Jesus’ first and last words in John’s Gospel are questions.
- “What do you want?” he asks two disciples who are following him right after his baptism.
- “Do you love me?” he asks Peter three times after his resurrection.
These questions aren’t rhetorical for Jesus. Nor are they leading questions, or passive-aggressive, or shaming.
They are sincere questions meant to help the listener own and name their desire.
What do you want?
What do you want? is the core question for every disciple of Jesus.
But desire makes us nervous. We are anxious that we won’t get what we want or perhaps we shouldn’t want what we want, and so we have two dominant strategies in the church for dealing with desire:
- Kill it, or
- Fulfill it.
Killing desire: the “religious” option
Some Christian traditions are scared to death of desire, because desire leads us into sin (the devil is prowling around looking to hook our desires, James says).
And so these Christian traditions seek to kill desire. Killing desire includes numbing, ignoring, medicating, or denying our desire. Here are some of the ways this shows up in the church:
The Selfless Servant
The Selfless Servant appears to have a “servant’s heart.” They are the first to volunteer to help others, often sacrificing much of their time and energy to give to people when they ask.
But this can be a way that we avoid naming and owning what we really want. Many people who appear selfless have been taught that wanting anything for themselves is selfish and wrong.
Over time, this strategy to kill desire by focusing on what other people want breeds resentment. Selfless Servants can live cut off from their hearts, distanced from their deepest desires in the name of “serving others.”
We are called as Christians to serve others, of course, but not at the expense of our own hearts. Serving others in love should bring us more fully into awareness of our desires, not distance us from them.
The Stoic Saint
The Stoic Saint seems unflappable. Nothing fazes or shakes them. This person traffics in rational, discursive thought. Cool, calm, collected.
Emotional stability can be virtuous, of course. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit. But the Stoic Saint can also be a consequence of living cut off from our heart and desire: we don’t really feel anything.
Neurologically, the Stoic Saint lives primarily out of their left brain (the logic, analytical region) without much integration with the right side (the creative, emotive region). In effect, the Stoic Saint also lives cut off from their heart, disintegrated, “stuck in their heads,” unaware and unconcerned with what they desire.
Both the Selfless Servant and the Stoic Saint are celebrated in many Christian circles as the paragons of faith. And we want to say “yes” to the servanthood and self-control of each, but we also need to say that these are Christian identities that can keep us from living an abundant, integrated Christian life.
Fulfilling desire: the “American” option
If the religious option says that desire is evil and we must learn to deny and mistrust our desires in order to please God, the American option treats personal desire as sacred.
“Salvation” consists of overcoming whatever would inhibit or thwart your desire. In the American option, what we want is the truest thing about us, and we trust it implicitly. We take our cues, not from external sources of authority, or tradition, or wisdom, or virtue, but only from our internal desires.
America runs on consumption. Our entire economy is built on the cultivation and fulfillment of consumer desire. Each product, each service offered comes with a promise: fulfill this desire and you will get what you (ultimately) want. The gospel of America is that fulfilling your desires is the surest, quickest way to the life you’ve always dreamed of.
Of course, most of us know (from our own personal experience) this isn’t true! Many non-Christians will attest to this reality as well. Getting our desires met does not lead to happiness.
The American Option leads us into all kinds of addictions, compulsions, and idolatries. We end up in bondage to our desires, unable to will or want other than what our desires tell us we must have.
Neither the American Option nor the Religious Option offer hope to humanity. Jesus shows us a better way to deal with our desire.
Discerning desire: the Jesus option
Jesus routinely helped people own and name their desire with him. He saw desire as a doorway into the seat of a person’s heart. Over and over again, Jesus shows a penchant for helping people uncover what they actually want. God meets us most fully right where we really are (that’s how real God is), and desire is a window into our reality.
Desire is a natural part of being human, and individual desires are neither good nor bad: they simply are. Like everything else about us, our desires must “get saved,” i.e. our desires must be ordered and shaped in the life of Jesus.
