The Lord Jesus himself said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Acts 20:35
One of the strangest peculiarities of the human race is the hoarding habit. When it gets out of hand, psychologists call it “disposophobia”. The rest of us speak of the “packrat mentality”.
Different people hoard different things. Minimalists may frown at being called packrats, yet their bank accounts or foreign investments would usually confirm that that is exactly what they are. The rich are in fact the greatest hoarders, but we forgive them as it is more interesting to watch someone hoard Louis Vuitton handbags than what it is to stumble over your husband’s junk in the attic.
The sin of covetousness, which underlies the hoarding habit, is humanity’s most aggressive effort to compensate for the distinct sense of loss we experience without God in this world. It makes perfect sense, and explains why any effort at filling the hole in our soul is always met with further disillusionment.
As Rockefeller famously answered when asked how much money is enough: “Just a little bit more.” Centuries earlier Solomon said: “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income” (Ecclesiastes 5:10).
Jesus challenges the fallen and conventional wisdom of this world by pointing out that the ultimate answer for our ailments is not to keep on receiving, but to start giving. This teaching runs like a golden thread throughout the New Testament.
The words of Basil, Bishop of Caesarea in the fourth century, is worth quoting here: “When someone steals a man’s clothes we call him a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”
Think about this for a moment. If the absence of God leads to covetousness, and covetousness to acquisition (let’s not use the word “hoarding” here, just in case you do not relate), then the presence of God should lead to contentment, and contentment to divine forfeiture (a.k.a. giving).
It is a huge subject, and one I have been contemplating since the early seventies. I had not yet turned ten when my mom took me to the drive-in to see Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun Sister Moon, and my life has never been quite the same. It remains my all-time favourite movie, and also the one that has inspired me the most.
Early this morning I received a notification of a post from one of my favorite bloggers, David McAnulty. It addresses the issue of the poor from a contemporary perspective, and I found it extremely meaningful. David says it so well that I prefer him to speak for himself. You can find it here.
Blessings to all.
(A few paragraphs of this post has appeared in Bloemnews.)
“You shall not covet your neighbour’s house…” Exodus 20:17
The past week’s international news headlines were dominated (yet again) by the current global financial crisis.
This time it is the Spanish economy that is wobbling. Whilst many are hoping that a massive bank bailout will resolve the problem, an increasing number of economists are warning that it won’t. They are predicting a “broader Eurozone catastrophe.”
That sounds rather grim, and so many people are asking the obvious question: “How did we get into this mess?” Google an answer and you will be overwhelmed by an array of articles filled with highfalutin economic terms that are pretty incomprehensible to Joe Soap and his family.
But there is something that you may notice while you’re at it: The recurrence of the term “housing bubble”.
It would appear that an inordinate amount of people bought an inordinate amount of houses with money that they never had but manage to borrow from banks who had inordinately liberal underwriting standards, causing real estate value to skyrocket in an inordinate way.
You don’t need to be an astronaut to understand why the whole thing was destined to pop.
This brings us to another question: Why on earth would anybody with a sound mind want to get involved in this? (Keep in mind that you will have to explain to your grandchildren why you helped destroy the world economy.)
The answer is simple: We never thought that God was serious when he told us not to lust after our neighbour’s house. And so we wanted bigger and better than the Joneses, and used every opportunity to get it.
Of course that made Mr & Mrs Jones feel terrible, and so they had to catch up.
We got into this mess because of greed. That’s the correct answer.
Will we get out of it? God alone knows. So let us focus on what we do know: That the Biblical definition of “gain“ is contentment, not accumulation.
This is the third (and most important) post dealing with the issue of “desire”. If you happen to read this and you have not read the previous two, it might be a good idea to do so first. However, what I am about to share can stand on its own. It is, I believe, such a foundational truth that it ultimately relegates everything else relating to “desire” to the status of mere commentary. And so you can continue right on if you are not in the mood to read the previous posts.
This post is somewhat long, but I offer no apologies.
Desire: An Appetite
What is desire? Desire is a yearning towards something. It is a hunger for something, and so it can be described as an appetite. Of course human beings have many desires for many different things, but in the final analysis they are all bits of one great desire. All appetites are mere shadows of one single appetite, namely the human appetite for spirituality.
