Don’t think ill of me. I have a problem wanting what I want when I want it, and sometimes like a spoiled child I whine about it when I don’t get it.
Desires are part of what makes us human. We’re distinguished from other living creatures that are pulled along by instinctual needs for food, drink, sex, and safety. God made us with the capacity for desire and, in the case of legitimate, that is, God installed desires, the capacity to meet those desires. Fulfilling our desires is one way we quantify whether or not we’re enjoying our lives.
“Legitimate desires” are the ones that, unless overindulged, are neither good nor bad. Say, for instance, my desire for ice cream, clothes that look good on me, and a periodic nap. No problem unless the nap only breaks for Ben and Jerry’s three times a day and shopping sprees at The Gap!
But there are some desires that hurt God and harm people. For instance, the last of the “Big Ten No No’s” makes it clear that it’s not good to “covet” your neighbor’s house, his spouse, his servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to him (or her). I’m happy to report that I’ve pretty much successfully refrained from all ox or donkey coveting! I can’t claim the same success for the rest of the list though.
It’s not like you’re going to hell because you wanted something that didn’t belong to you, but it’s how you handle the wanting. On the other hand, you shouldn’t let yourself off the hook simply because you didn’t go all the way and confiscate a guy’s house, steal his wife, or ride off into the sunset on his donkey!
Jesus made it clear that sin occurs way before the actual confiscation stage. I think this anti-coveting command is more about how much you want what isn’t yours and how much those wants affect your relationships with your neighbors and with God. It’s not okay when we let our desire for other people’s stuff to take up residence in our souls.
So, all desires are not created equal. That is, some of them are good and others not so good. In point of fact, God made us with the gift of desire and installed his good desires in redeemed and unredeemed souls. Though these good desires and the desires for good are to varying degrees obscured by our predilection for getting our own way at any cost, they are in fact part of the original machinery.
He also says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart,” which to my mind means, “Enjoy him a lot, get so close to him that he is able to insert his desires in your heart. Then you’ll want what he wants.” The best-case scenario, then, is when we embrace these desires as our own and they’re fulfilled. “A longing fulfilled is a tree of life!” To be like Jesus we must want what he wants and do what he wants us to do.
But still, the question is, “Is there a category of desires that are inherently evil? Are there such things as ‘bad desires’?” We’re not talking about long naps, $500 jeans, or Cherry Garcia Ben and Jerry’s. We’re talking about desires that humans are advised to refrain from fulfilling at all times and in all cases.
If there are such things as “evil desires,” what are we supposed to do with them? In the 60s we had a popular mantra, “If it feels good, do it!” The implication was that there’s no such thing as evil and that all desires are, in and of themselves, amoral. If you want to do something, you should go ahead and do it.
My interest in this subject is two-fold. First, I regret to admit that I constantly wrestle with desires that pull me away from God. Like Paul, “The good I want to do I don’t do and the evil I want to avoid, I end up doing!” The second reason I’ve been musing about these things is that I hear a lot of people, some even who claim to be Christians, that say if someone has a desire for one thing or another it’s because they were born with it and there’s nothing wrong with going for it. “If God installed in us such and such a proclivity, who are we to deny ourselves of its enjoyment and who are you to object?”
A while back, I was sharing Jesus with an unmarried friend who claimed that he had an extraordinary need for lots of sex with women. He said he was biologically predisposed this way and in order be healthy he had to satisfy his every sexual desire with as many willing partners as he could find. Though I considered his self-diagnosis BS, I went along for the ride and said, “Okay then, if that’s true and you want to live to please God you’ll just have to work harder to resist those temptations in that area than the rest of us in order to be obedient to God. If you decide to follow Jesus that would be a cross you’ll have to carry.”
Desires aren’t the same as needs. Some desires are inherently evil and to fulfill them is the diametric opposite of what we actually “need” as human beings before God.
I want to be quick to point out that there are a number of biblical references that speak of desirable desires. Jesus “desired” to eat the Passover with the disciples and Paul “desired” to depart and be with Christ. We’re told that the Holy Spirit “desires” what his contrary to our sinful nature, that the person who wants to be a spiritual leader “desires a noble task,” and that the “desire” of a good leader to see people being diligent in their faith.
The term in these passages describing these noble desires as well as the ignoble ones, a list of which I’ll share in my next post is often translated in the old King James Version as “lust.” Interesting isn’t it that “lust,” which is most commonly thought of as exclusively referring to inappropriate sexual desires, can also apply to desirable desires? Could it be that our most effective antidote to caving in to our sinful desires is an insatiable craving for God?
When I first got born again I noticed that some of my desires began to change. For the first time I wanted to treat people better, I wanted to get to know God, to worship him, and do stuff that made him happy. So weird at first! Even weirder was when some of my baser desires had changed, like incessant inebriation. I expected all my old inappropriate desires would evaporate in the same immediate fashion. No such luck! Forty-four years later I still have an uncivil war going on inside me.
Anyway, what I’d like to do in the next post is refer to a number of New Testament passages that clearly claim that there is a category of human desires that are intrinsically immoral and should be resisted at all costs. While this subject might seem like Spirituality 101, I hope to unpack it in such a way as to counter a popular notion that our desires define us.