Looper column: The role of desire in the religious life
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
Desire plays an important role in life. If it were not for desire, the human race would not propagate. God made humans in such a way that they need, and are capable of experiencing, desire.
Desire is also important in the religious life, though its role is seen in vastly different ways, depending on the religion espoused. In Buddhism, if I understand it correctly, desire (or longing) is regarded as the principal cause of suffering. Desire is the fetter that binds people and keeps them from reaching enlightenment.
The Christian view on desire is nuanced. The King James word for it is “lust,” which frequently refers to inappropriate and destructive desires (like the desire to have another person’s spouse), but occasionally refers to appropriate and healthy desires. Jesus, for example, “eagerly desired” - the word regularly translated as “lusted” - “to eat the Passover” meal with his disciples.
Buddhism approaches desire or longing as something to renounce and eventually eliminate by following the eight-fold path. There are many points of contact for Christians and Buddhists along the eight-fold path, though their underlying assumptions will be at odds and will inevitably lead them in different directions.
Christians are never asked to make a universal renunciation of desire. Such a renunciation would be counterproductive. Instead, they are told to “put to death evil desires” while cultivating healthy ones. While they know that desire can fetter a person to a life of lovelessness and suffering, they also believe that desire can be a springboard into a life full of love and contentment. They don’t want to get rid of their desires, they want to transform them.
If it were possible to take an X-ray of all our desires - to see them the way a radiologist sees fractures and growths - we could pretty accurately diagnose our spiritual health and prognosticate our spiritual futures, apart from intervention. Fortunately, intervention by the one Christians call the Great Physician is always possible.
This intervention occurs at a level we cannot reach, rather as gene therapy operates on a level we cannot reach. Christians believe that God is able and willing to work at the origination point of desire, actually giving and shaping the desires of their hearts. The Christian then cooperates with these deep-level operations in practices that cultivate and bring to fruition these new desires.
These practices are sometimes referred to as spiritual disciplines. They fall into two principal categories: those that put to death “evil desires” and those that cultivate God-given desires. It is common to talk about these as the disciplines of “abstinence” and “engagement.” Both are important.
Among the disciplines of abstinence, which help people “put to death evil desires,” are solitude, silence, secrecy (that is, not broadcasting our good or religious deeds in order to win admiration) and fasting. These practices enable a person to discern unhealthy desires. On a more fundamental level, they enable people to understand that they are more than their desires, something that is urgently needed in contemporary culture.
The disciplines of engagement, which aid in the cultivation of God-given desires, include worship, Bible reading, prayer, acts of humble service and fellowship (or “soul friendship,” as it has been called). The value of these disciplines resides, in part, in the way they increase the intensity and staying power of God-given desires.
But none of these spiritual practices, however performed, can create a desire. That is outside their scope and beyond our ability. For that to happen, people are dependent on outside intervention. They are dependent upon God.
When we understand the importance of desire and the role God’s intervention plays in it, we are ready to appreciate the insight of the psalmist who wrote, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
The psalmist is not thinking of God giving us the new car we’ve been dreaming about. He is thinking of God giving us new desires, the kind that can be fulfilled without doing harm, the kind that can lead a person to deeper love and richer contentment. The role desires play in the spiritual life, and our part in curtailing or cultivating them, is absolutely critical.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Michigan. His blog, “The Way Home,” is at shaynelooper.com.