Let me explain. Just as we are born hungry, and just as we need a source through which life will be administered to us in order to replace “craving” with “satisfaction”, so we are born spiritually hungry. In other words, just as “life” exists on two planes, namely the natural and the spiritual, so our yearning for it exists on two planes. We are naturally hungry, and we are spiritually hungry. Consequently, we can experience “fullness” both in the natural and spiritual realm.
Note that “hunger” and “satisfaction” serve as the primary indicators by which humans determine whether life has been administered to them or not. Of course this does not mean that these indicators are infallible. If you have seen Super Size Me you will know what I am talking about. But mostly we get it right. Mostly the pangs on our stomach direct us in a marvelous way to some or other source of nutrition that not only provides gratification, but that also keeps us alive.
Until we are hungry again, of course. And then the process repeats itself.
The point cannot be overstated: Hunger is what we experience, but it is in fact life that we crave. My two year old seems constantly hungry, but he is oblivious of the fact that when he eats he is satisfying a much deeper need: The need to survive as a human. And so God has designed a marvelous cycle of desire and fulfillment to keep us alive.
At this point we are ready for a few conclusions:
• Human desire is always an attempt to move from death to life, although this mostly happens outside of awareness. Note that Eve’s desire for the forbidden tree neutralized the fear brought about by God’s ominous warning of certain death. We’ll see why in a moment.
• For desire to cease, it looks outside itself for an object that can administer the life necessary to provide gratification. Eve “saw” the forbidden tree and concluded that the prospect of being “like God” would administer more life than eating of the other tree. Clearly, for being like God would imply more than merely receiving life. It implied becoming a source of life.
• Desire is not a pleasant experience. As the awareness of lack, its main aim is to destroy itself. And so the exhilaration of desire does not have to do with the desire itself, but with the prospect of gratification, that is, with desire’s absence. Desire’s main aim is to stop desiring. This is why Eve’s desire led her to pick and eat the forbidden fruit.
• The aim of desire is to bind the one who desires with the object of desire in a union of life. The result of this union is contentment, satisfaction and a total immunity to all lesser objects of desire. Eve expected the tree to do more than provide a snack. She expected it to transform her identity.
• When the object of desire fails to live up to its promises, for instance by offering mere temporary gratification, desire will return and the cycle will begin again. This could lead to an effort to extract more out of the object of desire or to interact with it in a fresh way. It could also lead to a total abandonment of it in the hope of finding a more suitable object of desire (See the reference to the Samaritan woman of John 4 later on in this post).
Made by God, Made for God
With the above in mind, let us consider two quotes:
You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. Augustine
There was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present. But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself. Blaise Pascal
God created us with a passion in our hearts: A passion for him. The aim of this desire is to unite us to God in an eternal, loving union. Just as children crave mother’s milk for the sake of their survival, we crave spiritual satisfaction for our spiritual survival. And just as the human body will not allow itself to be fooled in regard to the demands of its appetite, God does not allow us to experience this satisfaction apart from him.
Now think about this:
WHEN GOD DISAPPEARS OUT OF OUR PICTURE, OUR DESIRE FOR HIM DOES NOT DISAPPEAR.
No. It remains. It is an eternal and indistinguishable spiritual survival instinct, and it cannot be eradicated. And so, without God, the very passion that was intended to unite us to God becomes the passion that drives us to all kinds of objects and things in which we hope to find a suitable substitute for the absence of God. The reason people ‘s desires lead them to all kinds of sins is that they are seeking spiritual fulfillment. As Chesterton once said: “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.” It is because of dispossession that we seek to possess, in other words.
If you are still with me, please stay here. I am about to say something that you may never have heard, and that may very well change the way you view Christianity, the world and yourself:
DESIRE CANNOT BE RESISTED.
Let me say that again: Desire cannot be resisted. The reason for this is that it is a spiritual force, given by God to you for the purpose of enabling you to fulfill the greatest commandment: To love him with all your heart, mind, strength and soul.
This instinct is engraved on your DNA and nothing can ever change it. The great commandment has never been an option. It is part of your constitution. And you will spend your life trying to obey it, no matter how confused you may be as to how to do it. The difference between human beings is not that some are religious and others are not. No. All people are deeply religious. The difference between them has to do with the particular avenue they choose as an outlet for their religious instincts. Even a self-professed atheist is doomed to finding some sort of mission, object or person in his or her life to make it more bearable. As always, desire is the navigating tool to do so.
