[These thoughts on living with unfulfilled desire were first published here back on October 20, 2006. Since I am teaching on addictions and the need to protect (no slake nor deny) desire this week, I thought I might resurrect this introduction to a short series on the topic of protecting desire. To read the remaining posts, follow the links at the bottom of the post.]
I have a confession to make: desire, not cotton, is the fabric of my life. I crave foods, comfortable living, excitement, time with my wife without interruptions, sex, prestige, freedom from illicit temptations (or is it freedom to indulge without penalty?), free time, obedient children, and employment that doesn’t seem like work. Satisfaction is the name of my game. And with 4 decades of experience in achieving at least partial satisfaction, I still find it ever elusive, never lasting more than a moment in time. Even when I get what I want, it’s never enough. One perfectly ripe strawberry is never enough. My wife’s chocolate cake is fabulous, but I always want one more bite. Another handful of M and M’s would be nice. The thrill I get from accomplishments or public praise is addictive but always fleeting. Desire—it drives me and yet its fulfillment eludes my grasp. It offers hope that the next thing will bring lasting contentment. Yet, far too often it brings pain as satisfaction is just beyond my reach.
Being a Christian Doesn’t Quench Desire
I yearn for things beyond this world. I desire to know God, to be so enthralled by his character and presence that my earthly longings are less captivating. I desire moving worship, ah-ha enlightenment from each bible reading, and prayer times that cause me to feel the very presence of my Savior. I covet the experience of Simeon and Anna whose cravings for a face-to-face glimpse of the Savior were fulfilled. Yet, this yearning for the completion of my union with Christ also brings with it pain. For I must wait for that day and groan, as did the apostle Paul, while we wait in our tattered earthly tents (2 Cor. 5:2). Waiting means contending with an unabating and agonizing thirst for God (Ps. 42:1).
Though I long for God, I’m caught between worlds. I have a rather short attention span. Only seeing darkly of the life to come, the fleeting joys in this life call for my attention. You see I’m more like Tolkien’s Gollom than I care to admit—a contorted man, torn between a distant good and the desire to have what I want now. Which desire will be my master, “my precious”? This world offers many of us endless choice to satisfy our desires and longings. If you want to get a good sense of this, take a stroll down the aisles of your favorite mammoth bookstore (sipping your favorite specialty coffee of course). Count the number of volumes written to help you discover and maintain a fulfilled life You can have better sex, become one with your inner self, build better relationships, take the most satisfying vacations, build your dream home, become a better cook, etc. Your local Christian bookstore is equally focused on finding satisfaction. Whether you are in sections on theology, biblical studies, or the family, you will see books to help you find what you are longing for: freedom, peace, satisfaction, fulfillment in your family, in your understanding of the Bible, and in your relationship with God. We want all that and so much more. The goods (comfort, excitement, status, fulfillment, etc.) of this world call us to a life of consumption and so we often respond despite our awareness of how these goods have little more substance than a mirage (1 John 2:17).
Surely you have noticed that there is no rest with desire. It marches on unabated, unchecked. It drives you to buy the next thing, to glance at the next attractive person, to seek validation from one more person, or to put your hopes in the next phase of your life while you struggle between resisting and indulging the urge. Whether you give in to your desires or rebuff them, it means you live with an ache.
Living With the Ache
Maybe, just maybe, God wants us to live with the ache of unfulfilled desires. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I do not believe even for a minute that the ache you feel is something to be glorified or to be sought after as a spiritual goal. In its best form, the ache is the reality that we are not at home and in the presence of God as we will be in Glory. You and I are camped on the east side of the river Jordan, in a parched land with enemies to the left, right, and rear. And we long for the day when God ushers us into the Land flowing with milk and honey. We live in the wilderness straining to catch a glimpse of the Promised Land. Like the Israelites, God takes care of us providing all that we need. We have our manna and water, but it never quite slakes our thirst for rest. No, this manna requires faith that God will provide again tomorrow.
In its worst form, the ache of desire emanates from the pursuit of a life of comfort independent of trusting the Unseen for sustenance. Again, I am not saying that our pursuits of beauty, knowledge, peace, intimacy, or comfort are questionable activities. God has made a glorious world, and our enjoyment of his creation gives glory to Him. A beautiful sunset, a fine wine, great sex, a captivating book; all these give glory to the Creator who made each possible. Consider Solomon’s sage advice: So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun. (Eccles. 8:15)
What I do want to communicate about this ache is that the sovereign God who rules this world has placed us this side of heaven where longings are our constant companion. In this state of living, we experience His many wonderful promises and provisions while looking forward for what is yet to come. While his provisions sustain us, they do not ameliorate our desire. If living in constant dependence of the Creator part of His sovereign plan, then our attempts to avoid the reality of the ache is nothing but rejection of God himself.
Christians have a plethora of books at their fingertips to remind them of what God is up to and the joys of seeking God with our whole heart. Without decrying the benefits of books by the likes of David Wilkinson, John Eldredge, and John Piper (they serve to increase my vision for what God is doing in my life), I recognize that as they increase my understanding of God and his character so also do they increase my sense of need for God and of my own inability to find complete satisfaction. Good books have a way of increasing my longing for more.
Living on the East Side of the Jordan River?
Yet here we sit. Caught between desire for God and desire for self. How do we live with our desires if we cannot sate or get rid of them? In this age of gluttony, how do we cope with desire? How do we protect our desires from the consumption driven world that demands that we serve our desires at every turn? Just as in the days of Moses, God provides us with his presence and with signposts to reorient our reality. Just as their eyes deceived them (dry, dangerous lands with no sign of water) so do ours. If I do not look out for my retirement; chase the highest paying job possible; if I don’t get married now; have children now…
Let’s consider together how God reveals and responds to our thirsts and how he enables us to flourish on the east bank of the Jordan River while we wait for him to bring us into the Promised Land. [To read more on this topic: The First Biblical Image of Desire, Sex and Other Desires in the Bible, Desires God Awry, Protecting Desire with the Means of Grace.]