Will and Desire
I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend who just finished reading my book Surrender to Love. He didn’t like it. He told me the title had put him off because it suggested a spirituality of passivity and weakness. Having broken through his procrastination and finally gotten down to reading it, he said his initial judgment was only more strongly reinforced.
My friend is a strong character whose life and spirituality is characterized by action, commitment and idealism. He despises anything that smacks of resignation or abnegation of personal power and responsibility. His work is his prayer, and he takes up what he understands to be God’s work in the world with zeal, faithfulness and passion that put me to shame. I too easily settle for ideas. My friend cannot rest until ideas are translated into action that makes a difference for Lifeboat Earth and those of us who inhabit it. The very concept of surrender was anathema to him. Clearly he would never have read the book if I had not inconveniently given him a copy.
After we discussed the concept of surrender for a while, my friend asked what I was presently writing. I shuddered to tell him. I could just anticipate his reaction to the idea of choosing God’s will over ours. But seeing no easy way to avoid the question, I gave him the executive summary of the book. His response shocked me.
“Choosing God’s will over ours makes good sense to me,” he said. “Anybody who has ever tried to change anything significant about themselves has to know how useless the human will really is. We are not losing much by giving it up.”
I was completely taken by surprise. I had assumed my friend lived by the strength of his will. But as we talked more about it, I came to see that he was right when he said his passions directed his life much more than his will. He drew his energy from the causes to which he was fervently committed. His will was in the service of the basic allegiances and directions of his heart—the things in which he most passionately believed and to which his life was devoted. His will, he said, could help keep him on track with things he already deeply valued but was quite useless for getting him things he merely wanted.
My friend’s comments lead us to what I want to explore in this chapter—the relationship between will and desire. His understanding of the nature of human willing contains some important insights that will, we shall see, lead us to a better understanding of what it means to choose God’s will.
CHOOSING WITH THE HEART
In the previous chapters we have seen some of the limitations of the will. Naked willpower tends to produce pride and rigidity. Unchecked by love, it tends to make us mechanical and moralistic, impoverishing the soul and sapping our vitality. As a form of seeking, will keeps us focused on our self. While it is, of course, essential in directing our effort and unquestionably helpful in accomplishing important things, on its own it is seriously limited as an agent of transformation. More important, on its own it is not up to the task of aligning us with the will of God.
But resolve and determination are not the only way to choose. We can also allow our will to be led by our heart. The Hebrew psalmists knew about heart-choosing of God and have much to teach us about the role of desire in willing. Read and savor a small sample of the ways they express their longing for God.
God, you are my God, I am seeking you, my soul is thirsting for you, my flesh is longing for you. . . . On my bed I think of you, I meditate on you all night long. . . . I sing for joy in the shadow of your wings; my soul clings close to you. (Psalm 63:1, 6-7)
As a doe longs for running streams, so longs my soul for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, the God of life. (Psalm 42:1-2)
Like thirsty ground, I yearn for you. (Psalm 143:6)
One thing I ask of Yahweh, one thing I seek: to live in the house of Yahweh all the days of my life, to enjoy the sweetness of Yahweh and to consult him in his Temple. (Psalm 27:4)
How my soul yearns and pines for Yahweh’s courts! My heart and my flesh sing for you to the living God. (Psalm 84:2)
To Yahweh you say, “My Lord, you are my fortune, nothing else but you.” . . . So my heart exults, my very soul rejoices, my body, too. (Psalm 16:2, 9)
Here is no teeth-clenching willful determination to follow God. Here we find no hint of a resolve based on willpower. What we have is people who are following their heart—a heart captured by God’s heart. Determination followed devotion. In contrast to a choosing that is led by will, their focus was on the object of their love, not themselves.
God does not want obedience as the fruit of our willful determination. God wants surrender as the choice of the heart. For what we long for in our heart we will pursue with the totality of our being—not simply with the resolve of our will.
THE HEART’S DESIRES
The human journey—particularly our spiritual journey—is shaped by our deepest desires. More often than we expect, we get what we most desire. This is why it is crucial that our basic heart direction be solidly grounded in God and that we allow God to purify our desires.
My desire for respect has had a powerful—although not always good—influence on my journey. I have often gotten what I desired, but looking back I wish I had desired respect less and intimacy more. Respect has too often kept others at a safe distance and kept me content with an offering of admiration. Intimacy —both with God and with others—would have been, and is becoming, much more deeply satisfying as it draws me into relationships of love and interdependence.
