Desire plays a critical and often overlooked role in life, including the spiritual life. Desire forges a person’s future and chooses the path they follow. Humans cannot live without desire. Were a drug to be disseminated in our atmosphere that deprived humans of desire, the race would perish from failure to propagate. Of course, it would die from starvation before that.
Desire is a good, albeit dangerous, gift. It has, as the philosopher Dallas Willard once said, “the tendency to take over one’s life.” When desire takes over, a person’s mind is reassigned from its other tasks and its resources are allocated to finding means of gratification. That person has been sold – or has sold themselves; they hold the bill of sale – into slavery.
The Bible regards desire as a critical feature of life. It moves us and is, as such, indispensable. Desire can, however, move us into a dead end. People can become so dominated by their desires that they lose the capacity to appreciate other good things in life. The desire that enslaves them demands more frequent gratification and in increasing measure. This is the life of addiction.
In his famous Letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul pictures himself ambushed by desire and in the unenviable position of doing what he hates and not doing what he wants. Those caught in this situation habitually think about “how to gratify” their desires (Paul’s words). They find that they cannot help but “obey its desires” (again, Paul’s words).
What then is the solution? People cannot live without desire; that is impossible. People must not be enslaved by desire; that seems unavoidable. We all have desires that are not good for us and lack ones that are. Since desire is not the kind of thing that can be turned on an off with the flip of a psychological switch, how can we develop desires that are good for us and lose desires that are not?
It may help to think of desires as layered. Deep-level desires are shared by all people, whatever their race, sex, or nationality. (These are the desires that made their way onto Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid.) They are part of what it means to be human.
God also gives distinctive desires that are peculiar to the individual. Each of us has a “desire fingerprint” that is uniquely his or her own. Such desires are an important part of what makes people interesting and enjoyable to be around.
There are still other desires that are mediated to us by the people who surround us. Who we spend time with has more to do with what we desire than we may realize. Would anyone desire coffee and cigars had they not been first introduced to them by someone who already had that desire?
I developed a desire for coffee while I was in college. All these years later, I genuinely desire it, and that desire influences my behavior. I did not develop a desire for cigars back then, though I tried a couple. Had I hung around with my cigar smoking friends, I might now crave a good cigar. As it is, I cannot even imagine a good cigar.
Good desires cannot simply be enabled, nor bad ones simply disabled. Desire does not work that way. What we can do is spend time with those whose lives we admire and whose desires continually reinforce the quality character they have developed.
If hanging out with others influences the development of our desires, who better to hang out with than God? The church has encouraged this practice, which not only informs our thoughts but also shapes our desires. Various traditions offer different models for what hanging out with God looks like, but all recommend prayer, the reading and study of Scripture, along with meditation, and gathering for corporate worship.
The apex of this life with God is summed up in the phrase, “pray without ceasing.” Those who learn to do this can work, play, eat, relax, tinker, and even suffer in company with God. They discover that the psalmist was right: God really does give those who delight in him the desires of their hearts.
(First published by Gannett.)