In the life of faith, what is the rightful place of human longing?

Christians often think that what we believe is what matters most in how we live. And while what we believe is certainly important, it turns out that the thing we most shape our lives around is what we desire. Augustine put it well when he wrote in his Enchiridion, “For when there is a question as to whether a man is good, one does not ask what he believes, or what he hopes, but what he loves.”

The thing we most shape our lives around is what we desire.

Advertisers are well aware that our desires shape our decisions more than our beliefs do. I remember being in Leningrad in 1986, before the term glasnost (roughly translated as “openness”) had been coined. We snuck one of our Russian friends into the hard currency store. These were stores that took only Western money and allowed only Westerners to enter. On one wall of the store was a huge cigarette advertisement. It must have been 30 feet wide and 10 feet tall. There was a beautiful picture of a man kayaking down a rushing mountain river amidst thick green forest growth. In the bottom right corner, there was a picture of a pack of cigarettes. Our friend had never seen an advertisement of this sort. The only billboards I saw in the Soviet Union at the time were propaganda signs for the Communist Party.

“You see, Arkosha,” I explained, “The picture of the kayaker evokes a mood or a desire to be a certain kind of person. Then that mood or desire is associated with the brand of cigarette. The design of the ad has the aim of getting me to think, I am an adventurous sort of person. I should smoke Marlboro.

Arkosha was dumbfounded. “Do you mean that Americans will really buy things because of this?” he asked. He could not believe it.

“We fall for it all the time.”

You can see that Augustine is right when he says that what we love tends to lie deeper, and be more important, than what we believe. No one thinks consciously that a certain brand of cigarettes gives you a more adventurous life than another brand. If someone claimed to present evidence for this assertion, you would laugh. Yet our desire for such a life can lead us to associate the two. Who and what we want to be affects our decisions.

If our desires are so deeply influential, it is important for us to pay attention to how they fit into the Christian story. Many of us, to be honest, are conflicted about what we want. On the one hand, we think that pursuing or even thinking about our own longings is a selfish thing. It is a mark of the self-oriented life that Jesus calls us to reject. On the other hand, Jesus stated that He came to give life abundantly. In other words, He is offering us the life we most deeply want.

When I pay attention to my longings, I find that they are somewhat tangled and unstructured. Many are tied to my immediate circumstances. I want things to go well. In essence, my basic desire is that all the events in the universe will cooperate with my plans. That is, my car will not break down, my writing projects will get done, my family will not get sick, and I can take a little unhurried time each day to sip coffee and talk with my wife. When I am honest, I see that I want my life to be a bit like a perpetual vacation. These are my selfish desires. They are not terribly bad on their own, but they reflect my preoccupation with self.

If I peel back my vacation desires, however, I find a deeper level of desire at work. I want a meaningful life. I want what I do to make a difference for God’s kingdom and for the lives of those around me. I want to be a person of integrity and generosity. I want to experience God more deeply. I want relationships that are not merely surface friendships. I want hope for my future.

These desires are not self-focused the way desires for a vacation are. After all, these are longings for the very goals God has for my life. My deeper desires and God’s desires for me run in parallel. There are many passages of Scripture that illustrate this convergence. One clear example is found in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus proclaims to the crowd, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). Note that Jesus is appealing to our desires. We all want relief from being weary and heavy-laden. We want to exchange our weighty burdens for His light ones. We want rest—rest for our souls! Who would say no to this kind of life? Yet, this is the life that God Himself wants to produce in each of us. Our deeper longings are those that precisely match God’s goals for our life.

We should not turn away from our desires: They are God’s means of wooing us to Himself.

We can see, then, that we should not turn away from our desires: They are God’s means of wooing us to Himself. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis recognizes our fundamental human desires as God-given. He writes that they turn our attention to God and our ultimate destiny of living with Him forever:

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.

Our desires, Lewis proposes, are gifts and tools that God employs for our own good and joy and fulfillment.

Not every desire leads us in God’s direction, however. I mentioned they can be tangled. I have surface desires and those that are deeper, but I have to admit even the deeper ones are often convoluted, including some buried in my soul, which push God away. I want the life yoked to Jesus that exchanges my heavy burden for His light one, but I also want to be on my own—to live my life my own way. I have a resistance to depending on Him for my well-being. Jesus invites me to come, but often I do not.

This conflict, I think, is what moves people to be rightly suspicious of what they yearn for. We know we are double-minded. We want God, but we also want to be on our own. As Paul cried out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24). The answer is not to suppress our desires or pretend they don’t matter, but rather to discipline them. And we discipline our self-focused desires by cultivating our God-given ones. Then, as I more clearly long for the life God wants for me, the grip of my self-focus will weaken.

But how do we cultivate God-focused desires? I find two practices especially helpful. The first is the practice of giving thanks: I begin by thanking God for anything that crosses my mind. As I start, my thoughts are often trivial and uninspiring. If I consciously thank God for the trivial things, however, I notice that I quickly move to the big things in my life, for which I am deeply grateful. I may begin by thanking God for the pleasant weather. Soon, I am pouring out my gratitude for my family, my work, and the ways God meets me every day. My attention is turned from shallow preoccupations to the deep gifts that mark my life. I recognize God’s hand in concrete ways. The psalmist’s call to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) becomes real to me in new ways. I do taste and see His goodness!

The second practice is to reflect on the promise of life in Jesus. This involves thinking about His promises over and over again. I chew on them slowly: He promises rest for my soul (how I long for this rest!); He promises a light burden (how I long for a burden that is light!); He promises that I do not navigate my life alone (how I long to be yoked to Him as I walk through life!).

About 30 times in the Gospel of John, the word life is used by Jesus or about Jesus. He is the bread of life. He is the resurrection and the life. He is the way and the truth and the life. He brings life to us abundantly (John 6:35; John 11:25; John 14:6; John 10:10). Jesus calls us into an experience of His life. It takes time and attention for me to recognize this for what it is—the supernatural life given by God. As I meditate on the many facets of the kind of existence He promises, I see God’s goodness in my own life: I experience His care and mercy and feel His gentle hand holding me.

These practices—of giving thanks and of reflecting on His promise of life—focus my attention on God’s goodness towards me. As my attention is focused, my desires are awakened. Out of sheer gratitude, my heart aligns with the heart of God. Out of celebration of His gift of life, my longing for Him untangles.

In his great spiritual autobiography Confessions, Augustine prays, making an observation about God’s work through our desires: “You rouse us, giving us delight in glorifying you, because you have made us with yourself as our goal, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Our delights and desires, then, are God’s means of leading us to Himself. We will remain restless in our self-focused, undisciplined desires until we see that our deepest longing leads us to God Himself.


Illustrations by Peter Oumanski

Related Topics:  Spiritual Life

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28 Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.

29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS.

30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light."

24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?

8 O taste and see that the LORD is good; How blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!

35 Jesus said to them, I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.

25 Jesus said to her, I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies,

6 Jesus said to him, I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.

10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

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