We spend so much time judging, fixing, denying, seeking, fulfilling, or fearfully protecting our desires, but ground zero for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom is in just owning, naming, submitting, discerning, and relinquishing desire.
So here’s how to discern your desires with Jesus:
- Own your desire. It’s okay to have wants and desires. We’ve been created with them and we can’t live without them. Learning to own our desires (without apology or demands) can be hard work for many of us who grew up without permission or freedom to do so.
- Name your desire. Often our desire is difficult to specifically name. It’s just a craving, or a feeling, or an anxious/fearful thought. The practice of naming our desire (to God, ourselves, and even others) helps us create some “distance” from our wants. The American Option wants you to believe you are your desire. But this isn’t true. I have desires, but I am not my desires. The practice of naming desire allows us to detangle our disordered relationship to desire so we can begin to meet God in it.
- Submit your desire. We own and name desire not so we can solve, fix, demand, or ignore them but so we can submit them to God. We hold them before us and learn to surrender in trust to God in the midst of them. Submitting desire involves facing what we want without apology or fear. God already knows what we really want anyway, so what is there to be afraid of?
- Discern your desire. The faithful move Jesus makes in our desire isn’t about killing them or fulfilling them, but rather to discern them in light of his kingdom. Discernment takes love and wisdom, and is best done in community. It’s a process of offering our bodies as living sacrifices so we can discern God’s will.
- Relinquish your desire. Ultimately, Christ offers us the freedom of desire. We are free to want and desire many things, but as he orders and shapes our desires in his love we find that we are freed from serving the bondage of our desire. This is different than the freedom from desire offered in other religious traditions. The goal isn’t to want nothing; the goal is to have our wants so saturated by the love of God revealed in Jesus that we can want anything, or nothing, or just 1 or 2 somethings. We learn to want rightly as our desire is ordered by divine love.
Dave Warner says
Love this post! And so timely as I have been dealing with this on a lot of levels with several different people lately. Naming the desire may be the hardest thing besides relinquishing. But I think just as important as relinquishing our desires is to recognize that when we are on a discipleship journey of Christlikeness (or as Paul calls it “to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling”) that eventually, “…God works in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Philippians 2:12b-13.
The importance of this is because in the natural course of discipleship, our desires become God’s desires, or better stated: God’s desires become our desires. We want what God wants already because we are steadily being transformed in the image of Christ for the sake of others. This is not foolproof though, and plenty of “good christian people” have done irreparable harm to our faith because “God told them to do” something. But a genuine faith and journey of discipleship should yield a desire to do God’s desires because God works within us to desire what God wants.
Ben Sternke says
Glad it was helpful for you, Dave! You’re exactly right: the discernment of our desires eventually becomes the transformation of our desires so that we want the same things Christ wants, and we live our lives from that place. Riffing on this idea, Dallas Willard said, “God wants to empower you to do what you want.”
This is very helpful. I like it.
Brad Wong says
This is wonderfully expressed. Thank you!
Ben Sternke says
Thanks Brad! Glad it was helpful for you. Hope you’re doing well!
Michael Gonzalez says
This is gold. This has been so good. I’m thinking through this in every situation I find myself in, especially with my children. I feel like kids usually get told to deny their desires the most. In the black community, it’s common for my peers and I to reflect on the reality that our desires were often shut down in the name of “obey your parents”. I’m thinking through what it looks like to work this out with my five and six year old daughters.
Ben Sternke says
Dude! That is such good work you’re doing with your daughters! Helping them grapple with and discern their desires is huge, and carves a new path into the parenting binary most parents feel, I think: indulging our kids’ desires, or killing our kids’ desires.
Lara Archibald says
Walter Brueggeman has a prayer about this in Prayers for Privileged People. Leads through this same process!
Matt Tebbe says
Wow, Lara! So cool. I’ll have to check it out. Love Brueggeman. 🙂
Thank you so much for this post. It has really helped me clear my thoughts on the subject as I was wrestling with it lately. Spot on for me. 🙂
Matt Tebbe says
So encouraged to hear that, Marta. Thank you for reading.