The human journey—particularly our spiritual journey—is profoundly shaped by our deepest desires. More often than we expect, we get what we most desire. This is why it is so crucial that our basic heart direction be solidly grounded in God and that we allow God to purify our desires.
I wish it were otherwise, but my desire for respect has had a powerful, often not good, influence on my journey. I have often gotten what I desired, but looking back, I wish I had desired respect less and intimacy more. Respect has too often kept others at a safe distance and forced me to remain content with admiration. Intimacy—both with God and others—would have been, and is becoming, much more deeply satisfying as it draws me into relationships of love and interdependence.
No matter how they appear, desires are deeply spiritual. When understood superficially they appear to point to our self and our own personal gratification. But as Margaret Silf reminds us, our deepest desires prove that the universe is not centered upon ourselves because they require that we reach out and move on. Deepest desires are always fulfilled “not in our arriving but in our journeying; not in the finding but in the searching.”1 For truly, it is in the searching that we are found.
Despite what you might have heard, Christian spirituality is not about the crucifixion of desire. Rather it is about the distillation and focusing of desire. It is about discovering the freedom of desiring nothing more than God and then enjoying with detachment every other blessing and gift.
Ultimately, the human will is incapable of choosing God’s will over ours unless it operates in partnership with desire. Without desire—distilled and purified by surrender to God’s loving will—our willing produces rigidity rather than vitality. When we rely on the will alone, we become machinelike. If, however, we are ruled by our passions alone, we become animal-like. We only become fully human when will and desire are in balance and when both are transformed by Perfect Love. Once we have drunk deeply of that love, nothing else will satisfy our hearts. Our seeking of God will come from a Love-shaped place deep within us. Our fundamental longing will be a thirst for Living Water.
One way or another, our desires form and direct our spirit. Thomas Merton puts it this way: “Life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what your desire.”2
A desire for wealth leads to greed, envy, and dissatisfaction. A desire for power saps compassion just as a desire for reputation feeds self-preoccupation. And a desire for respect—as I know too well—leads to an overinvestment in image.
Every idolatrous desire—that is, everything that we love and desire more than God—tends ultimately to diminish our humanity and damage our soul.
In contrast, however, a desire for God leads to fulfillment of that longing and enhancement of our being. Hunger for God will not go unanswered because it is a gift from God. Our longing is already an answer from our heart as it is stirred by God’s Spirit. No one who seeks God fails to find God because she or he is already found by God. In seeking, we are found. In longing we express God’s desire, God’s longing evoking our own.
Listen to the following wonderful description of this interaction of the longings of the soul and those of God by Mechthild of Magdeburg:
The soul speaks:
“God, you are my lover,
My flowing stream,
And I am your reflection.”
“It is my nature that makes me
love you often,
For I am love itself.
It is my longing that makes me
love you intensely,
For I yearn to be loved from the heart.
It is my eternity that makes me
love you long,
For I have no end.”3
We may be tempted to feel that the desiring of God is all on our end. But our desiring originates in God’s desiring of us. As Janet Ruffing states: “Our desires, our wants, our longings, our outward and inward searching—when uncovered, expressed, and recognized—all lead to the Divine Beloved. . . . All our desires ultimately lead us to God.”4
The journey of desire may lead us to byways and cul-de-sacs, but if we follow it we will ultimately be led to the Divine Beloved. We may not know what it is we long for but our deepest longings are God-given because they always point toward the Divine.
Knowing Our Desires
But can this be true? Can it really be that the things I most deeply want point me toward God? Can it be that these same things tell me something about what God most deeply wants for me? Can it be true that my desires reflect in some important ways God’s own desires?
I suspect there are a number of reasons why we doubt this. First, most of us have been conditioned to expect that we will never get the things we most deeply want. Our deepest desires and longings are, therefore, simply setups for frustration. They are dangerous. Consequently, they remain unexamined and unknown. They may unconsciously point us toward God, but if they do, we would not be any more aware of that fact than of their essential nature.
Beyond this, most of us harbor a deep-seated suspicion that God’s desires for us and ours for ourselves share no common ground. We suspect that if our desires are to be fulfilled it will be at the expense of God’s—fulfillment that will have to be stolen from God. Christian spirituality, we mistakenly believe, has to do with the crucifixion of our desires—possibly of desire in general.
As a result, most of us do not know our deepest desires. We may know our superficial wants (“I want a new car” or “I want a holiday,” etc.) but not our deeper longings. Unfortunately, the superficial wants and desires we can most easily identify are often those that are most disordered and most in need of purification. This only reinforces our sense that our desires are at best irrelevant to the spiritual journey, and at worst, seriously in opposition to it.
The only way to know our deepest desires is to start with the surface desires that we can access and follow them downward to their underlying longings. This, as we shall see, then allows us to identify those desires that are most in need of refining.
Calla illustrates this process. When I first met her, Calla’s longings were all focused on her desire to be married and have children. Lacking a significant man in her life and deeply aware of the relentless ticking of her biological clock, she felt her dreams slipping through her fingers. She was bitter and miserable.
Calla seemed puzzled when I asked her about her deepest longings. She felt she had told me everything that was to be told when she said she wanted to be married and have a child. But as we explored this further, Calla was able to see that beneath what she had thought of as ultimate desires, was something more basic—a longing to feel needed and loved. It was also not hard to discern a longing to feel connected to others and to life itself. Marriage and mothering held for her the hope of meeting these basic needs. But her longing was not truly for a man or a baby. It was for love and significance. This was a longing that pointed toward God. It arose from the God-shaped empty space within her that matched the Calla-shaped inner space within God—longing answering longing. But until she saw the ultimate nature of her desires she remained idolatrously locked onto marriage and motherhood as what she thought to be the source of her only potential fulfillment.
