“Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, ‘What are you seeking?'” ~John 1:38
Do you know what you want? For what do you wish? What do you seek? Each human being, every day of their life, wrestles in some way, shape or form with desire. As human beings, made in the image of God, the pull of desire is built into us, it is part of our DNA. Because desire is God-given, we can know that intrinsically, desire is good.
At our core is the desire for true intimacy. God, Himself, imparted this ever-present, inmost desire: to know and be known by God and by others. I want to delve more deeply into desire itself, how sin has distorted it, and more importantly, how God is redeeming it.
The Latin root word for desire—meaning love, wish, longing, passion—is the word “cupido.” Picture that winged, cherub looking, arrow shooting Roman god that we see on Valentine’s Day. It’s an archer’s term which implies to aim at something. Our desire always has a focal point, a target where we aim our arrows.
In his book The Awakened Heart, author Gerald May well articulates human desire. “There is a desire within each of us, in the deep center of ourselves that we call our heart. We are born with it, it is never completely satisfied, and it never dies. We are often unaware of it, but it is always awake…our true identity, our reason for being, is to be found in this desire.”
Our desires matter because we matter to God! Unfortunately, as broken people, we often aim at the wrong target. We, through active disobedience or mistaken belief, will pursue something we think will help us fulfill our desire. It is a practiced behavior many of us repeat multiple times as we move from target to target. These targets can be anything be it a relationship, education, success, reputation, or work. Superimpose anything which might bring you fulfillment or make you feel complete.
Going back to our Roman friend Cupid, we learn that the Greek counterpart was the god Eros. The word eros is one of four Greek words that can be rendered into the English word “love” or “desire.” Our culture today often associates eros with sex. We have become a “sexualized culture,” being daily bombarded with various sexual messages and images. But eros is not merely associated with sexual activity–it also implies of being passionately alive, and the love of beauty.
To be passionately alive, we need to use all of our senses. Through our senses, we have the opportunity to take in the incredible beauty and wonder of God’s creation. When we experience the world in this way, I believe we encounter deep yearnings for God Himself.
Eros exposes our inner ache and desire for connection, for completion. We know inherently that we are incomplete, that there is a deep hole within us that is longing to be filled. Augustine writes that “(the) whole life of the good Christian is a holy longing.” We long to know and be known. Augustine also wrote, “The single desire that dominated my search for delight was simply to love and to be loved.” We desire to be in relationship with our Creator. Our desire ultimately is for a person.
Our Desire is Broken
Have you noticed human beings are incredibly “I” focused? Our default setting is to look at ourselves rather than look to God. True relationship with God has been relegated to the side. It might be useful to us when we need help, but otherwise, we think we can do fine on our own.
Look around, and you will observe humanity’s pursuit towards things which meet immediate needs, whether they be physical, sexual, emotional or spiritual. People settle for instant gratification and are content with the earthly and finite, not recognizing the reality of their true desire within. There are those who even suppress the desire for true intimacy out of fear. The deep desire God has planted in our hearts is ever present and while we may settle for the temporal (which evokes feelings of being okay), soon the ache of desire surfaces again.
Aiming at wrong targets accentuates this ache and our inner sense of incompleteness. There are two broken ways to react when desire is unfulfilled. This can result in a person embracing what is known as stoicism or becoming a sensualist.
Author John Eldredge in his book The Journey of Desire, states, “The reason we don’t know what we want is that we are so unacquainted with our desire. We try to keep a safe distance between our daily lives and our heart’s desire because it causes us so much trouble. Often fearing what we might do if passions are allowed to arise, we clamp down, shutting them down. In so doing we kill our most precious possession, our hearts.” Desire is at the core of our humanity, and it cannot be ignored or eliminated through our efforts.
One reaction to desire is to bury it and become a stoic. I’m going to shut down all desire, the good with the bad. To embrace stoicism is to embrace legalism and control. The trajectory of our “arrow” is to repress all emotions and desires, believing they are destructive. Scripture is diminished into a set of do’s and don’ts, seek moral restraint and embrace religion. A stoic loses true intimacy with God and others because they seek to avoid the pain of desire. Ultimately, relationship with God, who is the Creator of desire, is lost.
The sensualist is one who does not avoid the pain of desire, but rather becomes abandoned to it. It is excessive. This condition begins the process of becoming enslaved to desire in the form of addictions. There is a rabid consumption of the immediate and the finite, which never results in complete satisfaction. Our inner ache now becomes exacerbated due to the lack of being fulfilled.
Jeremiah chapter 2 describes how we can become like a wild donkey in the desert running after our idols. Nothing can stop it because it is ravenous. This is an apt description of the sensualist. Initially, they think they can stop and reign in their desires, but there is no self-control, no stopping their lusts. In reality, satisfaction is never gained, just the mere momentary displacement of the inner ache of desire.
In both cases, we see the divinely-inspired desire for true intimacy completely lost. In his book Fill These Hearts, Christopher West states, “Behind every false god we discover our desire for the true God gone awry.” Escaping into false intimacy accentuates our longing and creates a constant trigger for addictive behaviors. These addictive attachments may even appear to be acceptable (e.g., perfectionism, workaholic, religious fervor) but they all are displacing the pain of desire.
Our Desire is Redeemed
“Thou has made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
~St. Augustine, Confessions
I stated earlier while we have many desires, ultimately our chief desire is for a person. That person is Jesus. God knows us, and we know God ourselves through the person of Jesus. If we respond to the person of Jesus, we enter into holy communion with God Himself.
The Holy Spirit comes to live within us. As He works in us through the process of repentance and sanctification, we begin to experience transformation. Galatians 5:22-23 lists the fruits of the Spirit that begin to manifest in our lives. Love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…these attributes help keep us from becoming stoics, which kills the heart and also keeps us from becoming ensnared in sensuality.
The third option in response to desire is to become sojourners, strangers in a strange land. We learn how not to indulge in excess but how to experience joy derived from finding expressions of true intimacy. We do not objectify individuals nor view God’s creation as something solely for our consumption. Our view is elevated from the finite to the infinite.
As redeemed people, we become transfixed by the deep love of God. We enter an ever more intimate union with Jesus our Beloved. This occurs as our earthly desires line up with God’s desires. I know this sounds so “spiritual”, but we are spiritual beings! I am alive, living and enjoying life in this temporal world while living in the light of a divine and eternal reality.
Early in my life, I sought every resource imaginable to help me control desire. I have been caught in the restless activism of the stoic. I also was the sensual addict and was ensnared for 17 years in pornography addiction. But today I am redeemed. I can still slip into the stoic behavior at times through perfectionism. I can also slide in the sensualist mode, being too emotionally self-aware or over delighting in food.
I intentionally pursue my beloved Savior, seeking His presence to assuage any loneliness and incompleteness. I pray for the Holy Spirit to line up my desires and my passions with those of the Father. I seek how I can be the Image bearer of Jesus in a world lost in sensuality and egotism. And I am ever mindful of God’s many promises and am confident of this—that He who begun a good work in me will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6)
Rev. Bob Ragan is the full-time director of Regeneration of Northern Virginia. Bob provides spiritual direction, healing prayer, and coordinates support groups in the DC metro area. He has ministered on five continents and is an invited lecturer for the C.S. Lewis Institute and YWAM (Youth with a Mission). Bob is the published author of Path through the Wilderness and is an ordained deacon in the Anglican Church.