How to Conquer Desire

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.

2 thoughts on “How to Conquer Desire

  1. Peter January 4, 2012 / 8:56 am

    Good one. I read only yesterday that the foundational principles of Bhuddism are:

    1) Unhappiness is the result of unsatisfied desires.
    2) Therefore, to overcome unhappiness, kill desire.
    3) Suffering kills desire. So suffering is good. (I must partially agree with this one – Peter wrote “He who has suffered in the flesh has ceased with sin.” But it is only the sinful desire we want to kill. Ultimately, desire is a good thing and killing all desire would include killing the desire for God, his creation and his ways which would make for a pretty morbid life.)
    4) Think there was a fourth point, but I can’t remember.

  2. naturalchurch January 4, 2012 / 3:58 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Peter. Buddhists oftentimes understand the problem of desire better than Christians. But as you point out, they seek to obliterate it rather than redirect it to its rightful object: God. We were created to delight (the literal meaning for the word “covet” or “desire”) in God, which is one of the primary prerequisites for true worship. When God is pushed out of the picture this drive does not cease to exist, but redirect itself to all kinds of people and things in the hope of finding a suitable God-substitute to satisfy itself. And so idolatry results from seeking God in the wrong places. Suffering is indeed vital, but it never obliterates desire. Rather, it exposes the inability of the idol to satisfy desire, and so serves as a disciplinary measure to redirect us to God who alone can satisfy our desires.

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