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Desire

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’

John’s Gospel 1:33-39a

It’s a fundamental question. What are you looking for? What do you want?

As psychologist Abraham Maslow once wisely said: to know what you want isn’t ordinary. It is a rare psychological achievement.

And he’s right. We really don’t start off just knowing what we want. Of course, if you’re starving to death, or too cold, or too hot, or in some other way not getting your physical or psychic needs met, then it’s easy. You know what you want. But what if you are adequately fed, hydrated, housed, and so on? I sit in my study on a sunny day, with food in the fridge and working taps and no immediate fear of famine or eviction, and it’s not like I am at rest. I still desire things: some chocolate; a new computer to play strategy games on; a cool road bike – ok, so I’m fourteen – the list goes on.

Two things to note here.

Firstly: my list changes all the time. I see some object of desire or other – perhaps on the media, perhaps out on the street – and something is added to my list.

Secondly: my list never seems to get any shorter.

Just say I want to go off on holidays to Thailand, for instance. Yes, I know, chance would be a fine thing – I haven’t even left my suburb in several months[1]. Bear with me. Let’s say I save up some money (or, being me, bung it on my credit card) and find myself sitting on a warm beach, eating pad thai, with the warm turquoise sea lapping at my feet.

Am I satisfied? Probably not.

Because when I get wherever I’m going – I’m already there. I’m the same person, only with sunburn and a credit card debt.

As that Crowded House[2] song says: everywhere you go, you’ll always take the weather with you. You can’t escape yourself by consuming things or experiences or whatever.

And that doesn’t even begin to describe the issues with desires grander than spending several thousand dollars on a carbon fibre road bike (or whatever your equivalent is.) The world seems to be run by precisely the people who shouldn’t be in charge of anything, and even when things do, briefly, go well, it’s only a brief pause on the rollercoaster of history. We long for justice and peace and beauty, and we don’t seem to get much of any of them, either as individuals or societies.

So perhaps desire itself is the problem? As far as I understand Buddhism[3] it diagnoses the root of suffering in desire, and says that if you could escape from desire, then you would be content.[4]

Stoicism, from the Western philosophical tradition, is similarly interested in desire. It says, effectively, that the reason for your discontent is the difference between what you desire and reality. So you should moderate your desire to fit reality.

Alain de Botton describes Stoicism using the Roman thinker Seneca and the example of the city of Nimes (in what is now France.) They wanted a good source of water – they had a desire – and so they built an astonishing aqueduct through 50 miles of mountains and across valleys. But, according to Seneca it is no use diverting rivers and building aqueducts if we cannot master our own peace of mind.

Wisdom lies in correctly discerning where we are free to mould reality according to our wishes and where we must accept the unalterable with tranquillity.[5]

Which seems like good advice if it wasn’t for two things.

Firstly, practically, the difficulty in knowing the difference between things we can do and things we can’t do. There must surely be a lot of edge cases? Or things which are worthwhile, even though they seem impossible? For instance, banning the slave trade in the UK in the 18th Century must have seemed impossible. Slavery was such a normal feature of life in basically all civilisations and cultures, and there was so much vast wealth dependent on it, that surely it was a forlorn quest to try to eradicate it? But, of course, William Wilberforce and his friends, after twenty long years, succeeded in their task.[6]

Secondly, there is a deeper question at play here. There is a tragic dimension to human life. Everyone we love, everything we have worked for, will one day crumble into dust. We have these desires for the transcendent, which we express in art and music and poetry and worship: but do they reflect anything real? Or is it just so much make believe, with about as much transcendence as a momentary dust eddy in the wind?

Or, as Job put it in Scripture:

but human beings are born to trouble
   just as sparks fly upward.
Job 5:7

Are we just tragic, naked apes yelling at the sky? Or do our deepest desires, those desires which are so hard even to articulate, have some sort of safe home?

The Christian claim is that yes, they do.

Let us begin by thinking about Jesus. He was, at the very least, a great spiritual and moral teacher. But instead of being rewarded, given a seat amongst the great and the good, he was crucified by the Roman Empire at the behest of the local religious leaders. He should have been exalted. Instead, he died a humiliating death.

