It’s natural to desire to be stronger, smarter, better than we are. But does the fact that a desire is supposedly ‘natural’ justify seeking to fulfil it? Think of the frustration or misery that many experience as they live with deep-seated longings and urges they have not been able to satisfy.
I have lately been thinking much about the importance of our inner drives and longings. A significant influence has been Jonathan Edward’s classic, Religious Affections. This has served to sharpen my appreciation for the central and critical role played by my desires and emotions.
Alongside this I recall Alasdair MacIntyre’s penetrating analysis of contemporary moral discourse in his classic After Virtue. It is his contention that a wrong turn was made at the Enlightenment which has inevitably led to moral positions lacking any solid foundations and rather being but rationalisations of what really amount to expressions of emotivism. Modern intellects are much more driven by emotion than reason than we care to admit.
Biblically speaking, I was born into this world with deeply embedded inner drives that set me in opposition against God. These belong to what Paul terms “the flesh” and translations that substitute “sinful nature” miss something. “Flesh” connotes ‘body’ and this is indeed integral to Paul’s conception of human nature outside of Christ. The whole physical order of existence has been corrupted by the Fall. It is not only the creation that has been subjected to futility but we ourselves groan inwardly as we await the resurrection of our bodies. For until we are part of a new physical order of existence in a new heavens and a new earth we must struggle against those profoundly deep desires and longings which are at odds with the new humanity the Lord is seeking to shape within us.
It goes without saying that those longings and passions that seem perfectly natural and normal to us are not thereby legitimated. The putting on of the new man, the new humanity, involves conformity to Christ, the perfect Image of God and not conformity to the world. Both humanities have inbuilt longings and drives and both are at loggerheads with each other. Of course, notwithstanding our fallen nature we are not as bad as we could be. The image of God has not been destroyed and we see displayed in the lives of unbelievers much that is laudable and noble, at least from our perspective. It follows that many of our desires, such as our desires for food and sleep, are not evil in and of themselves but only insofar as we gratify them without any thought for God and any sense of dependence upon him or intent to please him. Since God created us as sexual beings this applies also to our sexual desires. Nevertheless, as fallen creatures sin has infected every aspect of human nature, including our desires. Outside of Christ, our characters and morality, lacking a Godward orientation, are driven by corrupted desires, however normal or natural people might deem them to be.
We look at Jesus’ disciples and we see them arguing about who is the greatest. This demonstrates that one of the most deeply rooted longings we find in many a human heart is the desire to be treated as boss-cocky. This is a very natural and normal longing. But this does not legitimate it. If I am any judge of character I would say that some of the pastors I’ve come across are driven by this desire. These are the same pastors who will preach about servant leadership and yet behave as though they must call all the shots in church life. It goes without saying that such pastors will have their own rationalisations for why they act the way they do, just as there have been times when missionaries have rationalised their patronisation of the indigenous church in the countries in which they have served.
The bottom line is that this very natural and normal longing belongs to the old humanity and needs to be replaced by the longing to please and honour God that belongs to the new humanity. It was precisely this longing that Jesus constantly refers to and which explains why he did not count equality with God as something to be grasped but took on the form of a servant.
Any natural or normal longing that does not belong to the new humanity needs to be replaced by fresh longings bred in us by the indwelling Spirit of God (“the desires of the Spirit”). The most basic longing is that of wanting to see God pleased and glorified and if this is all-consuming then we will be prepared to suffer anything. Obviously, the denial of a natural and normal longing may carry a heavy price. While marriage is a normal Christian state, there has been many a Christian woman and many a Christian man who have denied themselves the fulfilment of their sexual urges for the entirety of their lives because in their case putting the Lord first involved living a life of celibacy.
It would be a denial of God’s goodness for a Christian to accuse God of injustice because he or she is unable to fulfil legitimate natural and normal longings. God is no person’s debtor. We do not live only for this world and when this fleeting life is over we will all look back and fully agree that any sacrifice we ever made was well worth it.
Therefore, it is all the more lamentable for us to say that it is unjust or unfair for me to have illegitimate natural and normal longings which I cannot satisfy. This is an even worse denial of God’s goodness, for it is to say that God is to be blamed for my fallen state.
As an addendum to the above, we might also want to ponder the process by which ‘natural and normal longings’ are generated. It would be a great error to assume that these are all embedded in us at birth. Certainly the general propensity to shut God out of our lives is there from the moment we draw birth. But most of our other drives and motivations are profoundly shaped by processes of enculturation and socialisation and at times by particular experiences and influences that occur in the lives of individuals.
You might travel to Ecuador and be offered barbequed guinea pig to eat and actually feel physically nauseous at the very thought. Or it might be being offered the sheep’s eyes as the guest of honour at a Middle Eastern feast. Or it might be a boy tapping on your side window as your car is stopped in traffic in Malawi offering you food he has impaled on a stick – barbequed mice and rats. We might also think of Peter’s visceral reaction to unclean food as recorded in Acts 10. Of course, if I had been brought up from birth in Ecuador or the Middle East or Malawi then I would no doubt eat such food without any sense of revulsion. The point is that culture produces even deep-seated feelings that we view as being ‘normal and natural.’ A person may feel that his or her feelings are normal and natural and yet never develop such feelings if he or she had had a different upbringing in a different social context and perhaps with different individual experiences and influences.
We live in a cultural context where people are more and more encouraged to view certain ungodly inclinations as ‘natural and normal’ and therefore as legitimate. Inevitably, people growing up in such cultures from birth are going to develop feelings and passions that become deeply rooted in their natures and which will drive their behaviour and actions. There is a tendency for those who want to justify illegitimate desires and longings to argue that they were ‘born that way.’ In reality there is exceedingly little of our behaviour which is purely biological and so the onus of proof is on those who want to argue this. Further, in the case of sexual urges the plain fact of the matter is that these don’t kick in till puberty, which makes it much harder to trace them back to at-birth tendencies. Having said that, in many cases it is no doubt an extremely complex matter to trace back what particular influences and experiences have led to the development of the strong proclivities that we have. Anyway, as we have reflected above, even if it could be demonstrated that these predispositions were there at birth it would not change the situation at an ultimate level. The challenge remains for us as fallen creatures to present our bodies as a living sacrifice so that we will not be conformed to the world and to pursue transformation into the likeness of Christ by the renewal of our minds so that we might ‘know’, that is, experience just how truly good the will of God is. This is true human flourishing.
There are many states and conditions that God calls upon his people to endure. Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ have to endure persecution in whatever guise it comes to them – unjust treatment, discrimination, harassment, physical violence. Many suffer with disabilities. Others with diseases. Some are burdened with inescapable obligations that severely limit their freedoms. For some it may seem impossible to rid themselves of deep inner longings they know to be alien to the new humanity the Lord would have us put on. God does have the power to transform us. He enables believers to forgive the perpetrators of immense evil against themselves and loved ones. At times he miraculously heals diseases our medical elite are unable to treat. But in his often unfathomable wisdom God frequently calls upon us to appropriate his power for the purpose of enabling us to persevere. So Paul’s repeated pleas to be released from his unknown ‘thorn in the flesh’ are denied so that he might learn that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Our inability to change our circumstances and even aspects of our own natures provide the stage upon which God can parade his glory to a watching world.
The disciple of Jesus may well be called upon to live with deep-seated desires and longings that will never be satisfied in this world. But Jesus himself is our treasure and no sense of fulfilment, no joy, can compare with the incomparable satisfaction that comes from knowing him.