No matter how they appear, desires are deeply spiritual. When understood superficially they appear to often point to our self and our personal gratification. But as Margaret Silf reminds us, our deepest desires prove that the universe is not centered on ourselves, because they require that we reach out and move on. Deepest desires are always fulfilled “not in our arriving but in our journeying; not in the finding but in the searching.” 1 For truly it is in the searching that we are found.
Despite what you may have heard, Christian spirituality is not about the crucifixion of desire. Rather it is about the distillation and focusing of desire. It is about discovering the freedom of desiring nothing more than God and then enjoying with detachment every other blessing and gift.
Ultimately, the human will is incapable of choosing God’s will over ours unless it operates in partnership with desire. Without desire—distilled and purified by surrender to God’s loving will—our willing produces rigidity rather than vitality. When we rely on the will alone, we become machinelike. If we are ruled by our passions alone, we become animal-like. We become fully human only when will and desire are in balance and when both are transformed by Perfect Love. Once we have drunk deeply of that love, nothing else will satisfy our heart. Our seeking of God will come from a Love-shaped place deep within us. Our fundamental longing will be a thirst for Living Water.
A moment ago I suggested that we must be careful what we desire because we may get it. But desires are even more important than this. The truth is that our desires influence more than our acquisitions. They also shape our being. Thomas Merton puts it this way: “Life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.”2
A desire for wealth leads to greed, envy and dissatisfaction. A desire for power saps compassion, just as a desire for reputation feeds self-preoccupation. And a desire for respect—as I know too well—leads to an overinvestment in image.
Every idolatrous desire—that is, everything that we love and desire more than God—tends ultimately to diminish our humanity and damage our soul.
In contrast, a desire for God leads to fulfillment of that longing and enhancement of our being. Hunger for God will not go unanswered, because it is a gift from God. Our longing is already an answer from our heart as it is stirred by God’s Spirit. No one who seeks God fails to find God, because she or he is already found by God. In seeking we are found. In longing we express God’s desire, God’s longing evoking our own.
A wonderful description of this interaction of the longings of the soul and those of God comes from the thirteenth century Mechthild of Magdeburg.
The soul speaks: “God, you are my lover, My longing, My flowing stream, My sun, And I am your reflection.”
God answers: “It is my nature that makes me love you often, For I am love itself. It is my longing that makes me love you intensely, For I yearn to be loved from the heart. It is my eternity that makes me love you long, For I have no end.”3
We may be tempted to feel that the desiring of God is all on our end. But our desiring originates in God’s desiring of us. As Janet Ruffing states: “Our desires, our wants, our longings, our outward and inward searching—when uncovered, expressed, and recognized—all lead to the Divine Beloved. . . . All our desires ultimately lead us to God.”4
The journey of desire may lead us to byways and cul-de-sacs, but if we follow it we will ultimately be led to the Divine Beloved. We may not know what it is we long for, but our deepest longings are God-given because they always point toward the divine.
KNOWING OUR DESIRES
But can this be true? Can it really be that the things I most deeply want point me toward God? Can it be that these same things tell me something about what God most deeply wants for me? Can it be true that my desires reflect in some important ways God’s own desires?
I suspect there are a number of reasons we doubt this. First, most of us have been conditioned to expect that we will never get the things we most deeply want. Our deepest desires and longings seem to be therefore simply set-ups for frustration. They are dangerous. Consequently, they remain unexamined and unknown. They may unconsciously point us toward God, but if they do, we would not be any more aware of that fact than of their essential nature.
Beyond this, most of us harbor a deep-seated suspicion that God’s desires for us and ours for ourselves share no common ground. We suspect that if our desires are to be fulfilled, it will be at the expense of God’s—fulfillment that will have to be stolen from God. Christian spirituality, we mistakenly believe, has to do with the crucifixion of our desires, even of desire itself.
As a result, most of us do not know our deepest desires. We may know our superficial wants (“I want a new car” or “I want a holiday”) but not our deeper longings. Unfortunately, the superficial wants and desires we can most easily identify are often those that are most disordered and most in need of purification. This only reinforces our sense that our desires are at best irrelevant to the spiritual journey and at worst seriously in opposition to it.
The only way to know our deepest desires is to start with the surface desires that we can access and to follow them downward to their underlying longings. This, as we shall see, then allows us to identify those desires that are most in need of refining.
Calla illustrates this process. When I first met her, Calla’s longings were all focused on her desire to be married and have children. Lacking a significant relationship with a man and deeply aware of the relentless ticking of her biological clock, she felt her dreams slipping through her fingers. She was bitter and miserable.
