Our age loves unfettered desire. This sounds like I’m talking solely about sex, but if you allow desire to take its broader meaning and think of wants, then it’s true isn’t it?
We all intrinsically feel that we should live in a way that fulfils us, that gives us what we want. We all intrinsically know that what it means to be most authentically ourselves is to have our wants and longings met.
That’s the story we live in.
You notice it in religion too. Think of the intuitional religion we’ve met in Strange Rites, our age’s religious thinking is one of having needs and wants met by a package of practices tailored to us individually.
Don’t we see the same in church culture too though? Any consumer attitude to church, any sense that I should move church because my ‘needs’ aren’t being met, finds its roots in this thinking. Plenty of things I would counsel people with do as well. Say they were moving to another area and we were talking about how to find a good church there—the conversation will be undergirded by the story we both live, that we need to find ourselves fulfilled and have our needs met.
Actually, my advice is normally “don’t move,” so that may not be the best example (nor I the best pastor).
And because this is the story we live, the idea of fettering our wants is abhorrent to us. By fettering I mean choosing to restrain and restrict what we want. Choosing to place chains on our longings.
The story we live in would tell us that is an evil thing to do. It’s to be inauthentic, and thus the deepest of sins.
Yet, Christianity tells us that is a good thing, and often the core of the Christian life. We live in an individualist age, and the way of Jesus requires us to see that as self-deceptive self-justifying self-love. He calls us to put down the mirror and start to follow him.
Which means that the following three statements are true:
Our ‘needs’ are often our wants. More often than we would like the thing that we think we need is just something that we want.
We should ask questions of our desires. “Is this good for me?” is a good starting point, we can’t assume that it is. The question cannot be answered by how badly we want it, and very often needs the help of a community to begin to answer.
Your authentic self is not the goal. In fact, it’s the very opposite of the goal. The goal is to be transformed into the likeness of Christ: to become our true selves by becoming less ourselves. Whether or not you were ‘born this way’ is less relevant when we are called to be born again.
Which is anathema to our age. It’s here that I think we often come unstuck in conversations about the Christian sexual ethic, we don’t start at the level of our disagreement and so what we hold to be true appears to be cold, unloving, and out of step with reality.
Of course, while this might have some immediate applications to sexual ethics, three things are important to point out:
Telling people this won’t suddenly make them want to follow the Way. The way is narrow and across rocky ground. It is not easy to follow Jesus. We also need to tell better stories because, to take the sexual ethics example, this might tell you what is the case but not why it’s the case. The Christian story is a romance that the ethics help us to live, the power comes from the story.
This applies to all of us. And it applies much more broadly than we might allow, and it doesn’t only apply to desires the Bible calls sinful. All of us are called to sublimate our desires to God. We will find that he graciously hands some of them back to us as gifts. It applies to desires that culturally look good (e.g. having a good job, a nice car, well-educated children) as much as to those that middle-classed Christians find easier to look down on.
Desires cannot be fettered by will alone. Some of us might have the willpower to do so for a time, but it will require the power of Word and Spirit. Some will find this easier than others, the church is not to tut at those who find it harder but to lift them up. We so quickly forget that we are not qualified by our actions but gifted by the God of gift. Stop shooting the wounded.
Sometimes we forget what Jesus does when we squander his mercy. He gives more mercy. Because that’s the point of mercy. Let’s be those people.
But friends, we’ve got to crush our idols, we’ve got fetter our desires, and we’ve got to realise that we aren’t really capable of either but that we know a beautiful king of light who can crush our idols and fetter our desires for us.
Of course, what initially feels like locking up desires is actually letting go of them. It’s as we look into the Father’s face that our grip loosens and our regard for ourselves diminishes to a vanishing point. Look again. He’s smiling.
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