Take delight in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
The LORD is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The LORD is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made.
All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD,
and all your faithful shall bless you.
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom,
and tell of your power,
to make known to all people your mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and your dominion endures throughout all generations.
The LORD is faithful in all his words,
and gracious in all his deeds.
The LORD upholds all who are falling,
and raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand,
satisfying the desire of every living thing.
The LORD is just in all his ways,
and kind in all his doings.
The LORD is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desire of all who fear him;
he also hears their cry, and saves them.
The LORD watches over all who love him,
but all the wicked he will destroy.
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry) On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
Desires. Needs. Wants. Longings. Human motivation is central to the core of what it means to live as a human being. There are things we scout out to find, look to acquire, etc., because the biological imperatives of life are rooted in addressing our physiological states, seeking to find homeostasis, which is cognitively and emotionally experienced in a sense of contentment and feeling of security. Yet, even as we have these basic, physiological drives that motivate our behavior, our brains receive the signals from our bodies and learn to direct the basic biological imperatives towards specific goals, purposes, etc.
For a rudimentary example, we all experience the craving for food, but our cultures teach us the good and delicious things to pursue to satisfy that craving. In some cultures, insects are considered delicacies, but they aren’t in Western cultures. Our brains are wired to learn how to satisfy our basic biological imperatives through various, specific means. Our personal experiences form our brains to do this, whether it be from our surrounding culture, idiosyncratic experiences, etc.
When we come to the Scriptures, we see a strong concern for human motivations to be rightly directed and to avoid acting on desires that can lead to harm. Negatively, Eve eats from the tree of knowledge of good and evil as she was tempted by her desire for food, beauty, and wisdom. Positively, Psalm 37.4 calls for people to delight in the Lord, then they will receive what they desire. In Galatians 5.16-17, the apostle Paul talks about the conflict between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit. The regular usage of the language of the heart extends far beyond simply our modern notions of emotional state to describe who and what a person trusts in and seeks in their life.
At the risk of oversimplification, it may be appropriate to suggest that the Scriptures are a pedagogy in desire in the things that are the good, right, and righteous things that God would have for us to have and how we can come to receive them as gifts from God. It is God’s instruction that gives light to us to our paths, to know what to seek and how to go about seeking it, and what to avoid and not to seek. In that case, there is this implicit recognition throughout the Scriptures that human desires need to be trained, needs to be discipled, needs to be directed.
Unfortunately, we in American live in something of a distorted picture. On the one hand, we see an increasing hedonism in the surrounding culture that emphasizes searching for and exploring one’s own personal desires and needs. Yet, as tempting as it might be to speak an unequivocal condemnation to this, this form of hedonism has in part been a response to the desire-denying brands of Christianity that have tried to portray the Gospel and Christian life as desiring God alone. On the one hand, we see an earthly orientation towards human desire and, on the other hand, we see a “heavenly” orientation to deny desire on the other (I call it “heavenly” because I don’t take it to be a Biblical understanding of heaven).
This gets manifest into what I refer to as two types of spiritually dysfunctional dreaming: earth-serving dreams and earth-denying dreams. In the former, one develops dreams for a life based upon what they seek and witness here in the earth. Our dreams for relationships, dreams for careers, etc. become determined by the various cultural liturgies and practices we see in the surrounding society. Sex is most notable for this, as people’s sense of sexual pursuits becomes defined largely by what they have seen in what surrounds them. On the other hand, earth-denying dreams often envision some “paradise” away from the present world, where one will inhabit when one denies, without having concern for addressing human motivations and concerns. Both of these types of dreams, unfortunately, have a way towards leading to pride, whether it be pride that comes from achieving what one dreams or pride in considering oneself above the fray of others.
Beyond pride, the problem with these two types of dreaming is that they leave desire fundamentally unshaped. They become controlled by the world, by either combination of succumbing to whatever it is we immediately consider our desire and need, leading to increased reinforcement of the desire, or by perpetually repressing it, leaving it the basic physiological drive and neural integration of that drive largely unchanged while out of our awareness.
But there is a third way: dreaming big about the kingdom of God that will, in turn, lead to God’s fulfilling of the desires of our heart. Unfortunately, various types of (implicit) asceticism and a fear of a prosperity gospel have often lead to a blindness to this dimension of desire and divine fulfillment. God wants to fulfill the desires of the heart, but desires that are ultimately righteous, pure, and holy. While many of our desires on the surface are not immediately harmful, if we were to gratify them in the way we often dream and imagine fulfilling them, they could lead us down a darker path. To that end, God calls us to look towards Him, the giver of good gifts, who can reorient desire so as to bring it to a place where it is healthy and holy to fulfill.
Yet, this dreaming big is not dreaming about how God is going to fulfill our desires. This is the error, if not heresy, of the prosperity gospel. It is a dream of God’s kingdom as a whole, where the will of God as it is done in heaven is longed for and sought for within the earth. Within that big dream, we can begin to place a holy version of our desires within the scope of God’s will and kingdom.
To get to the point of being able to dream this dream, however, we have to be able to break the stranglehold our earth-formed desires have on us. Our dreams are seeded by what we desire, but if what we desire is in conflict with God’s will, that is, if it is a desire of the flesh, then our hearts and minds are impeded from seeking and dreaming of God and His heavenly will. It is at this point where we have to learn to crucify our flesh, both in adhering to God’s instruction to not engage in certain types of behaviors and the willingness to face the suffering that comes where our present ideals, dreams, and desires do not come to fruition.
At this place, our hearts and minds begin to break the connection our minds have formed between the unconscious, physiological drives and the way the brain has been formed to (sub)consciously seek the fulfillment of these cravings. By facing the suffering, we begin to detach from the present way we have come to desire, making our hearts and minds open to a new way of having these basic physiological drives become fulfilled.
Then, as God, who is faithful, makes Himself known to us who are faithful to follow in a cruciform fashion, we begin to experience a newness of life as the same power that raised Christ from the dead begins to operate in us. It is here, where losing our life leads us to begin to find life. We discover new reservoirs of strength, of hope, of possibilities, but yet a type of strength, hope, and possibilities that is open to the potential of God’s power and kingdom. The work of God’s Spirit who raises us has begun to reform our bodies, which would include new connections between our physiological motivations and drives and neural encoding for seeking to fulfill our biological imperatives.
It is here at this point where our mind is open to the work of the Triune God to help us dream the heavenly dreams. It isn’t that we suddenly have the power to perceive heavenly realities by our own perceptions or rational faculties, but that our minds are trainable by the Holy Spirit to come to comprehend the will and purposes of God. In this place, we can place our deepest longings and cravings that would function to serve our well-being into the appropriate context of the love for God and others that brings shalom.
This, in turn, leads to a different way in which we relate to the fulfillment of our desires and the lack thereof, particularly in the face of frustration. So often, when we have a desire that we expect the fulfillment of, we become defensive or even aggressive when we perceive (potential) roadblocks. We can be tempted to various sorts of behaviors that are against love and (mutual) well-being, such as getting angry, becoming aggressive, getting others involving in our problems, thoughtlessly jumping towards immediate, alternative forms of gratification, lying, etc. These behaviors lead to the breakdown of relationships and, if it gets extreme enough, the inflict of harm and pain upon others. Yet, when one’s desires have been formed by the big dream of the heavenly, we exhibit greater self-control, gentleness, patience, kindness, etc. in the midst of frustration. It is here where love is increasingly maintained, even in the midst of disappointments, struggles, etc. Our lives are more able to seek to act in a way that maintains the goodness of the whole, even when individual pieces don’t fit together immediately like we wish they would.
The death of current dreams and desires doesn’t necessarily mean the ending of our deeper longings and drives, but the transformation of those longings and drives so that they can be fulfilled in God’s righteous kingdom. By taking up our cross, by offering ourselves as a living sacrifice, we come to a place where we can begin to seek and dream the dreams of heaven. Perhaps one could say that at the heart of the cross, both in Christ’s cross and our own cross, is a pedagogy of human desire so that we can become the type of people whose desires are compatible with God’s kingdom, where the desires of the flesh progressively give way to the desires of the Spirit.
To be clear, here, though, there is no way around the experience of taking up the cross for this. We can come up with various models for Christian discipleship and formation, but there are no steps, no procedures, no ways of orienting our thinking, etc. that accomplish the pedagogy of desire as the cross does. At best, these models provide people pointers and directions so as to how they can appropriately take up their own cross in order to then experience the fullness of life in Christ. However, when they diverge from this, they do not rise up to anything more than the principles of human psychology dressed up in the garb of Christianese, which too often subtly reinforces the fear of mortality that ’empowers’ fleshly desires.