Calla seemed puzzled when I asked her about her deepest longings. She felt she had told me everything that was to be told when she said she wanted to be married and have a child. But as we explored this further, Calla was able to see that beneath what she had thought of as ultimate desires was something more basic—a longing to feel needed and loved. It was also not hard to discern a longing to feel connected to others and to life itself. Marriage and mothering held for her the hope of meeting these basic needs. But her longing was not truly for a man or a baby. It was for love and significance. This was a longing that pointed toward God. It arose from the God-shaped empty space within her that matched the Calla-shaped inner space within God—longing answering longing. But until she saw the ultimate nature of her desires, she remained idolatrously locked onto marriage and motherhood as the only potential source of her fulfillment.
These core needs, like all core needs, are spiritual—not because love is somehow especially spiritual but because it is a need that ultimately can be met only in God. Our need for love points us toward God. So do our other core needs—needs for safety and security, identity, significance, self-expression and fulfillment.
Created as an expression of God’s desire, our essential being reflects and is shaped by divine desire. Our life is a response to this fundamental source of our being. Our heart responds to it imperfectly, because our heart allegiances remain divided. But the heartbeat of God’s desire can still be discerned within the pulse of our deepest desires. For our desires are truly always derivatives—distorted as they may be—of God’s desires.
Our deepest desires contain residual traces of God’s desires for us and always therefore point toward God. Thus deep longings are always spiritual. But our response to them is not always life-giving. Jesus tells us that where our treasure is, there our hearts will also be (Matthew 6:21). Too often we seem unable to be content with the treasure of God’s person, seeking additional things we feel will add to our happiness—treasures of image, possession and accomplishment. Our desires become distorted and disordered. When this happens, they no longer reliably lead us toward God. Instead they lead us into frustration and despair, for nothing in this world can ever satisfy the deepest heart longings that were intended to point us toward God.
PURIFYING OUR DESIRES
If we are honest, we all know something about disordered desires. Most of us know the possibility of forming a false attachment to someone, looking to them to meet needs that can never be met by any human. Or if we have never felt the fleeting gratification of such an idolatrous attachment, perhaps we—like Calla—know the desire for it. Most of us also realize that we can form the same sort of false attachment to possessions, money being perhaps the easiest object for this. Many of us also know disordered desire that comes from a false attachment to reputation and image.
One of the ways I have found helpful to distinguish between ordered and disordered desires is the particular, though sometimes subtle, effect each has on me. Ordered—or purified—desires expand me and connect me to others and the world in lifeenhancing ways. Disordered desires suck me into myself and rather than adding vitality to life, leach it away. This is because ordered desires spring from willingness and surrender, while disordered ones are my willful attempt to arrange for my own happiness and fulfillment.
When I desire nothing more than God alone, I experience a deep sense of well-being and connectedness. Paradoxically, this is a longing that leaves me feeling not empty but complete. It is a longing that draws me not only toward God but also toward others. It is a longing that leaves me feeling open and alive.
In contrast, when my lust for respect rears its ugly head, I become aware of a feeling of deficit. There is something that I think I need in order to feel complete, and this something is outside of me, beyond me. Thinking I can produce it by my own efforts rather than receive it as a gift, I willfully set out to get it by sacrificing reality on the altar of appearances and hoping that others will notice the appearance. But because this involves treating people as objects—potential sources of the soothing balm of admiration to which I am addicted—I feel cut off from those whose esteem I seek. And because the choice of appearance over reality always involves turning my back on God, I feel equally cut off from life and vitality.
But why talk about this as a disordered desire? Why not simply call it sin?
While it is sinful—as is anything that springs from the kingdom of self, any idolatrous attempt to live independently of surrender to God—I find it helpful to think of it as a disordered desire because this language reminds me that at its core it is something good. At the core of my desire to be viewed with respect is a deeper God-given desire for love. The love that I really desire and most deeply need is not, however, dependent on my performance. The love I most deeply long for is the only love that can truly set me free—the perfect and ab- solutely unconditional love of God.
How, then, should we deal with disordered desires? What can we do to purify these distortions of God-given longings?
We cannot purify our own desires. So don’t fall into the trap of taking this on as a spiritual self-improvement project. Instead, lift yourself to God in the midst of your disordered state and allow God to undertake the necessary transformation.
Only prayer can order a disordered inner life. While this may seem overly simplistic and possibly overly spiritual, it is absolutely true.
