“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.”