I used to think the Christian life was a call to suppress our desires. Rightly judging my desires to be almost exclusively base and selfish, I concluded the road to righteousness could only run past the smothered corpses of my desires, till finally I would arrive at the pious and desire-less end. This conception of desire led to many frustrating years of fruitless tension between my hopes for righteousness and my natural tendency to strive towards the fulfillment of my desires.
Thankfully, just as with every other aspect of my self, God is showing me how His plan is not one of lacking, but one of completion; not one of less, but more. As proof of this we need only look to the person of Christ. When He came to Earth, he became not just a man, nor solely a God – He wasn’t even a combination of man and God – He was the complete entirety of God, and, most remarkably, he was also the completion and realization of man. In other words, Christ is the realization and completion of humanity: man as he was intended to be, and man as he can be through Christ.
(There is a certain ontological sense in all this too: if a God asks a man to follow Him, and be like Him, what can a man do? A fallen man is quite unable to imitate the behavior of a God. Now, if a God somehow also became a man at the same time, fully immersed into our fallen and cursed world and yet still able to permanently defeat sin and death from within, well, how then could man do anything but follow Him? Following Him is consistent with the laws of nature, since He is man; more importantly, following Him is attainable, since through His death we can enjoy the intimacy with God and His Spirit which enabled Christ to become a Perfect Man, fully intact and fully redeemed. Of course, we must follow Him through His death and into His life, if ever we are to experience this completion and perfection.)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood this when he wrote:
Only because there is only place where God and the reality of the world are reconciled with each other, at which God and humanity have become one, is it possible there and there alone to fix one’s eyes on and God and the world together at the same time. This place does not lie somewhere beyond reality in the realm of ideas. It lies in the midst of history as a divine miracle. It lies in Jesus Christ the reconciler of the world.
While Bonhoeffer was speaking of a Christian’s responsibility to properly engage the world, this idea applies perfectly to our discourse on desire. Just as with every other aspect of our nature, following Christ will lead to a completion and redemption of our desires. Christ certainly was not without desires, as we see Him longing to gather Jerusalem to Himself like a hen gathering her chicks under her wing, or praying fervently for the protection of His disciples, or even desiring the simple enjoyment of a fig tree. Clearly, Christ was full of desires. The distinction is this: His desires were holy and righteous, and consequently (as with all things from God) more powerful and commanding than any worldly desire.
Now we come to the crux of the matter: we as fallen men have unrighteous desires, and yet we are bound by our nature to follow them. You see, our natures will always strive towards the objects of our desires. God knows this, and even designed us to be wholly oriented by our desires. He knows a “[h]ope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (Prov. 13:12, NASB). We know, too, Jesus came so we could have not just a life, but an abundant life. A life characterized by the fulfillment of our heart’s desires.
Jesus clearly exposed the mechanics of our hearts by letting us know “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21, NASB). In doing so, however, He also uncovered the secret of a complete life: if the ‘location’ of our desires will always be the compass for our heart, the goal is not to do away with desire, but rather to replace our worldly desires with the desires of Christ. Again, Bonhoeffer aptly stated the issue: “The essence of chastity is not the suppression of a lust, but the total orientation of one’s life towards a goal. Without such a goal, chastity is bound to become ridiculous. Chastity is the sine qua non of lucidity and concentration.” The apostle Paul said it even better: “So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions” (Gal. 5: 16-17, NLT, emphasis added). The same Spirit which worked in Christ is accessible to those of us who have given themselves over to Christ. The inevitable conclusion will be a man full of great, guiltless desires. We will not become less in our pursuit of Christ, but more, as we allow the Spirit to give us desires to focus on.
For, if history has taught us anything, it surely must be this: man will always, in the end, get only that which he desires most. So let us desire the desires of the Spirit, and soon find our current desires, now so powerful and compelling, to grow ever dimmer in the magnificent light of Christ. Let us then desperately follow this road: “Delight yourself in the Lord; And He will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4, NASB).
All quotations of Bonhoeffer’s work were taken from Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas.