October / November 2019 - Vol. 106

man in
                                                          prayer with

Christian Love and Human Desire

by Mark Kinzer

This article is adapted from the September 1982 Issue of Pastoral Renewal: A Resource for Christian Leaders, published by Servant Ministries, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. It was developed as a practical scriptural based teaching resource for pastoral leaders of Christian communities, churches, and outreach ministries. - ed.
Desire: two views
Desire is a universal feature of human existence. Each of us has strong desires that color our thoughts and influence our decisions – desires for food, drink, sex, warmth, companionship, success, possessions, honor.

Many Christians fall into extremes when they examine what part desires should play in their lives. On one side are the stoics, on the other side are the selfists.

Stoic Christians adopt the view common in Greco-Roman philosophy that desires should be uprooted. Their ideal of virtue is detachment – indifference regarding gain or loss, health or sickness, success or failure. This view is not so common among Christians today, but at one time it enjoyed a wide following.

More common among modern Christians is the selfist attitude. According to this view, one's primary aim in life is to be self-fulfilled and well-adjusted, and the way to attain fulfillment and adjustment is through the maximal satisfaction of one's desires. It is considered unhealthy to disregard or subordinate one's desires. At best, it is thought, such action will cause the true personality to wither away rather than blossom into full maturity. At worst, it is feared, repression of desires will produce serious psychological dis¬orders. In the selfist view, satisfying our desires is crucial for our own health and growth and is also an act of love toward others because, the reasoning goes, self-fulfillment and positive adjustment increase our contribution to society.

There are thus two extreme positions concerning desires. One is suspicious of and hostile to them, the other is sympathetic and favorable. Is either of these positions the Christian one? Let us look at the biblical teaching for guidance to resolve this question.

There are several words in the New Testament that convey the meaning of desire, longing, yearning. A study of one of the most frequently used of these words, epithumia, reveals the biblical teaching on desire.

Epithumia literally means to set one's heart or soul on something. It refers to an exceptionally strong desire. The word occurs over 50 times in various forms in the New Testament writings, with diverse connotations.

In many places epithumia carries a distinctly pejorative connotation. In these contexts the word refers to works of the flesh such as jealousy, enmity, covetousness, and desire for illicit sexual pleasures. It is sometimes translated "lust" or "passion": "Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies" (Romans 1:24), and "each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full grown brings forth death" (James 1:14-15). (Also see Titus 3:3 and 1 Peter 1:14.)

Desires are obviously very dangerous. The image in the first chapter of James is particularly graphic: epithumia is the mother of sin, which in turn is the mother of death.

A similar passage in 2 Peter speaks of our escaping from the "corruption that is in the world because of passion" (2:4), indicating the close relation between epithumia and death (a grandmother-grandaughter relationship, according to James). The stoic attitude to desires seems to be confirmed by these passages, found liberally sprinkled throughout the New Testament.

Godly desires
However, there is another side to this word in the New Testament. Epithumia sometimes describes a godly and commendable desire, experienced by angels, prophets, apostles, and the Messiah himself. For instance:
"Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it" (Matthew. 13:7).

"The things which have now been announced to you . . . through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look" (2 Peter 1:12).

"My desire is to depart and be with Christ" (Philippians 1:23).

And he said to them, "I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer" (Luke 22:15).
Epithumia is used in a particularly striking way in 1 Timothy 3:1, where Paul discusses the office of bishop: "If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task."

From these passages it is evident that epithumia is not always evil. In fact, it is portrayed as the right and proper response to that which is good, noble, and intrinsically desirable: the revelation of Christ, our heavenly life in God after death, the office of shepherd in God's church.

The stoic approach is unsound. The Lord does not want to liberate his people from all desires. Instead, he wants to free them from evil desires and fill them with holy ones. The Lord disapproves of the "desires of the flesh," the passions of "our former ignorance," the sinful desires which characterize human nature apart from the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ. He does not disapprove of all human desires.

From the biblical point of view, there are two main problems with human desires. The first problem concerns the object of desire. As a consequence of the fall, human desires have become twisted and distorted so that we commonly desire things which are both harmful for us and displeasing to God.

This is what Paul means when he says that "the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh" (Galatians 5:17). The desires of sinful human nature lead to what Paul calls the "works of the flesh": "fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like" (Galatians 5:19-21).

