipleship process. Because desire is fundamental to who we are as humans, we shouldn't do away with desire any more than we should lop off our arm. A better approach is to seek the formation and transformation of desire. We need to put desire to good use. Just as an arm can be used for thieving or for helping, desire can also work for ill or for good. The best use of human desire is the worship of God, and we should stoke that kind of desire into holy, passionate, obedient flame. This means telling people that they are not only allowed to want, but invited to want all that is true and beautiful and good in Christ. Our liturgies and spiritual practices can endeavor to animate that kind of holy desire.
Gift 4: Desire helps us witness.
When I was recently talking with a friend who claims no religious faith, she shared with me how deeply disturbed she was by the notion of “blind faith.” In her estimation, faith that required an uncritical surrender to God encouraged people to be indifferent, even lazy. As a medical doctor committed to the healing and wholeness of people, she wanted to become more of a participant in the world, not less.
I could encourage my friend that faith didn't mean desire-lessness. Yes, of course there are moments of fog in following God, and faith can often feel blind. But God wants his people to participate with him in his mission. That is, in fact, the very nature of the Lord's Prayer. When we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” we are readying ourselves for his assignments. Desire is a language the world understands, and the church can seize the opportunity to speak to how people must fundamentally understand themselves and their orientation to the world.
If there is caution in handling desire, there is also clearly a call to taking it up. The human heart can be treacherous, but the reach of the gospel is great. As God's people, we can move beyond duty and into delight.
Teach Us to Want is a prayer for the people of God eager for that change.
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.