On God and Our Desires, or How I Learned to Stop Listening to Al Pacino and Love C.S. Lewis (Part 1)
Two Quotes on the Relationship Between God and Our Desires
I begin with a quote from John Milton (a.k.a. Satan) from the movie The Devil's Advocate:
Let me give you a little inside information about God. God likes to
watch. He's a prankster. Think about it. He gives man instincts. He gives you this extraordinary gift, and then what does he do? I swear for his own amusement, his own private, cosmic gag reel, he sets the rules in opposition. It's the goof of all time. Look, but don't touch. Touch, but don't taste. Taste, don't swallow. Ahaha. And while you're jumpin' from one foot to the next, what is he doing? He's laughing his sick fuckin' ass off! He's a tight-ass! He's a sadist! He's an absentee landlord! Worship
If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised us in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Many of my friends really like that first quote. I remember watching The Devil's Advocate in college and hearing friends who would cite (or at least perk up) for that line. They may just like the wittiness of it, or the audaciousness, or Al Pacino's delivery of the line. But I think there's more to it than that. I think the quote resonates with them. Even if they don't believe in the Judeo-Christian God, that's what they think Christianity teaches about our desires: that our desires are bad and should be suppressed. (Or as Jeff characterized the conservative attitude toward sex some time ago: "Sex is evil and dirty and should be avoided at all costs.") I remember countless jokes about the latest dumb thing said or done by a fundamentalist or someone from the Religious Right (or, sometimes, a terrorist) being the result of repressed sexuality. I don't think they believed that, but I do think they believe that Christianity teaches suppression and denial of one's desires, and that this is unnatural and unhealthy and joyless.
Obviously, I disagree. There are two points I want to make about what Christianity has to say about God and our desires. (If you're not a Christian, you can take what I write about what God does below to mean what Christians believe God does. Being a Christian, I obviously believe these things and I just don't feel like prefacing everything I say in this post with "Christianity teaches...".) The C.S. Lewis quote applies more to the second. But, as is numerically appropriate, I'll start with the first.
To preview, these are my two points: (1) God wants us to enjoy the good things of life. But we must enjoy them, in the way, and to the extent, that he has mandated. We must not love the created things (including pleasures) more than the Creator. (2) Although we must give up some of our freedom to do what want, what we get in return is joy and life lived to the fullest in a relationship with our Creator and Savior. The exchange is worth it.
(As it turns out, the 2nd point will have to wait for a later blog post. I've got an outline.)
Everything In Its Proper Place
Al Pacino's Satan is right about one thing: God did create in us these desires for stuff like, say, food and sex. He did so not to frustrate us, but because he meant for us to enjoy these things. Even the writer of Ecclesiastes - a melancholy guy if there ever was one, a guy who concludes everything under the sun is "meaningless! meaningless!" - still says "It is good for a man to eat and drink . . . When God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work - this is a gift of God."
But here's the rub, the thing people don't like: We are to enjoy these things in their proper time and place. And, above all, we are not to seek these good things over God. We should never love the created things more than the Creator.
Why? Because of the great danger of our desires ruling over us and harming us. People think - or at least our consumer culture implicitly teaches us - that indulging our desires whenever we want is the definition of freedom and happiness - in economic terms, that it can give us the most utility. It's not. More often, it's slavery - like a drug addiction. (As Paul put it in his letter to Titus: "At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures.") Actually, drug addiction is a pretty good analogy of our desires ruling over us. The addict desperately wants more cocaine or heroin or what have you, but that doesn't make it good for him/her. But even that analogy isn't perfect; I can't envision a scenario when heroin is ever a good thing in the first place.
A better example may be food. As the quote from Ecclesiastes above acknowledges, food is a good thing. It's a necessity and one of the great pleasures of life. (Don't believe that? You haven't tried Christy's cooking yet.) But, when indulged to excess, food can harm you. Excess of food can lead to everything from indigestion to heart disease to (in the case of a relative of mine) legs that are too weak to carry all that weight. When it gets to the point that your appetite controls you, food can actually be dangerous in the long term.
Sex is another example. Contrary to Jeff's characterization above, Christianity does not teach that sex is "evil and dirty." Rather, it is a beautiful expression of love that can even lead to the creation of new life. Nobody who reads the Song of Solomon, with its frank and joyous exploration of sexuality, can believe that the Bible teaches sex is inherently wrong. But it's also perfectly clear that the Bible tightly circumscribes when sex should be enjoyed (see, for instance, large portions of Leviticus). But isn't it obvious why? As theologian Frederick Buechner once put it: "Sex is like nitroglycerin; it can either be used to heal hearts or blow up bridges." Or, as a character puts it in the movie Kinsey (never thought I'd be citing that movie, did you?): "Sex is a risky game, because if you're not careful, it will cut you wide open." Sex can bring two people together into an intimate - and, yes, pleasurable - physical, emotional, and spiritual union. But it can also tear relationships apart, cause lasting emotional damage, and lead to STDs if indulged in the wrong way. Sex can be a cruel, controlling master. See the movie Auto Focus: In it, Greg Kinnear plays TV star Bob Crane (of "Hogan's Heroes" fame). Crane has almost daily sex with strangers. Sounds like fun? Not really. For Crane it's a compulsion. It wrecks 2 marriages, leads to increasingly reckless behavior, and ultimately destroys him. It's a portrait of desires ruling over the man.
And how does Christianity say we "work"? Augustine had the best framework for it, so I'll paraphrase him. Basically, Augustine taught that our loves need to be properly ordered. It's not that we should love God to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. It's not that we shouldn't enjoy food, sex, fresh air, a World Cup soccer game, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, our friendships, or any of the other wonderful things of this world. It's that we should love God first...and most. And then, in loving Him, we obey Him. In obeying Him, we follow his great commandment to "Love your neighbor as yourself." So we next love our fellow human beings and earnestly desire their good just as much as we desire our own good. After that, all our other "loves" fall into place....in their proper order, time, and place. When we love God, we are freed to love our neighbors and enjoy the pleasures of this world without being slaves to pleasure.
German theologian (you'll note I'm quoting a lot of theologians in this blog post....it's my new pastime) Helmut Thielicke took that concept of slavery to pleasure in a slightly different direction. We all serve a master. Much as we Americans love to say that nobody is our master, Thielicke argues it's not a matter of whether we serve, but whom we serve. We could serve God or we could serve our desires. We can choose which master to serve. One master (our desires....our idols, as he puts it) will make us slaves. The other (God) will make us children. He will adopt us into His family and then we will serve Him freely, out of love and gratitude.
Or, instead of quoting various Christian theologians, maybe I should just go back to the source of all their thoughts, Jesus. In His Sermon on the Mount, he concluded: "Seek first [God's] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."
Ultimately, we must let God rule over our desires, and not let our desires rule over us.
(Part 2 - entitled "The Exchange Is Worth It" - to follow...)