The desires imparted by the Holy Spirit directly oppose the desires of the rebellious flesh. The Spirit imparts a desire for righteousness, prayer, love of the brethren, knowledge of God, and the second coming of Christ. Desire is not the problem: it is the object of desire that is the problem.

However, in another sense, desire itself is the problem. The fall of the human race led not only to a distortion in the objects of our desires, but also to a disorder in the nature of desire itself. Desire became unruly, ungovernable, determined to dominate and direct and control. Formerly valuable as a servant, desire now became man's lord.
"We ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to var¬ious passions and pleasures (Titus 3:3).

"Whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved" (2 Peter 2:18).

"We once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind" (Ephesians 2:3).
Other New Testament passages speak disparagingly of "following" our desires (Jude 16-18; 2 Peter 3:3). Of course, this applies especially to the desires of the flesh. However, it is also true for more commendable spiritual desires. It is wrong for desires – even righteous ones – to rule and govern us.

This is evident from several verses in Paul's letter to the Philippians: "Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith" (Philippians 1:22-25).

Paul desires to depart from this life and be with the Lord, but he decides that it is better for him to remain in order to build up the church. Even such a holy and spiritual desire as this must be subjected to a higher standard of conduct – the standard of God's law of love. Thus, scripture teaches that desires should not automatically govern behavior, even when they are apparently virtuous and holy. condemns desires without qualification nor embraces them as the key to self-fulfillment and the infallible guide for human conduct. Desires can be helpful or harmful, holy or unholy, spiritual or fleshly. Even at its best, desire should not be the main factor determining human behavior.

I know some Christians who think they have found a foolproof method for discerning the will of God for their lives: whatever they desire most must not be God's will, and whatever they desire least must certainly be his will. Now, it must be acknowledged that the Lord often calls his servants to do things that run contrary to their preferences and desires, sometimes because their desires are disordered or misleading, sometimes because he wants to test their love and obedience. However, the conviction that God's will must always conflict with human desires is an inadequate rule of thumb for receiving divine guidance. When a Christian's life is in good order by the grace of God, his desires will often coincide with God's desires.

Desires can also be a major hindrance to living for the Lord. They can make it very difficult for people to follow the commandments and the guidance of God. This most obviously applies to desires that have a sinful object: desires for sexual immorality, desires for drug-induced euphoria, desires to see others suffer. However, the Christian life can also be derailed by more neutral desires.

For example, Phil has a strong desire to work as a salesman for a particular pharmaceutical corporation. This desire is neutral in itself – intrinsically neither good or evil. If this desire leads Phil to accept a position involving the kind of traveling and overtime that would prevent him from caring properly for his wife and children or participating in the life of the church, then this neutral desire has probably ensnared Phil in a wrong decision. Or again, Sarah Connors experiences desire to read mystery novels. The desire is neutral in itself (some may argue this point!). But if this desire leads Sarah to read novels each evening till two a.m. and be sleepy, distracted, and unfaithful in her responsibilities during the day, then this neutral desire has led Sarah off the track.

At times even virtuous and holy desires can hinder us from doing the will of God. I know a Christian man who has a remarkable love for prayer. Given the opportunity, he can pray for hours at a stretch without tremendous effort. This is unquestionably a wonderful God-given desire and ability. But it can get him into trouble. Once, when he worked as an administrator in a Christian organization, he was taking lengthy breaks and going to a local church to pray. As a result, he was accomplishing little at work. When admonished by his supervisor for his poor performance on the job, my friend suddenly realized that his fervent desire for prayer could actually pose a temptation needing to be resisted. Even the purest and most lofty desires can prevent Christians from accomplishing the will of God

One of the most subtle yet common ways that desires hinder Christians is by disguising themselves in spiritual or reasonable garb. When we allow this to mislead us, we are rationalizing. It is remarkable how ingenious we can be at devising spiritual and sober reasons to explain why we should do those things that we strongly desire to do.

This is the grave danger of rationalization – it involves not only deception of others but deception of ourselves. Human desires are shrewd and deceitful. They win their way as much through persuasion as through force. Strong desire disposes one to succumb even to shallow persuasion. Desire conquers, yet we may never fully realize that it has won – and that we have lost.