Now for the punch line: If desire cannot be resisted, then it is futile to try and do so, even if it is “sinful” desire. To try and conquer desire is to fight against God, for desire is given by God as the appetite of the human soul. Even a child will tell you that it is pointless to overcome hunger by trying to resist it. It simply won’t work. Hunger and thirst only disappear when there is a filling of sorts, and it has to be a filling that corresponds with the demands of the body. This is why people adrift on the ocean eventually die of thirst. Seawater does not do it for them. In fact, the more they drink, the more they thirst. And to religiously command such a person to “stop thirsting” is idiocy.
The Purpose of the Law
This, of course, is the purpose of the Mosaic Law: To illustrate the impossibility of conquering human desire. As I pointed out in The Root of Desire II (this may be a good time to read it, if you haven’t done so before), Paul’s epic battle to keep the law of God (and his ultimate failure) had absolutely nothing to do with sins like adultery, theft, lying and so on.
No, Romans 7 makes it clear that all of Paul’s failure in keeping the law sprung from one, single commandment: The tenth, that is, the prohibition against desire. The “very commandment that was intended to bring life” (Note: …to bring life) instead produced in Paul “every kind of covetous desire” (See verses 8-10). And so Paul concludes: “I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” Put differently, Paul would not have understood desire as a powerful spiritual force that cannot be overcome by willpower, even the strongest religious willpower in the world, were it not for the tenth commandment.
Desire cannot be resisted, not even by the world’s most moral man. This is why God chose Saul the Pharisee as the channel through which to reveal the benefits of the New Covenant. Through Saul’s dismal failure to keep the law that he respected so much, the real purpose of the law is revealed: To make us aware of sin. Not of sins, but of sin.
The law shows us that we are slaves of desire and that we cannot do anything about it. Yet it is not the desire itself that is sin, but the way in which we choose to satisfy it. To get this wrong is to commit idolatry, that is, to attribute God-like characteristics to lifeless things. As strange as it may sound, the principle underlying all sin is love. But it is forbidden love. As Norman Grubb pointed out, sin is an illicit love match.
For our man adrift on the ocean, neither seawater nor willpower can bring life. For the man in Romans 7, and that includes all of us, neither sin nor religion can satisfy us. We need “real food” and “real bread”, to use Jesus’ terminology. Our desires must not be annihilated. They must be redirected. That statement is so important that it bears repeating:
OUR DESIRES MUST NOT BE ANNIHILATED. THEY MUST BE REDIRECTED.
Desire is the force that is intended to drive us away from the inherent emptiness in ourselves, and the horrible experience of that emptiness, to some or other source of fulfillment. This force is even stronger than our natural survival instinct, which is why some people will commit suicide in the hope of finding more satisfaction in death than they do in life. As I pointed out in the previous posts, every action of a human being is preceded by a desire. When we act, we obey desire. Desire rules us. We do not rule desire.
The man who sold all in Matthew 13 did not do so because he found religion. He did so because he found a treasure that was worth more than everything he owned. Through it all he remained true to his desires – desires that were transformed by a discovery of great treasure.
Similarly, the mistake of the rich young ruler was not his unwillingness to let go of his possessions. It was his inability to see the supreme worth of Jesus Christ. He was blind to the pearl of great price, as all of us are, and so his desires compelled him to hold on the only collection he knew. This is why Jesus pointed out, in true Romans 7 fashion, that salvation is “impossible” for human beings. The impossibility, of course, has to do with ruling over our desires. Clearly, for “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
The Solution to Romans 7
The solution to the problem of Romans 7 is found in Romans 8. Here we find the “filling” that solves the universal problem of humanity’s spiritual emptiness. Romans 8 is about the Spirit of God, and the implications of being filled by the Spirit.
In this chapter Paul says that “through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (verse 2). Note the movement from death to life, and then note how this actually plays out in practice: “ Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” (verse 5). Note the references to desire. And note that human desire does not cease in this equation. Rather, it is redirected from the guidance of the sinful nature to the guidance of the Spirit. And so the man in Romans 8 finds it possible to keep the law, for his desires has been conformed to the will of God!
Paul’s effort to resist desire in Romans 7 was futile. This was no mistake, but a necessary lesson to indicate that salvation is an impossibility for humans, but a possibility with God whose Spirit of life can arrest our desires and direct them in a wholly different direction.
