Transforming Our Desires

Now Featured at the Patheos Book Club 
Teach Us To Want
Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith
By Jen Pollock Michel

My conversion was like coming home before curfew. Though I had been raised in the church, at sixteen I was sleeping with my boyfriend and planning for my prodigal life to last well into my twenties. However, without warning, like Paul on the road to Damascus, I heard the voice of Jesus.

Where are you headed?
What do you want?
Will you follow?

These questions initiated me early into the importance of examining desire. The answers obligated me to certain conclusions about desire itself. It was feral. Unsafe. It would always lure into the forbidden.

Only more recently have I challenged those conclusions. Though I couldn't fully trust my wanting, how could I live without it? Was there another truth to be told about desire? Was desire ever necessary in the life of the Christian?

I've come to believe that we do ourselves a great misdeed to ignore desire, to demonize it, or to attempt the impossible project of abandoning it. We even put ourselves at risk of misunderstanding who God is calling us to become. Here are six biblical reasons why we need desire:

1) God desires. We are desiring creatures, and this is good! God himself desires, and desire is an expression of our imago dei.

The Scripture tells us that God does what he wills—what he wants. Why did God make the world? Why did God commit to saving the world he had made? He isn't obligated to anyone. "Whatever the Lord pleases, he does," says the Psalmist (Ps. 135:6).

God's desires stand behind the great acts of creation and redemption, proving to us how good and right, even necessary, desire can be. Desire itself isn't wrong. It beats at the very heart of God.

2) God's goodness makes holy sense of desire. The Scriptures open into a very good world. But that world isn't good in an arbitrary or abstract way. Eden is a good home for humanity. Throughout the Scripture, God shows deliberate benevolence and love toward his people, and of the many things we discover about the covenant-keeping God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we learn he is good.

If God is good, doesn't desire make sense? When we desire good from God, we are affirming his character. "You are good and do good" (Ps. 119:68). We are also affirming our trust in him.

3) Every prayer is an act of desire. What prayers in Scripture exclude the act of wanting? Even though we may not trust our desires, how do we pray without them? How did Abraham pray for Sodom and Gomorrah without desire? How did Moses pray for God's presence without desire? How did Hannah pray for a baby? How did the Psalmists pray without desire? Or Paul? Can there exist, in the Christian life, a holy longing that doesn't eventually become prayer? "He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them" (Ps. 145:19). We need desire because it animates our prayers.

4) The Gospel promises the conversion of our desires. God isn't about managing our behaviors, and he isn't only concerned with our beliefs. He wants us to become a people thoroughly transformed, even at the level of desire. "I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh," God promised (Ezek. 11:19).

The gospel is the promise that God's law will no longer be something external to us. Indeed, he will write his law on our hearts and convert our desires so that we want to obey him eagerly. The test of our transformation is the changed nature of our desires!

5) As we examine our desires, we more easily understand our sin. When we're caught in patterns of habitual sin, we do well to ask ourselves questions that examine our desires. They can provide a way forward into the obscurity of our own hearts. What do I want?

To desire or love or worship anything more than God is idolatry. This is the nature of the Ten Commandments (cf. Ex. 20). The first commandment, "You shall have no other gods before me," provides the framework for the rest. Love God best—and you will not steal, kill, commit adultery, and covet. Every sin is an expression of disordered desire.

6) New loves produce a changed life. In a sermon by Thomas Chalmers, a 19th-century Scottish theologian, entitled "The Expulsive Power of a New Affection," he argues that the only lasting way to fight sin is to grow into better, more holy loves. We can tell ourselves that sin is bad, bad, bad, but that's not nearly as powerful as proclaiming that Christ is good, good, good.

It was the power of the gospel Chalmers preached. The gospel doesn't only commend to us the destructiveness of sin. It illuminates the beauty of Christ, and holy love for him displaces sin.

In my own life, I have seen the destructive and redemptive power of desire. I know not to fully trust desire because I recognize myself as the chief of sinners. But Teach Us to Want has been for me, and I hope for readers, a rehearsal of the gospel—and a redemption of desire. Though we will love wrong things, God, through Christ, will persist in loving us still. Our covenant-keeping God is committed to our transformation—even the transformation of our desires.

7/22/2014 4:00:00 AM
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