The Importance of longing and desire in the spiritual life
Reading over the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” has led me to thinking about longings and desires again. Jesus is saying in the above verse that the things that we long for others to do to and for us, we are to try to see these longings met in others. As I thought about this a few weeks ago, I wrote in my journal about my own longings. “Consider your own longings–longings for relationship, longings for significance and security, longings for respect, peace, love, kindness, touch, affirming words, a sense of meaning, longings for contentment, delight. Yes, these are good and to the extent that I long for those from others, I can turn and invest these into others.” I went on to journal about the darker longings but that is for another post. For now, I want to repost these words attached to a slightly edited blog post from July 2011.
I am so glad that Christianity is not all about eliminating desire!
David Benner in Opening to God says, “The most typical evidence of grace at work within us is not awareness of duty but awareness of desire. You can trust your deep desires because they are a gift of God.” As Christians, God wants us to be aware of our longings within and His Spirit helps us to do the same. Benner challenges, “Pay attention to how the Spirit is kindling your desires. This is the source of prayer. Allow prayer to take the form that God gives you at this moment, and keep attentive to the leash of longing that will draw you further into transforming union with God.”
As I have spent the week in Psalm 37, verse 4 has captured my attention, “Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.” A similar phrase is found in Psa. 20:4-5 “May he grant you your heart’s desire and fulfill all your plans! May we shout for joy over your salvation, and in the name of our God set up our banners! May the LORD fulfill all your petitions!”
“Mish’ala is Hebrew for desires or petitions and is “rich with expressions of desire and longings of the heart.” ‘Anag or delight brings “A close interplay exists between ‘delight . . . in the LORD,’ and ‘desires of your heart’ . . . The path to true self-fulfillment does not lie in a preoccupation with self but in selfless preoccupation with God. When the psalmist sets his heart on God, God reciprocates by making him truly fulfilled. The sense here: ‘take great pleasure in.’”
Some parallel expressions in Psalm 37
• Trust in the LORD 37:3, 5
• Commit your way to the LORD 37:5
• Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him 37:7, 34
• Delight in his way 37:23
• Law of God in the heart 37:31
Result of a delight in Yahweh
• Inheritance in the land—9, 11, 22, 29, 34,
• God gives the desires of the heart 4
• Delight in shalom 11
• Not put to shame, abandoned 19, 33
• Does not fall 24, steps do not slip 31, holds onto God’s hand 24, 17
• Has a future 37
• Salvation, refuge, deliverance 39-40
But for the wicked or evildoers they
• just “fade away” 3
• will be “no more” 10, 36
• are “cut off “9, 22, 28, 34, 38 (same word used for divorce) and so the idea of being abandoned, forsaken, not part of the covenant
We must pay attention to our longings within. Here are a few more quotes from David Benner in Soul Spirituality:
- “Desire is right at the center of the spiritual life. A sense of obligation may sometimes be enough to keep you going to church, but only desire will keep you open to God and still seeking when your experience in church is filled with frustration and is irrelevant to your deepest spiritual longings. Guilt may be strong enough to motivate religious behavior, but only desire can lead you ahead on the spiritual journey. The absence of desire means the absence of spiritual life”
- “Spirituality has enormous potential as an integrating force. And it does this by allowing us to embrace rather than repress our deepest longings and passions and then to draw the energy from them to live life with abundance and resilience
- “Any spirituality that is life-giving will also put us in touch with our deepest longings and will move us into the world in a way that makes our life meaningful.”
- “Willpower may be sufficient for superficial behavioral changes, but only desire is capable of leading you toward deeper authenticity and integrity. No one drifts into such a life without intentionality, commitment, and a persistent desire to become more Spirituality is, first and foremost, our response to these deep aches of the soul. Although it may be frightening to trust our desires, they are always fundamentally spiritual.”
I also appreciate Mark Buchanan in Spiritual Rhythms:
- Prayer commits us at a heart level to what we endorse at a head level. Prayer mingles our tears and our longings with our observances and our assessments
- Righteousness, to put it succinctly and a little simplistically, is Christlikeness. It’s where your thoughts, your desires, your attitudes, your actions, your character are more and more conformed to his
And I find Gary Thomas in Pure Pleasure to be very helpful:
- But I believe I have a responsibility to recognize that God created me with a desire and even a need to enjoy certain pleasures. I want to consciously choose the ones that most serve his cause and the life to which he has called me rather than try to deny a legitimate need and then collapse into an unhealthy, sinful binge.
- In other words, while I ought to know what truly gives me pleasure, I also need to know my obligations and responsibilities. In certain seasons of life, a person’s personal desires must give way to the greater good of those around him.
- Be honest about your desires and realistic about your ability to live with frustration. Has denying your soul left you vulnerable to deceit and illusion? Have you put your integrity, ministry, and family in jeopardy by living as though you can go 24–7 without a break, without any fun, without any true pleasure?
- Desire divorced from God becomes decadence. Decadence, in turn, chases away true, godly pleasure.
- When I surrender my pleasure to God’s design, my desires become a reflection of his.
- Faced with lewdness, don’t become a prude. Faced with luxurious materialism, don’t become grimly abstinent and ungrateful. Faced with the unleashing of any and all desires, don’t become merely dutiful.