Christ the Bread and Water of Life
The above clearly illustrates how bankrupt religion is as a means to curb desire. Only Jesus Christ can offer the satisfaction sought by the human soul. No amount of rules, ritual, willpower or anything else in the whole, wide world can do this. Only Christ can, and this is what we mean when we say “Jesus Christ is all”. Of course, this is what the Bible means when it says that Jesus Christ has the supremacy in everything and that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him”.
Think about it: Jesus had at his disposal countless metaphors by which to illustrate to us who he was and what his mission involved. But he chose the image of a meal from heaven to do so. We are to eat and drink him, he instructed us, and the result will be that we will never hunger or thirst again. Every time that Christians sit down to the Lord’s Supper, this is what they confess. Christ is our life. Christ is our delight. Christ is sufficient. We desire nothing but Christ.
Loving the Father and loving the Son is not an act of the will. It is a spontaneous and irresistible compulsion following the discovery of who God really is. This treasure is locked up in Jesus Christ, as is evident from the following verses:
• It has pleased God to let his fullness dwell in Christ (Col. 1:19)
• Jesus Christ is the “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15; 1 Cor. 4:4)
• Jesus Christ is the “exact representation” of the being of God (Heb. 1:3)
• Jesus Christ is the “Word” of God, that is, God’s primary communication to us (John 1:1, 14)
• When Philip asked Jesus to “show” the Father to the disciples, Jesus replied: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?”
Jesus Christ is the character and nature of God embodied in the flesh, and so the only avenue to the fullness, wholeness and contentment of God is in and through Jesus Christ. We are to take him into us as our ancestors were intended to eat of the tree of life. His life is the life of God, the only life that satisfies.
And so the great commandment, to love God with all of our faculties and with all of each faculty, and the Mosaic Law’s great prohibition against covetousness, is in reality one and the same commandment. Matthew 22:37 and Exodus 20:17 are the two sides of the same coin, the one stated positively, the other negatively. The one summarises the great “do” of the law (covering all the so-called “sins of omission”) and the other the great don’t of the law (covering the “sins of commission”). All of them are wrapped up in a single principle: The all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ. And so Jesus Christ is both the central message of the Ten Commandments as well as the New Testament.
With the above in mind, reconsider the following verses, most of which you may know:
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water … My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night… Psalm 63
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. Psalm 23:1-2
As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God. Psalm 42:1-2
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. Psalm 73:25
I spread out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Psalm 143:6
You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing. Psalm 145:16
Your name and renown are the desire of our hearts. My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you. Isaiah 26:8-9
Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live. Isaiah 55
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Matthew 5:6
Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. John 4:13-14
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. John 6:35
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. John 6:51
On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. John 7:37
What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ. Philippians 3:8
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life. Revelation 21:6
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life. Revelation 22:17
Jesus Christ is our satisfaction. We were created and designed for a relationship with him. That is why we exist. Nothing can quench this desire. We are the bride of the Groom, and our desire is for our husband.
Like the Samaritan woman at the well, we will remain thirsty throughout all our affairs with different lovers. Our problem is not our thirst. It is the wells we drink from. This is the message of John 4, and it is the central message of the Bible. As God said through the prophet Jeremiah: “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”
Only two sins, God says. We do not allow him to be our satisfaction, and we seek our satisfaction in that which cannot satisfy.
It was Augustine who said that the gospel is not about duty, but about delight. He was right. Our mission on planet earth is to delight ourselves in God. Nothing brings God more glory, for nothing reflects his fullness better in this age. His perfection is best expressed in our contentment. His life is best expressed in our satisfaction.
As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. John 6:57
The Law: God’s Instrument to Reveal the Universal Problem of Desire
As most of us know, the real purpose behind the law is to show us that we are sinners: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).
In the final analysis, the law was not given to be kept but broken, showing us that we are in need of a savior. “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin”, Paul says (Romans 7:7). In this sense the law was the “schoolmaster” that led us to Christ (Galatians 2:24). Of course this does not reveal any deficiency on the law’s part. The deficiency is with us, as we shall promptly see.
The problem is that this phenomenal truth of Scripture is usually proclaimed up to the point that I have just made, and then left for all kinds of conclusions to be drawn. And so it is assumed that the “knowledge of sin” brought about by the law is a “knowledge of sins”, that is, a revelation of all the wrong deeds that we are prohibited to do: As we struggle to live up to all these moral commandments we eventually become despondent, and so we are led to Christ who will then save us and empower us to live up to God’s holy commands.
