Sandwiched between two of its more radio-friendly songs, The 1975's new album contains a raw emotional little track called “ Be My Mistake.” The song is provocative, poignant and slightly dirty. It is also one of the most honest and uncomfortable meditations on the nature of desire I've ever seen, read or heard. One of the things it impresses most on my mind is the complex and sometimes even contradictory nature of desire. Is desire good? Is it bad? Isn't it an essential piece of what it means to be truly alive? Or is it a consequence of living in a flawed and fallen world. Something to be shunned, feared, and exorcised from our minds entirely.
The Bible has a lot to say about desire, and it's not a monolithic as one first might assume. We desire necessities; we desire people, experiences, food, purpose, sex, significance, companionship, almost anything you can think of, someone somewhere is desiring it right now. Desire brought Adolf Hitler to power, convinced him that the horrendous atrocities he committed were justified. But desire also motivated Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others to risk their lives to rescue Jewish people from the concentration camps. Desire motivated Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi to risk their lives for peace, as well as Stalin and Pol Pot to take countless lives in the pursuit of power. A little closer to home, desire sometimes motivates us to unfathomable acts of love, and other times to monumental displays of selfishness.
In the same way, scripture recognizes this complex and confusing nature of desire. It has a lot to say about what and how we are and are not to desire, but its portrayal is no less nuanced than our experiences are. The psalmist paints a vivid picture of what it looks like to desire God. Jesus tells us to deny ourselves and our desires, even going to the extreme of bodily mutilation. The Apostle Paul writes that we are to eagerly desire the greater gifts. John teaches us that desire is one of the most effective tools of the devil. And in the 10 Commandments, even desire itself is listed as contrary to one of God's 10 most essential moral principles. So, how do we make sense of all this?
The critical realization is that all the biblical writers seem to agree that desire, in and of itself, is not harmful. At the very least, desire directed toward God is a good thing, and in many cases, it seems that other desires can be appropriate, even good, as well. But what does it mean to desire God? If, like me, you've spent almost every one of the past 1,248 or so Sunday's in church, you might be tempted to say, "That's easy! Desiring God means ... well, it's like ... uh, you know. ..." And that's when we usually turn to the typical Christian tropes, praying, going to church, giving up this or that vice or distraction. But if that's all we have, that's not desiring God. Rather, we're going cold inside and surgically removing desire from our lives. And too many Christians, it almost seems as if that's the most Christian response we can have to desire. But, as far as I can tell, that's something the Bible never asks of us.
There is plenty of desire in scripture. We see passionate liturgists, fiery prophets and frenetic worshippers all pointing us to a depiction of human beings as passionate, emotional creatures, created by a passionate God. For too long, many of us have walked far too close to the idea that God wants us to take control of those desires, stomp them down, and starve them until we go cold and dead inside. Scripture does tell us to take control of our desires, but rather than starving them, we are encouraged to feed them and point them in the direction of goodness, justice and compassion. So, don't be afraid of desire. Yes, without guidance, it can become a lethal force for evil. History is full of examples. Properly fed and properly taught, however, desire can become a tool in the hand of the Almighty. It can become a force for good in the world and a means by which God's will is done and his kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.
Jason Koon is an ordained minister who lives in Morganton.