An excerpt from Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places
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Christians are not Buddhists. We do not see desire itself as a problem. Instead we believe that our desires are good, but often misdirected.
I met with a group of pastors to speak on sex addiction about a year ago. Afterward, as many expressed appreciation, I noticed a lonely young pastor in the back of the room who didn’t interact and left quietly when the seminar was over. Months later he phoned me.
“Chuck, I’m a pervert,” he said. “There is nothing good inside of me. I crave sex, and no amount of therapy or accountability or even meditating on Scripture seems to help.”
I could hear him crying. These were the tears of a man who had forgotten his original identity as an imagebearer made for deep love and intimacy. As he told me more of his story, I learned that he’d first seen pornography at age eight. This early sexualization of intimacy had enslaved him to pornography, and though he’d left Egypt and was journeying toward freedom, he couldn’t quite let go. His identity was inextricably attached to sex; his tears expressed feelings of utter futility and hopelessness.
He had been through counseling before, but it was pretty clear to me that he had received a message that is all too common and profoundly lacking. He had been reminded time and again that he was an idolater, and that freedom from his idol would come through repenting and believing the gospel. “I’ve just got to repent and believe,” he’d say. “My repentance isn’t deep enough, I guess.” With every word, I heard more self-condemnation. It’s not unusual for Christians to believe in grace and yet be masters of self-contempt.
“Women are beautiful,” I said.
“Pardon me,” he replied.
“They’re beautiful. Sometimes I’ll be walking down the street and see a beautiful woman, and it takes my breath away,” I told him.
I wasn’t sure if he’d hung up on me or was dumbfounded that a fellow pastor would say such things. But he stuck with me, and over the next hour we talked about his longings for beauty and intimacy and sexual connection. I couldn’t see his face, but in his voice I could hear a sense of relief, of a burden being lifted. He’d spent years condemning himself as a pervert for being drawn to the very things God had created him for. To be sure, his desires had become possessive, misdirected, attached to pornographic images. But something inside was shifting as he began to dare to believe that he wasn’t a “dirty, rotten sinner.” That day he heard, perhaps for the first time, that he was God’s beloved, an imagebearer, loved and made to love, longing for good things.
Desire isn’t the problem. It’s possessive desire that is the problem. Gerard Loughlin makes this point persuasively his book Alien Sex: The Body and Desire in Cinema and Theology. He argues that growth and maturity does not require the elimination of desire but the dispossession of it. Without using Nouwen’s metaphor, he essentially paints the same picture. When our hands grip possessively, we’re not free to enjoy the good thing God means for us to enjoy. Our search for pleasure turns into a slavery to it. Loughlin writes, “Dispossession is necessary for discipleship; without it, those who would follow will go astray. To love Jesus alone, as he wants, one must be free of all possessive relationships, free of the illusion that other people belong to you, are yours, extensions of yourself.”
This idea isn’t new. Sixteenth century Carmelite mystic St. John of the Cross also demonstrates the paradox of desire: “In order to arrive at having pleasure in everything, desire to have pleasure in nothing. In order to arrive at possessing everything, desire to possess nothing. In order to arrive at being everything, desire to be nothing. In order to arrive at knowing everything, desire to know nothing.”
St. John is not condemning pleasure or knowledge or even reputation and influence. These are good desires created in every human being as God’s imagebearer. But instead of opening our hands in a posture of dispossessive desire, we seek to contain it, to own it, to possess it. For that pastor who wrestled with addiction to pornography, desire wasn’t the problem. In fact, it was the solution.
Dispossessive desire is desire rightly directed. It’s a heart that releases its grip and relaxes into the deeper satisfaction of its ultimate longing. Matt Jenson, a theologian who writes on the subject of sin, writes, “Lest we should nudge a category like desire to the margins, consider the following words of St. Augustine: ‘The whole life of a good Christian is a life of holy longing . . . that is, our life is to be exercised by longing.’” It’s a life lived open to the possibility of experiencing deep and profound tastes of that original Eden glory, but not to possess it.
Consider a couple who takes their honeymoon on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. After a week of living in an exotic environment, swimming in tropical waters, and witnessing breathtaking sunsets, they return to their 800-square-foot apartment in an industrial Northeastern city with its polluted air and low-paying jobs. After a taste of Eden, they find themselves right back in a barren wilderness. For the next week they make Margaritas and play tropical music in their apartment. Eventually they begin searching online for a timeshare on St. Maarten. They decide to use a small inheritance to make a down payment and raise a glass to their purchase in paradise.
When they return a year later, the timeshare is a disappointment. It’s not the beach hut where they stayed for their honeymoon. Nor are they newlyweds. An ongoing disagreement erupts into a full-blown fight on their first day back in paradise. They sleep in separate bedrooms for the first time in their marriage. This time there’s no wedding gift cash to spend, so they eat at a roadside stand instead of a nice restaurant. The husband contracts food poisoning and is bedridden for the next two days. Paradise lost.
It happens to us all the time. We watch a movie that stirs our hearts and go back a second time only to feel a tinge of disappointment. We buy the car we’ve dreamed of only to wake up the next day with buyer’s remorse. We return to the beach where we saw the perfect sunset only to find it cold and foggy. In other words, we feel desire, but in our attempt to possess it we experience disappointment, even loss. Dispossessive desire also leaves us with an ache. It does not bring endless satisfaction. But, as C. S. Lewis often reminded his readers, it gives us a taste, albeit a fleeting taste, of paradise, of shalom, as of life as it was originally designed to be:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust in them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.
Dispossessed desire, it seems, requires us to appreciate all good things with open hands.
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