So far, so tragic. The moral to the story here is: the better you are, the more they nail you up. This isn’t Good News. It isn’t even news.

But.

God raised Jesus on the third day.

The resurrection of Jesus is God’s great “however.” God vindicates Jesus. Not by undoing the terrible events of his crucifixion and death, but by transforming them. In John’s gospel, the risen Christ bears the marks of his crucifixion.

So there is, after all, some safe home for our ultimate desires, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

So, perhaps the answer to desire is not to extinguish it, nor to carefully distinguish between do-able and not-doable. Rather, perhaps the answer is to align our desires with the purposes of God, the one who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

It has a number of names – to live for the greater glory of God; to collaborate in the mission of the three-personned God; that the chief purpose of human life is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever.[7] However we put it, it puts the chief end of human life as outside oneself.

There is a great opportunity here, but danger as well. Like anything powerful. There are some very anti-human versions of that idea, which can disdain ordinary human flourishing.

This comes down to a question about how our felt desires relate to our ultimate purpose. There are schools of Christian thought which say, essentially, that anything you think you want is probably sinful.

Take a friend of mine for an example. He loves playing football. But there can’t be anything good about playing football, because he just enjoys it rather than because it pleases Jesus. What is really good is what demonstrates that he loves Jesus, and thus the more he does something just because he enjoys it, the less good it is. Instead, he should do things which he doesn’t enjoy, because the only reason to do them is because he loves Jesus. He would thereby live purely out of Jesus’ love, and not from other, lesser motives.

If you have ever sat in a prayer meeting and the minister has asked God to reveal his will for your life and you’ve been thinking: please don’t send me to Africa as a missionary, or something, you know what I’m talking about.

Is your inner nature so corrupt and evil that what you want has absolutely no relationship with what God wants? Or is there something redeemable going on?

My fundamental assumption is that, while in no sense wanting to minimize the impact of sin on our desires, what we have are disordered desires. Not wholly remote from God, but not entirely what God would want. God is, in this understanding, more like a doctor than a judge.

So, what to do? How do we open ourselves to God’s transforming love?

In my blurb for tonight I said:

Could it be that you can actually get in touch with your primary longing for God – and that your deepest desire is to become part of God’s three-personned dance of love, to make that manifest in your own life? Not as something you’re supposed to do, not as yet another example of boring moralising, but as an actual lived experience?

It’s a big ask, and, I have to be honest with you, I don’t think it’s something I’ve cracked myself. But I think it’s the direction our theological principles are pointing us in. I can’t guarantee success, no money back if not completely satisfied. But I definitely believe it is a worthy way to try to live your life. And I have some concrete suggestions.

In fact, I have two broad suggestions. One about how we live in our day to day life. And the other to do with having a spiritual life. We need both, and they re-inforce (or mutually weaken) one another.

Here’s an important theological principle about finding God in regular life. Christianity has always struggled with the enfleshed nature of our faith. That God became incarnate in a particular human being, with specific, named parents, and was born in a time and location we can (approximately) locate – it’s hard to get our heads around.

It’s very easy for Christianity to become super-spiritual, and to ignore, or even look down on, regular “worldly” life. Our temptation is to exalt spiritual practices more than they can bear, and then give a correspondingly low ranking to practical things. We can come to think that preaching is important, stacking the chairs is unimportant. Being a monk or a nun is good, being a merchant is… less good. That sort of thing.

So when we talk about “collaborating with God” it feels like we should mean something very grand and hyper-spiritual. Like becoming a Jedi or something.

However, as the Ignatian phrase has it, the Christian walk is a matter of “finding God in all things.” We can learn to look for God’s action in our lives, and in the world around us.

Can I absolutely guarantee you that if you think God is doing something, then God is definitely doing it? No, of course not. But I do think that God is at work in the world, and it is legitimate to give “God-shaped” things the benefit of the doubt, always bearing in mind the Human Propensity To Frag Things Up[8].