These core needs, like all core needs, are spiritual—not because love is somehow especially spiritual but because it is a need that ultimately can only be met in God. Our need for love points us toward God. But so do our other core needs—needs for safety and security, identity, significance, self-expression and fulfillment.
Created as an expression of God’s desire, our essential being reflects and is shaped by Divine desire. Our life is a response to this fundamental source of our being. Our heart responds to it imperfectly, because our heart allegiances remain divided. But the heartbeat of God’s desire can still be discerned within the pulse of our deepest desires. For our desires are truly always a derivative—distorted as it may be—of God’s desires.
Our deepest desires always contain residual traces of God’s desires for us and always, therefore, point toward God. Deep longings are always, therefore, spiritual. But our response to them is not always life giving. Jesus tells us that where our treasure is, there our hearts will also be (Matthew 6:21). But so often we seem unable to be content with the treasure of God’s person, seeking additional things we feel will add to our happiness—treasures of image, possession, and accomplishment. Our desires become distorted and disordered. When this happens, they no longer reliably lead us toward God. Instead, they lead us toward frustration and despair, for nothing in this world can ever satisfy the deepest heart longings that were intended to point us toward God.
Purifying our Desires
If we are honest, we all know something about disordered desires. Most of us know the possibility of forming a false attachment to someone—looking to them to meet needs that can never be met by any human. Or, if we have never felt the fleeting gratification of such an idolatrous attachment, perhaps we—like Calla—know the desire for it. Most of us also know something about how we can also form the same sort of false attachment to possessions, money being perhaps the easiest object for this. And many of us also know disordered desire that comes from a false attachment to reputation and image.
One of the ways I have found helpful to distinguish between ordered and disordered desires is the unique, even if sometimes subtle, effect each has on me. Ordered—or purified—desires expand me and connect me to others and the world in life-enhancing ways. Disordered desires suck me into myself and rather than adding vitality to life, leach it away. This is because ordered desires spring from willingness and surrender while disordered ones are my willful attempt to arrange for my own happiness and fulfillment. Let me illustrate this by returning to my desire for respect.
When I desire nothing more than God alone, I experience a deep sense of well-being and connectedness. Paradoxically, this is a longing that leaves me feeling not empty but complete. It is a longing that draws me not only toward God but toward others. It is a longing that leaves me feeling open and alive.
In contrast, when I find my lust for respect rearing its ugly head, I become aware of a feeling of deficit. There is something that I think I need in order to feel complete and this something is outside of me, beyond me. Thinking I can produce it by my own efforts rather than receive it as a gift, I willfully set out to get it by sacrificing reality on the altar of appearances and hoping that others will notice the appearance. But because this involves treating people as objects—potential sources of the soothing balm of admiration to which I am addicted—I feel cut off from those whose esteem I seek. And because the choice of appearance over reality always involves turning my back on God I feel equally cut off from life and vitality.
But why talk about this as a disordered desire? Why not simply call it sin?
While it is sinful—as is anything that springs from the kingdom of self and my idolatrous attempt to live life independent of surrender to God—I find it helpful to think of it as a disordered desire because it reminds me that at its core it is something good. At the core of my desire to be viewed with respect is a deeper God-given desire for love. The love that I really desire and most deeply need is not, however, dependent on my performance. The love I most deeply long for is the only love that can truly set me free—the perfect and absolutely unconditional love of God.
How, then, should we deal with disordered desires? What can we do to purify these distortions of God-given longings?
The answer is that we cannot purify our own desires. Don’t, therefore, fall into the trap of taking this on as a spiritual self-improvement project. Instead, lift yourself to God in the midst of your disordered state and allow God to undertake the necessary transformation.
Only prayer can order a disordered inner life. While this may seem overly simplistic and possibly overly spiritual, it is absolutely true.
Prayer sorts out our desires. Notice that I did not say, that in prayer we are able to sort out our desires. No. The sorting work is God’s, not ours. Our job is to sit in God’s presence and allow God to purify our desires. If this does not seem practical enough, you have not spent enough time sitting in silence in God’s presence. Words may be coming between you and God.
Silence in the presence of God belongs to the core of prayer. It deepens our awareness of both ourselves and of God. For it is in the stillness of silent prayer that we learn what our own desires most truly are. It is here that God reveals us to ourselves. “God, examine me and know my heart, probe me and know my thoughts” (Psalm 139:23, NJB5, 1966) is not, as it appears, a request that God would know me but that God would show that known self to me. And where God does this most dependably is in silent prayer where we center ourselves in God.
Prayer is the place of divine transformation because it is the place in which our hearts are slowly transformed into the heart of God. Prayer is the place where we discover that our deepest desires are nothing other than God alone. This is the purification of desire.
Only when we are willing to desire nothing more than God can we experience the freedom of truly enjoying all things. Christian spirituality does not involve the destruction of desire. Rather it involves realignment of our desires by turning our hearts toward the Source of all Desire. God’s desires become our desires.
When we long for nothing more than God our deepest longings dependably point us toward God. This is fullness of life. Listen to Jesus’ words about this. “Is there a man among you who would hand his son a stone when he asked for bread? Or would hand him a snake when he asked for a fish? If you, then, who are evil, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask!” (Matthew 7:9–11). God longs to give us our heart’s desire. But to receive them, we must allow God’s heart to become ours. We must learn to desire as God desires.
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In his book, Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton shares a prayer that expresses his deepest heart longings. His words reveal both stunning honesty and astounding faith.
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I cannot see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”6