On Desire

On Desire April 29, 2013

Talking about some issues is hard, because I do not share some of the assumptions in the mainstream conversation. That can make for misunderstandings and so every so often it is good to state what I think are the basic ethical truths that form my bigger ideas.

Romance is good, but not a very important, if by romance one means the combination of sexual desire and intimacy sold with tooth paste, movies, and soap. Making romance very important never has done me much long-term good and it has done me a great deal of harm. Vitally, it has also harmed people I love.

Thinking about sex, and romance, forced me to acknowledge that most humans never experience romantic fulfillment. I have become unsure that it is even possible for most of us this side of paradise.

The good news is that unlike other desires, for food, water, air, or even companionship, celibacy does not prevent human flourishing. Chastity, a deeper form of romance, may even make full human flourishing easier.

One is not “doomed” when one is told to be chaste. In fact, for most of Christian history married people were often encouraged to embrace periods of chastity. Sex isn’t evil, but like eating too much (a besetting personal sin) or drinking to much is distracting to spiritual things.

The large numbers of people who “marry the wrong person” or who never “meet the right person” are not doomed to misery. Saint Francis or Saint Catherine would not have been happier if they had found human romance.

In fact, marriage is (so far as I can tell) not helpful to romance. Sometimes romantic desire exists, sometimes it does not and I see no evidence marriage is better when it exists, though it is more fun.

I must not define myself by my desires sexual or otherwise. Whatever helpfulness scientists find in using terms like “heterosexual,” “homosexual,” or “bisexual,” these are not helpful descriptions of a person. A human may have desires, any desires, but is not defined by them, because they can deny desire.

The denial of desire, taking up the Cross-, is a chief tenant of Christianity.

My deepest desires are not who I am, though they are part of me now. They tell me nothing about what I could or should be. My desires compete: sometimes I wish, deeply wish, the approval of one person, but want something (with all my heart) that will cause them to disapprove of me.

My desires cannot always be reconciled simply, but instead I must use the will of God to help me choose. My character, my self, is not defined by what I want, but what I do.
This is a tough standard, because what I do is short of what I should do. Hatred and selfishness abounds and love is lacking.

What can I do?

Thanks to God, I can ask Jesus to change me from within. This change is slow, organic. Replacing all of me that is broken at once would destroy me. I would be the fixer-upper demolished foundation and all, but God preserves me by recreating what should have been in me.

This process will not end until my death and, Scripture suggests, continues on the other side of that passage.

Meantime, I will not let my good desires define me (“I am a pious American.”), because even my good desires are just desires. I will let God’s grace enabling good works to define my nature.

And this reminds me to never define my neighbor by his desires, but only by what he does. If my neighbor struggles, then I will applaud his victories, judging him as I hope to be judged: mercifully.

Who am I? A broken man: a sinner. Who will I be? A restored man: a Christian. What am I now? A transforming man: a sinner becoming a saint.

And this leaves me with one prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

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  • Deb Jones

    Yes. I wish more people understood this. But we have been so warped by what we see and read that we have no concept of the truth about this. I recently read a book that was written about two Catholic people we were in a relationship. The man at 46 had never been married and was practicing chastity. His explanation of love and sex to the widowed woman he was in love with was the best explanation I’d ever heard. I wish I had heard something like that when I was growing up. It would have made such a difference in my self-esteem. The book is “Angela’s Song” by Ann Marie Creedon

  • Douglas Harmon

    That pretty well sums it up – being “in love” is fleeting if possibly recurring (a religious authority of my church once commented that he had fallen in love four times in his life, each time with his wife), and so any marriage built on being “in love” is doomed to failure unless the couple learns better. Love is vital to a happy marriage, but being “in love.”

  • candeux

    There is a lot of truth here and the general message is one that all of us need to hear.

    Maybe I’m cynical, but this also sounds, however, like a thinly-veiled attempt to justify pushing gays to remain celibate. Leaving aside for the moment the issue of whether this is the right advice for all gays, I think such suggestions would have a lot more weight if there were a tradition in (Protestant) Christianity of encouraging people to lifelong celibacy. We generally treat I Cor. 7 as optional and something that is between a person and God. If straight people were *encouraged* to remain celibate (with continual support throughout life) and there were those that actually successfully achieved it, then we could hold this up as an example for gays as well. Absent that, we are just loading people down with heavy burdens without doing anything to help carry those burdens. (Luke 11:46)