I’m terrible at New Year’s resolutions. I’ve read all read the strategies for proper goal-setting—manageable, concrete tasks, tell a buddy, be accountable, etc., etc. But a missing ingredient I think I’m just beginning to understand is the significance of desire (and not just the cliché “you have to want it for yourself” kind of advice).
I think many failed resolutions result not simply from insufficient willpower or poor strategizing, but from not being honest with myself about what the resolution really entails, and what I actually desire, and the gap between the two. This year I’m trying not only to align those two things, but also to reconceptualize desire in light of the radical transformative process that Christian discipleship is intended to be; a process that isn’t simply about fulfilling desires, but understanding them, questioning them, ordering them, refining them.
James Smith wrote in Desiring the Kingdom that we human beings are desiring creatures before we are cognitive creatures. Our desire takes shape from a “set of habits or dispositions that are formed in us through affective, bodily means…bodily practices, routines, or rituals that grab hold of our hearts through our imagination.”  Our desire is directed towards our vision of the good life, consciously adopted or not. Plato’s famous aphorism that education is “teaching our children to desire the right things” recognizes the affective disposition at the heart of human nature, or the primacy of desire in shaping our character. We rationalize what we desire, not the other way around.
The Book of Mormon, too, seems to place a particular emphasis on desire. A variant of the phrase “according to [their] desires” shows up over three dozen times—and in one strong passage, claims that those desires are a foundational part of our identity now and through the eternities (“the same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world”).
Yet Alma also seems to acknowledge that desires don’t always match up with works: “if their works were good in this life, and the desires of their hearts were good, that they should also, at the last day, be restored unto that which is good.” I’ve heard this idea expressed with relief in many a Sunday School lesson, but I think we risk abusing this clemency by not being honest with ourselves about what our desires truly are, and why are actions so often fail to reflect them.
In one of the most insightful sermons I’ve read by a Mormon, Elder Enzio Busche discusses this crucial but oft-neglected (or oft-presumed) stage in our spiritual growth. It’s long, but so apt:
“In our understanding of the freedoms in our personal responsibility, we must become aware of the nature of our own desires and learn to channel them on the most important issue of our lives—to make it our desire for the Holy Ghost to be with us. In The Problem of Pain (p. 66), C. S. Lewis gave us an interesting insight about this same question when he quoted William Law: If you will here stop, and ask yourselves, why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you, that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it… 
…The Spirit of Christ teaches us that we must pray, that we must ask for the things that we seek… But before we can do this with focus, we have to become aware of a multitude of defined or undefined, conscious or subconscious desires. We have to learn to bring them to our awareness, to analyze them, to categorize them, and to bring them in to order according to priorities. When we do not do this, we will be condemned to remain, in our prayers, on a superficial level, or even on the level of formality, where there are no answers or there are only imagined answers. But there are always hundreds of different desires fighting for supremacy within us. The act of categorizing them is a very painful, but needful act to become, in the eyes of God, a mature person and to be taken seriously.”
This is precisely where I often fail. For example, for months now, I’ve wanted to have better devotional study and prayer. But I never fully confronted the competing desires that trumped time and time again– the desire to gratify my sense of inadequacy and insecurity at school by hitting the books as soon as I woke up; the desire to unwind at night and indulge myself in a show, and then the subsequent desire the next morning to sleep until the panic monster threw me into emergency work mode; the desire to have a(n impossibly) perfect environment that would make my study and prayer easy; the desire for it to satisfy my need for peace, for tranquility, to be a buffer from the hard slog of mundane life (and give up when it didn’t do that). Willpower will never be enough; it’s like gunning the engine with the emergency brake still on. Or, like Augustine’s famous confession—“Lord, make me chaste! But not yet.”
That’s one part of it, to me—confronting the competing desires that so often take precedence over our noble or abstract ones. Another, however, is the difficult part of ordering them—one of the key tasks of Christian discipleship.
Part of Christ’s mission was “that [we] might have life, and that [we] might have it more abundantly.” Christ’s “abundant life” presents radical alternatives to our desires that, untrained and undisciplined, follow the downward, narrowing spiral of the appetites of the natural man. The real discipline of discipleship involves reversing that gravitational pull, and drilling down to the very core of our being—our affective disposition—to do the awakening work of changing our desires.
This can be especially difficult when we think we’re rather decent blokes, and thus, don’t engage in the refining process of arranging competing desires into their proper order. We leave them in a comfortable clutter, reassured that we only need to learn to be more efficient, more organized, more whatever, and we’ll “get there.” Christ, however, didn’t shy away from hierarchizing goods.
Or maybe we mistake second-order desires for first-order desires. I may desire peace, security, and good relationships; those are all good desires. But they can only be achieved indirectly; through loving God, loving my neighbor, through long-suffering, compassion, meekness. If I desire peace, but I don’t desire subjecting my ego to the rigorous denial of anger, of certainty, of control, and the like, then I’m doomed to a disordered, superficial or formalistic spirituality.
One of the more interesting parts of Mormon eschatology, to me, is the belief that our state in the afterlife is determined ultimately by our own desires—by the “law” we wish to abide, whether celestial, terrestrial, or telestial. And “they shall return again to their own place, to enjoy that which they are willing to receive, because they were not willing to enjoy that which they might have received.” We all, in the end, get what we want. The real question is, do we fully see what we want? And once we know it, do we want to change it? How do we?
That question is for another post. But I find solace in Mormonism’s resounding affirmation that we are born innocent, bearing the divine image; not unlike the Buddhist belief that we all are born good and need only learn how to be true to that nature—or, back to D&C, to the “light which is in all things.” I really believe that at some point, at some level, we all want to want the right things. Paul and Nephi’s laments of their own weak, sinful wretchedness throw into relief the desires of their better selves to want the right things. And while, like Paul, we will often “do what [we] hate,” our own self-disappointment confirms that we, deep down, “consent unto the law that it is good.”
1. James Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Bakers Academic, 2009), 63. His book (which I’ve cited in previous posts) gives an insightful examination of those habits or “liturgies” that shape our desire, and how to realign those in light of Christian discipleship.
2. [All emphases added]. Quoting William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (London: J. M. Dent; New York: E. P. Dutton, 1920), p. 13. If you’re looking for a blunt wake-up call about desire and intentionality, William Law’s your guy.