This is not the teaching of the Bible, and our understanding of Christianity is sadly lacking if that is the way we understand the law, sin and redemption.
The Man in Romans 7
Two paragraphs earlier I quoted the apostle Paul as saying “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” This statement comes from Romans 7, a chapter that is devoted in its entirety to illustrating that those who are “in the flesh” cannot live up to the law’s righteous requirements.
Paul’s famous statement “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” comes from this chapter. Paul does not speak here about his Christian experience, as is oftentimes assumed, but about the experience of a man in the flesh who tries to keep the law but cannot. The result is that he cries out at the end of the chapter “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
It is this cry of despair that ultimately causes Paul to look away from himself and to Jesus Christ for deliverance. And so Romans 8 introduces us to the “life in the Spirit”, a life that transcends the limitations of the law brought about by the weakness of the flesh.
Whilst the key to Romans 7 is “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (verse 18) and “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:8), the key to Romans 8 is “but you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit” (8:9) and “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”
Wow. What a teaching. These two classic chapters are foundational to any discussion of the deeper Christian life. And so they should be. Yet our understanding of them is sadly lacking if we stop here.
The Meaning of Romans 7:7
Go back to Romans 7:7: “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” Now read the rest of the verse and further: “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.”
Wait a minute… Romans 7 is not about the whole of the law. It is only about one, single commandment: “You shall not covet.” Paul never struggled with adultery, or murder, or lying, or theft. In fact, he wrote to the Philippians that Saul the Pharisee was “faultless” as far as legalistic righteousness was concerned.
So what happened in Romans 7? The answer is simple: Here Paul tells us about the one commandment that he could not keep: The tenth. Covetousness is not a word we use often, and is better translated today as “eagerly desirous”. Romans 7 is the biographical account of a Pharisee who kept the whole of the law, but could not curb “all kinds of covetousness”. And so, he says, he would not have “known sin” if it were not for this commandment.
Whilst the first nine commandments prohibit certain actions, the final commandmend prohibits an intention. As we saw in the previous post, desire is the root and sinful deeds the fruit. The first nine commandments addresses the fruit, the tenth addresses the root. We always break the tenth before we break one of the first nine. You first covet your neighbour’s wife (Tenth command) before committing adultery with her (Seventh command). Likewise, you first covet your neighbour’s possessions (Tenth command) before you steal from your neighbour (Eighth command). In fact, every time you break one of the first nine commandments, you end up breaking two commandments: The one in question, as well as the tenth!
Whilst it is possible to refrain from external sins, it is impossible to refrain from the motive underlying it.
As I have written elsewhere:
The real origin of sin, in other words, can be traced back to the problem of covetousness. In fact, as Jesus pointed out in the Sermon on the Mount, where covetousness is present sin has already been committed (Matt. 5:27-28), and the carrying out of covetous intentions is mere coincidence and formality. In this sense we can say that the command not to covet is really a summary of the Ten Commandments, for where coveting is no longer present sin would no longer follow.
The problem of sin, therefore, is an inward one, and it is the purpose of the tenth commandment to illustrate this. To put it another way: The problem of sin is a spiritual problem, and this can only be pointed out by a spiritual commandment. When the tenth commandment confronted Paul, he acknowledged it as ‘spiritual’, but in failing to keep it he had to acknowledge himself as ‘unspiritual, a slave to sin’ (v. 14). While the first nine commandments revealed to Paul his ability to meet the external demands of the law, the tenth commandment revealed to him his inability to live up to the law’s spiritual requirements. In this sense sin was ‘recognised as sin’ in his life (v. 13).
Paul’s despair, culminating in his ‘wretched man that I am’, came about solely as a result of the one commandment that he found impossible to keep. It is this experience, more than anything else, that revealed to him his need of salvation, and that prepared him for the conviction that something needed to be done about his ‘un-spirituality’.
Romans 7 is the Bible’s greatest exposition of the problem of desire, and its conclusion is clear: The most righteous Pharisee in all of history, who could boast more “in his flesh” than any other (Philippians 3:4), could not overcome desire. And so the great Saul was revealed to be a lawbreaker, for “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Of course this does not only apply to Saul the Pharisee, but also to you and I.
It would appear that the law is much more “spiritual” than what we have been led to believe. Its aim is not legal conformance to external requirements, but the revelation that we are in need of a Savior who can transform our desirous Adamic nature.
More about that in the next posts.
