Theology of Desire
This coming Sunday kicks off the 'Advent' season, a time of watching and waiting. 'O Come, Emmanuel - ransom captive Israel; bid Thou divisions cease; free Thine own from Satan's tyranny; disperse the gloomy clouds of night and death's dark shadows put to flight...'
Each of us could carry on with the list of things for which we're waiting... "Oh, and while you're at it, I've been a little lonely lately, and I'm sick of walking through the world feeling like nothing more than a unit of consumption for advertisers to exploit. Did I mention Darfur? Maybe you could fix that this week. And how about my longings for beauty, sexual satisfaction, good food, clean air and drinking water, and dignity for those who are on the margins among us? I'm waiting...!!"
What are we to do with our desires? It's a critical consideration for the advent season, and a subject I'll be considering this coming Sunday. Many evangelicals have a difficult time developing a solid theology of desire because we've been taught from the cradle that we're to 'deny ourselves'. Certainly this is true, and might manifest itself in taking the smaller piece of pie, or in keepings one's mouth shut when the temptation to verbally strike back arises. Often self denial goes further still, in following the clear call of God vocationally even though such obedience leads you down a path that contradicts your desires. Sometimes such self denial even leads to martyrdom.
But while there's a place for self-denial, Jesus never intended that it become a mantra. The problem with elevating self-denial to the default position in our lives is that such a posture has the effect of vilifying desire, so that we come to inherently distrust our longings. And this is a road, believe me, that we don't want to go down. It's strewn with casualties who failed to hold their sexuality, food, friendships, or any other number of wholesome blessings offered by God wisely, because they tried instead to kill their desires. But desires were never meant to be killed. Those who try to do so end up feeling dead inside, and often try to compensate for that sense of death on unhealthy ways.
On the other hand, it's not healthy to adopt 'indulgence' as the default position either. Those who live by their appetites, whether for food, sex, friendship, exercise, money, power, or any other thing that makes us feel more fully alive, we will, ironically, lose our sense of wholeness and our lives will eventually spin out of control in a downward spiral, at least in one or two areas of our lives. I might, for example, keep up the show in my vocation, but my personal life becomes a disaster, or my health suffers, because I have an addiction to sex, control, exercise, food, or something else mastering me, destroying me.
So the question is, "What do I do with desires?" The answer it seems, is found in the advent season, for this is the season of waiting. Israel in captivity, waited. It was the false prophets who told them that the satisfaction of their desires were available immediately, on demand. The real prophets said, "No...the darkness will get darker, the cold will turn to frost, before the light and warmth of the sun rises on you." Keep waiting. Your desires are good, and the longing for their fulfillment, and waiting will have the effect of your own ripening, maturing, wholeness. So wait... for sexual satisfaction, for your next meal, for your own transformation, and for the transformation of the cosmos." This doesn't mean passive disengagement, for there are different kinds of waiting, and some entail preparation, and working towards the fulfillment of desires (as happens when we work for peace on earth, or contribute to a refugee crisis in Bangladesh). But it's waiting nonetheless because our best efforts still won't produce the longed for results, which is why we cry out: O Come Emmanuel!
I don't do this waiting as well as I should. After all, I scream at my computer when it tells me that Outlook won't be available for two minutes because it didn't shut down properly (please Mac users... no lectures tonight). I buy my lettuce washed and chopped, my pizzas created and pre-frozen. It's Trader Joe's, high quality stuff and all. Still, waiting isn't in the cards much for busy, proactive westerners. But wait we must. Advent season is the reminder:
1. the days won't grow any longer until December 22nd no matter what you do.
2. the snow won't come any quicker by playing your flute
3. you won't lose 5 pounds today, not even on a grapefruit diet
4. even with daily Bible readings and praying, maturity and wholeness comes slowly
5. intimacy, health, wisdom, contentment, and so much more that is wholesome, isn't available on demand. We must take the steps required of us, yet still we'll wait.
6. even though we make changes in our personal lives, small or large, we won't fix global warming this year, or terrorist threats, or global poverty. This isn't a call for despair or disengagement, simply humble patience. We MUST WAIT!!
And so, it's waiting season. The advent calendar isn't just a timetable, a countdown to prime rib and presents. It's a reminder: "all things in their time." Don't kill your desires. Don't become addicted to them. Live into them and.....wait.