If Christians are to maximize the good and minimize the evil in their desires, they must begin by accepting a crucial and fundamental truth: desires should be servants and not lords. Desires can help us to do the things we ought to do; we should never allow them to usurp the place of the law of God and the Spirit of God and become the criterion of our conduct.

What is a Christian's criterion of conduct? Jesus sums up the law in the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor (Mark 11:28-34). The apostle Paul similarly states that love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8-10, Galatians 5:14). A Christian is to be guided by love rather than by his desires.

That statement may seem like a contradiction, for "Is not love itself a type of desire?" It is certainly true that the Greek word eros has to do with desire, but that is not the case with agape, the key New Testament word for love. The love that guides Christian conduct is not a desire or an emotion. Instead, it is a commitment to serve others, to put others first, to lay down our lives for others, even as Jesus laid down his life for us.

We can be changed
Most Christians need to battle regularly with unruly desires. It is therefore crucial that pastoral leaders know how to help people overcome their desires and live in righteousness, love, and the Holy Spirit. It is also useful for pastoral leaders to know how to help people grow in the Lord so that their unruly desires change into or become overshadowed by submissive, supportive, spiritual desires.

Christians need not resign themselves fatalistically to a state of perpetual conflict with rebellious and unrighteous desires. As people mature in Christ their "constellation of desires" should gradually change such that they more and more coincide with God's desires. We may never reach perfect harmony between our desires and God's but substantial change is possible.

Unfortunately, some Christians try to change their desires in a way that does as much damage as good. This happens when people recognize that they have a strong desire for something that others would find shameful or repulsive. They then decide to change this desire in order to avoid social disapproval. A serious internal conflict then arises. The reason for the conflict is that they have not actually renounced the old desire from the heart. Their predominant concern is merely to escape ostracism. They are reacting to an external pressure rather than choosing a deep-seated internal change.

I have seen this pattern of conflict develop among people having problems with sexual desires – a habit of viewing or reading pornographic material, for instance. The person who wants to change merely to avoid social stigma experiences little progress and intense internal conflict. On the other hand, the person who wants to change because he or she desires to please God can usually put the habit aside fairly simply. The key lies in a genuine change of heart.

In scripture "heart" does not refer primarily to the emotions, as in contemporary Western culture. Instead scripture views the heart as the core of the human person, the seat of one's fundamental orientation in life. The heart has thoughts (Hebrews 4:12) intentions (Hebrews 4:12), and purposes (1 Corinthians 4:5). Any significant and lasting change must begin with the heart.

A person who renounces a particular desire from the heart can experience a gradual reorientation of his or her set of desires. This is not a repression of desires in reaction to an externally imposed pressure, but a fundamental reordering of desires that begins at the center of one's life and flows outwards. Of course, in a certain sense the change occurs in response to an external force – the revelation of God's desires. However this external force produces a genuine internal change when we respond to it sincerely from the heart and in the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. In my own life I can see that my righteous desires are much stronger and my unrighteous ones much weaker today than they were when I first became a Christian in my college days. On occasion unrighteous and unruly desires still raise their heads. Some of them will probably accompany me to the end of my earthly life. Nonetheless, significant change has occurred, and more will occur in the future.

1. Love God
Pastoral leaders and mentors can help fellow Christians take several steps that will facilitate a positive change in their desires. The first step is to set one's heart on the Lord himself, on loving him and his ways, on growing in a personal relationship with him.

For many Christians God is a distant and impersonal force who must be served and obeyed dutifully but is never really known. In scripture, to know God is to personally encounter him, to taste in experience of his goodness and his power and his holiness – "to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge" (Ephesians 3:19). This type of knowledge cannot be separated from love and faith. When we know the Lord in this way our obedience to him ceases to be a dutiful gesture of homage to a remote deity and becomes instead an expression of a loving personal relationship with a Father who is king of the universe. As Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15, 21, 23; 15:10).

Loving obedience such as this leads a Christian not only to desire to do God's will, but even to desire what God desires. It leads one to respond readily and eagerly to his word, to "run in the way" of his commands (Psalm 119:32). An earnest desire to please him should grow to the point where it overwhelms all contrary desires and holds them captive.