Prayer sorts out our desires. Notice that I did not say that in prayer we are able to sort out our desires. No. The sorting work is God’s, not ours. Our job is to sit in God’s presence and allow God to purify our desires. If this does not seem practical enough, you have not spent enough time sitting in silence in God’s presence. Words may be coming between you and God.
Silence in the presence of God belongs to the core of prayer. It deepens our awareness of both ourselves and God. For it is in the stillness of silent prayer that we learn what our own desires most truly are. It is here that God reveals us to ourselves. “Examine me and know my heart, probe me and know my thoughts” (Psalm 139:23) is not, as it appears, a request that God would know me but that God would show that known self to me. And where God does this most dependably is in silent prayer where we center ourselves in God.
Prayer is the place of divine transformation because it is the place in which our hearts are slowly transformed into the heart of God. Prayer is the place where we discover that our deepest desire is nothing other than God alone. This is the purification of desire.
Only when we are willing to desire nothing more than God can we experience the freedom of truly enjoying all things. Christian spirituality does not involve the destruction of desire. Rather it involves realignment of our desires by turning our hearts toward the Source of all desire. God’s desires become our desires.
When we long for nothing more than God, our deepest longings dependably point us toward God. This is fullness of life. Remember Jesus’ words about this. “Is there a man among you who would hand his son a stone when he asked for bread? Or would hand him a snake when he asked for a fish? If you, then, who are evil, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11). God longs to give us our heart’s desires. But to receive them, we must allow God’s heart to become ours. We must learn to desire as God desires. This is choosing life.
Properly understood, choosing God is choosing life. If the two seem different for you, there is a vitally important dimension of God awaiting your discovery!
St. Irenaeus reminds us that the glory of God is human beings who are fully alive. God is the source and foundation of life. The breath of God, the Holy Spirit, sustains all that has life. And Jesus came to bring us abundant life—life that is so full that it points us back to God, the author of life. In so doing it gives God glory.
God longs for our fulfillment, not merely our compliance with the divine will. God is in the resurrection business, calling us to shake off our graveclothes and emerge from the tombs in which we live. God invites us to share the animating and generative life that is our origin and destiny.
Choosing God is a matter of choosing life over death. This was precisely the choice God gave Moses and then told him to pass on to the children of Israel:
See, today I set before you life and prosperity, death and disaster. If you obey the commandments of Yahweh that I enjoin on you today, if you love Yahweh your God and follow his ways, if you keep his commandments, his laws, his customs, you will live and increase, and Yahweh your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to make your own. But if your heart strays, if you refuse to listen, if you let yourself be drawn into worshiping other gods and serving them, I tell you today, you will most certainly perish; you will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today: I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live, in the love of Yahweh your God, obeying his voice, clinging to him; for in this your life consists. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)
We face the same choice today, and every day. But choosing God can never be simply a matter of the will. We may achieve what we pursue with our will. But we cannot simply will God. We can only desire God and then willingly follow this desire. It is the deepest longings and desires of our heart that ultimately direct our spiritual journey. A journey into the heart of God will always involve desire for God, not simply a will to become Godlike.
In his book Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton shares a prayer that expresses his deepest heart longings. His words reveal stunning levels of honesty combined with astounding faith.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I cannot see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But, I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.5
This is the life of faith. But it is also a journey of desire and longing. This is the Christian spirituality journey.
Take some time to reflect on your own desires. As you sort through them, moving from accessible surface desires to the deeper longings that lie beneath them, submit everything you discover to God in prayer. Rather than making this an exercise of psychological analysis, make it a time of prayer. Dare to simply sit in stillness and silence in God’s presence, allowing the Spirit of God to pray the deepest unworded prayers of your spirit. Then talk with God about what you learn about yourself. Ask God to reorder your desiring by aligning it with the desires of God’s own heart.
Finally, reflect on whether your choosing of God is bringing you genuine life. Take the long view on this assessment. If your God-choosing is not making you fundamentally more alive and vital, you may be choosing the external trappings of the Christian religion rather than the life-giving inner essence of Christian spirituality. You may be choosing a spiritual self-improvement program of the kingdom of self, but you are not choosing the genuinely life-giving program of the kingdom of God.
Hear God’s call to surrender to God’s will as an invitation to a fullness of life that exceeds your wildest expectations and imaginings. The source of this call is the Source of everything that is truly alive. Settle for nothing less than this truly abundant and vital life in Christ.
This chapter is from Desiring God’s Will by David Benner, an IVP: Formatio book
See book for references