You may have noticed that there is a common theme running through the last few posts on this blog: Desire. That is no coincidence. I have been digging in my archives to find some old Bloemnews columns related to the topic, and there are quite a few. I will post the rest as time allows.
But before I do so, let me explain my interest in this little word.
It is my firm conviction that all of Christianity revolves around it, and that it depicts the single motivator behind all of human conduct, both moral and immoral. As such, it depicts the greatest force known to humanity, a force so strong that it cannot be resisted by human will. And so, if understood correctly, this little word will even solve some of the mystery surrounding determinism and free will. But that’s a story for another day. In the posts to follow I simply wish to introduce you to the central role of “desire” in the Bible.
Desire: The Problem Underlying Our Sins
If you read the New Testament you will notice that the word desire is everywhere. Sometimes it appears to be mentioned along with other sins, such as in Colossians 3:5-8, where we read the following:
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.
However, a careful reading of the New Testament reveals that desire is not simply a sin amongst other sins, but the driving force behind all sins. To sin is to give in to desire. Whilst Tom may be addicted to Internet porn, and Dick to alcohol, and Harry to money, the common denominator in their lives is their slavery to desire. They may choose to serve their master in different ways, but it is the same master.
The classic New Testament chapter on sin, Romans 1, provides us with a long list of typical “sins”: Envy, Murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, gossip, slander and so on (see verses 29-31). But note the origin behind all of these: “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts… “ (verse24) and “God gave them up to dishonorable passions … “ (verse 26). The “sins” were simply manifestations of the power of “sin”, namely desire, also called “passion” or “lust”. The “giving up” has to do with the way in which desire becomes more and more determined when adhered to. Desire has a profound effect on the human will. The will is determined to desire and cannot resist this determination, but it is free when considering its object of desire. However, once it has chosen it loses that freedom rapidly. But more about that later, as mentioned above.
Along the same lines as the teaching of Romans 1, Paul tells the Ephesians that the “old self” is corrupt through “deceitful desires” (Ephesians 4:22). The only solution to the problem of our Adamic natures, as we know, is crucifixion. And so we read in the letter to the Galatians that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). Similarly, Peter says that to become partakers of the divine nature is to escape from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.
This is but a small sample of a teaching that runs throughout the entire Bible and that is oftentimes sadly missed by those who preach against sin. It is not our “sins” that constitute the problem, it is our “sin”. Desire is the root of the tree. “Bad deeds” are the fruit. To preach against bad deeds is like trimming your weeds. You may create the impression that your garden is weed free, but such an impression won’t last long.
The fact that sin is preceded by desire is clear from the Scriptures. Eve “saw that the tree was good for fruit, pleasing to the eyes and desirable for gaining wisdom”, before she ate from it. In James 1 we read that every man is tempted when he is dragged away by his own evil desire, and that desire, when conceived, gives birth to sin. We do things for one reason only: Because we want to do them. Our wants is just another word for our desires. Our deeds manifest what is in our hearts. It is as simple as that.
If this is true, then it means that for salvation to be salvation (in the true sense of the word) the problem of desire must be addressed. Believe it or not, this is exactly what Jesus set out to do when he came to dwell amongst us. How exactly we will see in the posts to follow.
My feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked… Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. Psalm 73:2-3, 25
In The Hidden Persuaders author and social critic Vance Packard quotes an American advertising executive as saying ‘What makes this country great is the creation of wants and desires, the creation of dissatisfaction with the old and outmoded’. In the same paragraph Packard says that merchandisers of products are being urged to become ‘merchants of discontent’.
That was 1957. Packard’s book, which was a critique of consumer motivational research and manipulative techniques used by advertisers to create desire for products, became a bestseller and proved itself prophetic in many aspects.
More than two millennia earlier Asaph wrote a Psalm in which he tells of his own temptation to become discontented with his lot and desirous of others’ possessions. Dissatisfaction and envy, it seems, are as old as the human race. The wise Solomon once said that ‘all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor.’
How does a Christian overcome this universal temptation to break the tenth commandment? One could remove the object of temptation as they did in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, where the Buddhist authorities banned advertising. If you remove the source of envy, they say, you also remove unhappy and resentful feelings about others’ possessions.
Aspah, however, overcame his temptation in another way. At the end of the Psalm he tells us that he found his satisfaction in God and, as a result, no longer desired the things on earth. This is the Biblical way: Not obliterating desire, but changing the object of desire.