In a similar way Christians can cultivate the reorientation of their desires toward loving other people. Some Christians interpret agape as the sort of dry, detached, impersonal service that would allow one to say, "Oh yes, I love Fred, but I'll never like the man." This attitude invites conflicting desires. Instead, we should set our heart on knowing others as well as serving them, laying down our lives for others within a loving personal relationship, even as Jesus gave his life out of a genuine committed personal love (John 13:1). Christians should actively cultivate relationships with those the Lord calls them to love. Then they will find their desires increasingly supporting them in living a life of committed love.

2. Surrender
A second step that will help people reorient their desires is for them to surrender to God's will completely and from the heart. Conflict between God's desires and ours sometimes indicates that we still hold a tight grip on certain areas of our life: we are unwilling to abandon ourselves totally to God.

For example, in the past I had a strong and undisciplined desire to engage in a particular form of Christian work. The desire seemed to be from the Lord, but it was not yet time for it to be realized. I found it very difficult to submit to God's will in the matter and desire what he desired – which was to defer my calling till a future date, to be revealed by him in his good pleasure. As I prayed about the matter I began to see my true condition – I had not really surrendered the entire area to him. I wanted to serve the Lord, but I wanted to do it my way and in my timing. As I repented for my lack of abandonment I found a new freedom to accept God's will with joy and even to desire what he desired.

Why do Christians hold on to things rather than surrendering them to God? Often the reason lies in a lack of trust. In my own case, I feared that I would lose precious years of my life and be less fruitful once I turned my hands to the task. I felt as if I needed to act to preserve the potential fruitfulness of my service. How absurd! Couldn't I trust God to provide the fruit at the proper time? My part is to focus on doing whatever he calls me to do when he calls me to do it.
At this point it is important to distinguish desires from compulsions and addictions. For various reasons desires can develop into compulsions – habitual actions that are extremely difficult to overcome. To bring a change, the person must repent from the heart. But there may also be the need for deliverance from spiritual bondage, and then for help gradually to reverse the pattern. The pastoral leader must distinguish between the case in which a person has not fundamentally decided to renounce a desire from the case in which a person has made the renunciation but needs further help.

This distinction must be made in helping someone with an actual addiction, such as alcohol. A complicating factor where addiction is involved is that physical or psychological craving may have replaced any other desire, and the person may actually have come to detest what he also continues to desire.

3. Honesty
A third step in reorienting desires is honesty. All Christians experience some wayward desires which conflict with God's will. An honest acknowledgement of wrong desires will lead to a greater progress in learning to live with them and even in changing them.

The greatest obstacle to honesty about desires is false shame. People are sometimes ashamed of what they desire, and therefore try to hide it. Many people would feel some embarrassment at admitting that they do certain things to impress people and be the center of attention, or admitting that they have lied, or that they have a desire to quit everything and travel around the world. Often people are especially ashamed of their sexual desires.

Shame is the right response to sinful behavior. Adam and Eve naturally felt shame for their guilt, as illustrated by their sudden sense of nakedness (Genesis 1:25; 3:7, 10). However, shame is not the right response to desires. Often, wayward desires are only temptations to sin rather than sin itself. Often they are merely natural human desires that are inappropriate in the given situation. Christians should be discreet and modest in acknowledging desires, but they should not be ashamed.

To whom should people honestly acknowledge their desires? First, Christians should be honest with themselves. Rather than either rationalizing or repressing their desires, they should face up to them and acknowledge them for what they are.

Secondly, they should be honest with the Lord. Rather than waiting for their desires to change before speaking to the Lord about them, they should present their unruly desires before him, admitting them openly in prayer, and seeking help from him in managing and even changing them.

Thirdly, they should be honest with a brother or sister in Christ. Rather than keeping their desires simply between themselves and God, they should acknowledge them before a trusted counselor, eagerly receiving the advice or support they might give. Those who honestly acknowledge their desires to themselves, the Lord, and another person will grow in self-control and even see their desires change.

