Learning to Want What We Want

Learning to Want What We Want April 22, 2013

During the course of a homily on the virtue of faith I heard this Sunday, the priest gave an anecdote from his teenage years. I can’t quote him verbatim, but this is essence of what he said:

As a teenager, I thought that Heaven was essentially a mass that never ended. The very idea of sitting through a never-ending series of church hymns repulsed me. Nevertheless, I wanted to want this because I believed I should.

His experience of wanting Heaven despite his visceral repulsion to it is an example of what I think makes up the essence of the spiritual life: you must strive to want what you must want.

Isn’t that a strange concept? If I want to want something, don’t I want it? Not really. The fact that you can want to want something that you don’t desire shows that there are at least two parts of you that “want” and that these parts are out of line with one another. The first part is the will and the second part is an affective desire. The spiritual life is essentially the task of aligning these naturally misaligned faculties. Specifically, the will, informed by the intellect, should govern your affective desires.

This, however, raises the oft-unasked-and-even-less-frequently-answered question of how one is supposed to realign one’s desires.  I think that there are two answers to this question that Christians of all types can agree on. The first is through the grace of God. Christians differ on the specifics, but all can agree that, through God’s grace, a person can learn to want as he ought.

There is also a second method which I think can be used to realign one’s desires. Though this method also depends on the grace of God, it requires the participation of the person. The idea of this method was first brought to my attention by C.S. Lewis, who said in his book Mere Christianity, “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”

The psychological research on this phenomenon bolsters Lewis’ words. In this video, for example, Amy Cuddy describes how our posture and physical expressions affect our feelings and emotions. She has demonstrated that people who position themselves in a certain way before job interviews boost their confidence and improve their performance. I think it follows, if we extrapolate from Cuddy’s findings, that if we act in accord with how we want to want, then we will gradually adjust our affective desires so that they will be aligned with our wills.

In sum then, when we inevitably find ourselves not wanting as our Christian Faith tells us to want, we have two options. The first, and most essential, is to pray. In the first place, God can of course change us directly through prayer. Even if the second option is to work, the motivation that it takes to act in accord with reason against our desires is itself a grace of God. However, we cannot be spiritual sloths or quietists and expect God to do all the work for us monergistically; we must also strive to act in accord with a proper Christian way of life. Hence this quote from Flannery O’Connor:

About the only way we know whether we believe or not is by what we do…Bridges once wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins and asked him to tell him how he, Bridges, could believe. He must have expected from Hopkins a long philosophical answer. Hopkins wrote back, “Give alms.” He was trying to say to Bridges that God is to be experienced in Charity (in the sense of love for divine image in human beings).

[Picture of Heaven from Wikipedia]

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  • Matthew – interesting thoughts! You’re definitely right that we have to work on developing our spiritual desires. On the other hand, I wonder if often times our seeming lack of motivation for spiritual things is that we actually have a wrong vision of what it is we’re supposed to want. For example, in an old church I was in, you were considered insufficiently spiritual if you didn’t want to do cold contact evangelism (approaching people on the street to talk about Jesus). Their logic was: Jesus tells us to go evangelize, so if you don’t want to do this, your desires must be messed up. The fact of the matter was that cold contact evangelism is VERY awkward and rarely works. We were all embarrassed by the awkwardness of approaching strangers on the street (which we would otherwise not do) and not by the challenge to evangelize (because we readily talked to our friends about faith). I would argue the same thing about the afterlife: if the idea of worshipping by singing hymns and doing nothing else for all eternity is distasteful to us (even to those fairly spiritually developed), maybe it’s our IDEA of heaven that is wrong. We don’t desire this image because this image isn’t what we were made for. I fleshed out some thoughts on this in my FF article on heaven a few months ago: http://www.fare-forward.com/the-kingdom-cometh-so-where-are-we-going/

  • Hi Jordan,

    Thanks for the comment. While I was writing this post, I anticipated that people might react to it similarly to the way that you did and I included a brief clause to avoid such reactions. However, it seems that my caveat was removed in the editing process. The beginning of the second paragraph used to run like this, “Even though the priest said that he no longer conceives of Heaven as an eternal mass…”

    So, you’re still right in saying that our lack of motivation can come from not having a proper understanding of Heaven, but what I was trying to leave it up to the reader to conceive of what Heaven actually was while avoiding the implication that it involved endless singing by out-of-tune choirs. Perhaps I should have linked to your article, since I did read it and appreciate it because it is often the case that people take the paintings full of fluffy clouds and chubby angels seriously.

    In any event, I plan on expanding this post into a full-length essay for FF’s summer issue. I’m going to include a section on how to discern what we should want which will definitely take some of your points into account.

    Street evangelization sounds horrifying; a few of my friends tried to get me to do it once. It is indeed very awkward and futile. I find it similarly awkward and artificial whenever people invite me to prayer meetings or discussion groups as soon as they find out that I’m Christian.

  • sarah ngu

    Matthew, the question of how to realign desires is something that I’ve been thinking about for years, especially this past year, so I’m very happy you brought this up. I think you are right: when the “heart” is astray, it requires the will, bolstered by the intellect.

    To add onto your thoughts: I wonder whether there is more interplay to be had between the heart’s desire and will, if there is a way that desires can actually inform us and teach us something about what we should will for, even if they are misaligned. Note that what I’m advocating here is not that desires hold the ultimate authority or that we should just blindly follow them, but that understanding the psychology of even misaligned desires helps illuminate what exactly we should be aiming towards and what we shouldn’t be. Augustine was such a master because he knew his sin, and what lay behind them, so well. I think also of CS Lewis in the Weight of Glory, telling us that it is not that we desire too much, but that we desire too little and settle too soon.

    • Hi Sarah,

      I’m glad you liked the post – this has been a huge issue of mine for a long time.

      I also agree that misaligned desires can help point us to the truth. It’s kind of like how biologists study metabolic chain reactions. They knock out one part of the reaction and observe what happens. Once a link is missing, they can see what it was supposed to do. Similarly, when we desire incorrectly, we experience negative effects that can, if we’re being smart, point us in the right direction. And example is the emptiness that follows from misusing one’s sexual faculties. However, it should also be borne in mind that one can become desensitized to such effects. Just as it is when people who are dying of starvation no longer feel hunger, so it is with people who are so out of whack that they can’t begin to see the truth.

      Aristotle takes up a similar question in the Nicomachean Ethics. He says that our perception is shaped by our character. This is obviously true, as anyone with poor character is not only incapable of acting properly, but also incapable of seeing the proper way to act. The huge question that follows, then, is how can we prevent the world from degrading into a mass of poor character? Perhaps philosophy is the answer.