On Desire: The slum or the seaside?
“May He grant you your heart’s desire and fulfill all your plans.” Ps. 20:4 (ESV)
Desire is a well of energy within us, the great capacity to dream, hope, yearn and aspire to that for which we long. Leanne Payne, drawing from both C. S. Lewis and Fr. John Gaynor Banks, writes of desire as a “radiant thing,” the “mighty force” that is “part of the atomic energy of the soul.” If desire is indeed beautiful, radiant, and explosively powerful why then do we not live alert and fully alive to our deep hearts’ desires? Are we perhaps afraid to desire so deeply because the possibility of disappointment and failure loom greater than bright expectation? In that fear, do we anticipate nonfulfillment more than fulfillment, and thus live against true hope and desire?
C. S. Lewis, grappling with this in The Weight of Glory wrote: “Indeed if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of reward promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us. Like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday by the sea, we are far too easily pleased.” We choose to stay in the slums, playing in the mud puddles instead of bringing our longings, indeed our whole capacity for desire, trembling before the Lord. We haven’t truly taken in the profound generosity of our God. It is His good pleasure to grant us the desires of our hearts! We may be like Tolstoy’s character in A Confession–if a fairy were to come and offer to fulfill our desires, we should not even know what to ask, or how to hope and ask greatly.
Yet God, who intricately designed our souls for His glory, gifted us with the capacity for deep desire. This divine attribute, this creative vitality, seeks expression through our choices. Indeed, the person we are becoming is directed by desire. Our true becoming depends on it! A. W. Tozer framed it thus: “Every Christian will become at last what his desires have made him. … The great saints have all had thirsting hearts.” The psalmist echoed this thirst in Psalm 42:1 (NIV): “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.” As Christ Himself becomes our first and greatest desire, then our desire for all things can become defined, ordered into its proper place, well-directed and whole.
Sometimes our desires arise from deceit or illusion, and thus trap or entice us amiss. When that happens, we may find ourselves in a place of exploiting or manipulating others in order to fulfill those desires. At this place God’s refining fires are a needed mercy. We see this embodied in Scripture when God journeyed with men and women through years of maturing until their desires could be fulfilled. How great our need for maturity is as we contend with the power of desire. Because we have a tendency toward impatience or giving up too easily, we may repress, hide or even kill real desire and give our hearts to the false, to the idolatrous. Even more common, I think, people seek fulfillment in the false and idolatrous because they don’t understand that only God can fulfill that real desire. One of the most chilling verses in Scripture is the indictment against Israel in Psalm 106:15 (CJB): “He gave them what they wanted but sent meagerness into their soul.” There is a demanding, carnal part of us that does not desire purely and our souls suffer leanness because of it. It is the Spirit’s work of sanctification that cleanses and purifies this carnality, differentiating between demand and desire. It is the Spirit who helps us to desire good things, to desire them in good ways, and to wait on the Lord. It is critical to our maturity to die to the false, self-demanding and allow Him to burn away false, carnal desires. Some desires then simply blow away as ash, but some come out purer, more tempered, but also larger and stronger. This too is His mercy.
What happens when we need to find or even to recapture our desires? We may have repressed desires out of self-protective fear or from shame. Fearing our desires will never be fulfilled, that an ache will remain, we may avoid laying out before the Lord our deepest desires. We may even fear that our desires are not in line with God’s will. Often instead of contending with the real content of our hearts in His presence, we cover our desires, retreating into a self-imposed safe, silent zone. But safety cannot be found by retreating into the false self that only subverts the emergence of true desire. Our quest must be to boldly name our desires, trusting He will hold them safely. In The Broken Image Leanne Payne assured: “We can safely desire even those things we’ve been so fearful to acknowledge before, because they are wholly offered to Him. … He will remove the chaff from the wheat, He will transmute the desire when and where necessary, He will elevate it to higher planes when our perception of His will for us is too low.”
What happens if we substitute our own solutions, demanding that our desires be fulfilled in the way and time we expect? In Genesis16 we see this happen when Sarah, who had been waiting many years for a son, interposed her own idea and convinced Abraham to have a child, Ishmael, through her maid. God had promised a son but she would not wait. God had promised a son and indeed Isaac was born in Sarah’s and Abraham’s old age. God was faithful “at the appointed time” (Gen. 21:2), but the consequences of her demand remain today as the people of Israel and those of the Arab nations are at enmity.
In His presence, we must repent of self-willed, self-timed demands. We offer Him our disappointment of waiting; we offer Him our grieving and our double-mindedness over thwarted or quenched desires; we offer Him our mistaken counterfeits and shaky attempts at self-fulfillment, and we open all the hidden places of our hearts to His light. Then repentant, we return to hope and invite Him to bring up and restore buried desires. Job expressed this well: “My eyes have grown dim with grief; my whole frame is but a shadow. …My days have passed, my plans are shattered. Yet the desires of my heart turn night into day; in the face of the darkness light is near” (Job 17:7, 11-12 NIV). As light is near we sense anew the Holy Spirit’s creative indwelling presence “brimming with endless possibility” and willing to restore all within us, including deep desires (Guardini, The Lord).
When the well of energy of desire has diminished, it is by prayer that the flow of living water radiantly comes again to fill the well, awaken creative dreams, and infuse us with forward impetus to pursue those desires aright. In the true self, when we are quiet before Him in listening prayer, He draws up the deep desires of our hearts, those we may have quenched or set aside prematurely. As we acknowledge these desires, offering them to God so that our wills become His, we can then listen to His word of healing and direction that sustains us until the time of fulfillment. Faith, united with enduring patience, remains the key to pleasing God and receiving our promised desires (Heb. 6:12).
In faith we trust deeply that we can wait for that good thing we are asking because He is a good God, full of grace and lovingkindness toward us. He will be faithful to every “staggering” promise. We turn again to that place of abiding in His presence, offering our desires in joy, inviting His purification, uniting with Christ who is greater than all our desires and has the power to open His hand and fulfill every good desire (Ps. 145:16). With the psalmist we also cry: “All my longings lie open before You” (38:9 NIV). Thus we are enabled to pray with surrender: “Keep alive within us, Oh Christ, your most precious gift to us which is our burning, longing, wordless yearning for you” (Gerald May). Alleluia!