Human desires seem to lead us toward destructive actions, but should we shed our desires to relieve suffering? Where does desire fit in a Christian worldview?
Numerous philosophical and religious groups have moved toward freeing the self from desire. Buddhism is probably the best known of these, though many other ascetic and monastic movements have also converged on similar paths. Even without taking religious tenets, Mindfulness has also leant towards this. Most of these groups link desire with suffering.
They see how much torment humanity, and its constituent units (individuals, families ect.), are thrust into by desire and I think they have a point to do so. However, cutting away attachment to other people and to the world is not a stance which I think can be held consistently with Christianity, and furthermore, I think it is incorrect.
From a Christian stance, attachment and desire are separate from sin. I think the first two chapters of Genesis show that humans had desire for one another and for the pleasures of creation in the garden before the fall:
…out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food… The man gave names to all the [creatures]… and the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Genesis, ch. 2, vrs. 9, 20, 25, ESV trans.)
It seems that the desire for food and beauty existed, along with desire to follow God’s instruction to rule over the natural world and care for it. It is also strongly implied that humans had sexual desires and exercised them without sin.
Christians expect heaven to be greater than the Garden of Eden, but desire and attachment being present in the Garden is a strong indicator that removing desire is not the way God sees the good life. Indeed, that God brings people into relationship with Him and takes them to be His children when they turn to Jesus shows that God himself is in the business of being attached to people (and His creation, more generally).
This is not to say that there is no room for trying to shape desire. We live in a broken world and many of our desires are bent toward destruction and futility. Christians should be taking on the character of Jesus, part of which is changing our desires. There are many passages in the Bible about this. Here is how Paul states it in Colossians:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God… Put to death, therefore, what is earthly in you… [Instead] Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. (Ch. 3 vrs. 1, 5, 12, ESV trans.)
I would say that the Christian approach to dealing with desires is about changing character more than it is about removing the pull of desire. Training to be able to let feelings pass, or to be content in tough situations can be very useful, but this is not the highest form of success. Having right desires is greater.
Flipping our desire
An illustrative example might be seen in the need to help others who are suffering. When I hear of people living in severe oppression, the desire I feel to help them (even when I have almost no practical avenues to help) seems to me to be good.
There is a counter argument, that such feelings are unhelpful because they may not be able to be channelled into meaningful action. Thus, they may weigh a person down without contributing. There is some truth to this, and I have seen people disabled by care and worry. However, Christians know that God is active in the world, and that He listens to our prayers.
At a minimal level, it seems reasonable to think that God is glorified by our turning to him and calling for him to intervene. If the Christian’s purpose in life is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, which many think is a good summation, then glorifying God in our prayers is a meaningful outcome (see for instance, The Westminster Shorter Catechism, 1647).
In conclusion, I think having good desires is greater than being free from desires. Christians should be seeking to change their character so that they have the kinds of good desires that lead to good actions, ultimately becoming like Jesus.
So what will you ask God to change in you so that you seek the right things in the world; how will you become more like Jesus?
Alexander Gillespie is an Arts Honours graduate of the University of Sydney. Particular fields of interest include Nineteenth-Century migration history, conceptual philosophy, social policy and ecclesiology. He currently lives in Sydney with his wife and enjoys researching and writing.