Pastoral leaders and mentors facilitate honesty by listening patiently and attentively to people who wish to discuss embarrassing desires, rather than cutting them off with a hasty admonition. Often the pastoral leader should arrange for the person to be part of a support group. Sometimes this is more beneficial to the person than the pastoral leader working directly with him or her. In other cases a person can be helped by an intensive pastoral effort. To get control of a particular desire, a person might profit from having some one person to talk with regularly who offers help, not simply correction. The two can make an agreement that the one being helped will tell the other when he fails to do what is right; the other can offer frequent counsel and prayer.

4. Discipline
A fourth step in reorienting desires is to work for change. Christians can gradually master many of their errant desires through the prudent exercise of discipline and self-denial. As with emotions in general, desires can be compared to children. Sometimes the right way to help a child is to show patience and forbearance; at other times it is better to discipline the child and resist his or her stubborn and rebellious will. In similar fashion it is sometimes helpful to bring our desires into submission through force. A persistent refusal to yield to desires weakens them and increases one's control.

It is important to help the person we are guiding determine whether a problem with desires stems from too much or too little control. Some people are very controlled. To encourage them to fast for problems with their desires will only cause more anxiety and over scrupulosity. Other people lack control in much of their lives. They are unable to say no to themselves. It is helpful for them to pick one simple area, to decide to control it, and to get it into shape. They might start with almost anything – eating, watching media, impulsive buying.

Working to change desires is not the most important step in reorienting them. Setting one's heart on the Lord, surrendering to his will, and honestly acknowledging one's desires are all of greater importance. Nonetheless, working for change is also very helpful. Just as Paul worked to pummel his body and subdue it (1 Corinthians 9:27), so Christians should work to subdue their desires and bring them under the reign of Christ.

Impart confidence
Finally, I would offer the following pastoral observations.
First, it is often helpful to encourage people who are having a struggle with unruly and sinful desires not to take their desires too seriously. Usually people are capable of doing the right thing even when their desires oppose them. A person may feel tired, depressed, and unenthusiastic about prayer, but he or she can still choose to pray. Better to pray and forget about contrary inclinations than to fret introspectively about one's irreligious desires and never actually come before the Lord in prayer.

We should guide people in dealing confidently with their disorderly desires. Several years ago I counseled a young man who experienced strong perverse sexual attraction As long as he was anxious about the desires and terrified of yielding them, he made little progress. breakthrough came when he realize that his anxiety was more of a problem than his desires. As he grew more confident and peaceful about dealing with the disorder, the disorder itself began to wane.
Second, when we are helping someone make a decision, we should teach them to pay some attention to morally neutral and positive desires. Christians should regard their inclinations as data to be taken into account with all the other relevant data. A desire for something can be point in its favor, for desire helps person act with greater zeal and vigor. For example, most people perform more successfully at a job they like than at one they dislike. Therefore, desire for a particular job is relevant piece of data.

The third pastoral observation also concerns people's neutral and positive desires. While many pastor leaders are at least sometimes willing to steer people away from wrong or clearly inappropriate desires, they are very reluctant to offer advice that goes against people following good desires. Few pastors would try to dissuade a young person from pursuing a legitimate career which they strongly desired – as Randy's past did when he recommended that Randy leave medicine for pastoral ministry. We too seldom question whether a person's desires are in fact matched by gifts. Many Christians have desires such as wanting to go into full-time Christian work, to be a missionary, to be a minister or priest. But we know from experience that not everyone who feels thus is called. Without pressuring people, there is a place in pastoral ministry for advising people to put aside good desires, either to avoid taking a mistaken path or for the greater glory of God.

If, in response to such counsel, a person freely and from the heart chooses to go against his or her strongest desire, he or she can expect the decision to be eventually followed by a shift in desires. Randy made his choice several years ago. It is clear to him now that he made the right decision. In retrospect he sees the greater value of the gifts and abilities he has as an evangelist and pastor than those he has for medicine. His desires have altered. He would not want to be doing anything else than what he is doing now.

In conclusion, desires are a gift from God. They can easily get Christians into trouble, but they can also be an aid in loving and serving the Lord. God's intention is not to root them out, but to work in Christians' lives so that more and more they desire what he does.

> See related article on  in the Living Bulwark archives.

This article by (c) Mark Kinzer is adapted from the September 1982 Issue of Pastoral Renewal: A Resource for Christian Leaders, published by Servant Ministries, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.

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