It is in the minutiae of life that God is found, as much as in the big, impressive things. Or, as Mother Teresa of Calcutta put it: “doing small things with great love.”

In a way, the big impressive things are easier. It’s a lot easier to decide to become a minister, say, than to repeatedly stop myself from being a dick for years on end. You can build up to the one, the other is just there, endlessly.

The key is to have a sense of the broad sort of thing God wants for the world.

But what is that?

When a lawyer asked Jesus what was the greatest commandment, he answered:

He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’[9]

I want to add an important caveat here: the point here isn’t to love yourself less, rather to love your neighbour more.

So, for a given decision, is it consonant with God’s clearly expressed desire for the world? Is it practically something I can do? Is it my thing to do?

As for this last point: this is probably the hardest question. What is it that is mine to do? Given my particular set of skills, abilities, personal qualities, personal woundedness, life circumstances and all the rest, what is the desire of my heart when I consider how to collaborate with God in the world. You don’t need to be certain; but you do need to be asking yourself that question. And it seems to me that the key to having a satisfying life is in paying attention to that question, and asking it of yourself repeatedly, and adjusting what you’re doing based on what you discover.

That implies a journey of self-discovery and honesty about who you really are and what you really want.  Which can sound self-indulgent (which, tbh often is pretty self-indulgent) unless you frame it in terms of the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself. It isn’t navel gazing: it’s vital preparatory work.

The second practical thing is to do with having a spiritual life. You will never get to know God if you don’t get to know yourself.[10] But you won’t find God by purely gazing inwards. To love God is to enjoy God, and the name we give to the enjoyment of God is worship. You need to be rooted in what is eternal before you can do something practical: the more successfully rooted in the eternal you are, the less likely you are to act out of your false self, self-interest, your ego, or generally what we might call your “sin-nature.” You need to spend time with God. You need to prioritise it.

Thinking about God can be a form of worship, as can prayer, Bible Study, silence, fasting, communion (especially communion), and singing, and many other things. To practice any Spiritual Discipline with a view to having more of God is worship, and grounds you where you need to be to be able to effectively love your neighbour, and have some chance of experiencing God’s desire for the world as your own actual desire.

Finally, I have a practical tip. You probably know I draw a lot from the Ignatian tradition, and one of the key things in that tradition is called the Examen[11]. In its classical formation it is a prayer practice which brings the practical day to day of your life into God’s presence, and helps to form one’s day to day life as a sort of prayer. During COVID lockdown I’ve been practicing it regularly with a view to making it stick once we’re out the other side.

It’s a long journey, and full of many mis-steps. I’m not in the business of providing money back guarantees. You have to risk yourself, to take the first step, and then then next step, and the next, in a journey of learning to trust God. It’s a journey I’m doing my best on, even though my best is often pretty ordinary. But I believe that it is exactly in this journey that we find the risen Christ, who asked the very first disciples: What do you want, and who not only asks us the same question, but has promised to be with us, even to the end of the age.

This is a reflection which was the basis of a Cafechurch session on 8/9/20

Photo by Sensei Minimal on Unsplash


[1] Because COVID19

[2] Again with my uptodate cultural references.

[3] i.e. not very much. What follows is very much an impressionist take from my limited exposure to “western”

Buddhism. I’m doing my best not to bloviate about things I don’t understand well.

[4] The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are: Life is suffering; suffering is caused by desire; the cure to suffering is letting go of our desire; this can be achieved through the Eightfold Path. See https://www.learnreligions.com/the-four-noble-truths-450095

[5] Alain de Botton The Consolations of Philosophy, Penguin (Australia), Camberwell, 2008) p.107. I also enjoyed this web page: https://dailystoic.com/alain-de-botton/ where he talks about Zeno

[6] In 1807.

[7] Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 1.

[8] Slightly bowdlerized (or at least Battlestar Galactica’ed), but from Francis Spufford’s wonderful book Unapologetic.

[9] Matthew 22:37-39

[10] According to Calvin, of all people

[11] https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/how-can-i-pray/

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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