Conversatio Divina

Moving Beyond Disordered Desires

Michael Gary Walsh

The mongoose of a disciplined will under God and good is the only match for the cobra of feeling.Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 127.

–Dallas Willard

01.  Introduction

Our capacity to desire is a good thing and it comes from God. God desires us. God himself has desires, and he has made human beings likewise with desires. We can desire things like a nice home, an intimate relationship, a piece of cheesecake, or a different job. Our desires range from the basic desires for food and drink to the deepest longings of our souls.

Most people long to be a good person, to love and to be loved, to experience joy, peace, and hope, to express our creativity, and to engage in productive and meaningful work. These desires are good, and God wants for us to want these things. And although our most deeply held desires often remain elusive to us, they serve as guiding lights towards our most fundamental desire – to be at home with God. Our infinite desire is meant to be satisfied by an infinite God.

But what is desire? Desire is a type of feeling. Our feelings include emotions, desires, and sensations, which all share the associated component of being “felt.” Our feelings provide us with a source of movement, carrying us through the day-to-day grind, and motivating us to act and behave in certain ways. Desire then is something we want that appears to offer us something good, give us pleasure, or satisfy particular needs we have. A simple example is the desire for food. I may want food because it appears to offer me nourishment for my body to function appropriately, so I consume a healthy balanced diet. Or I may desire food because it appears to offer me a feeling of pleasure from a delicious taste, as in eating at your favorite restaurant.

We all have various desires and this is a good thing. Desires are essential to life and motivate us to act for things we need. To be without the desire for food can leave us in a very unhealthy position. I have had to hospitalize patients for severe malnourishment from a clinical depression that has resulted in a complete absence of the desire for food. Without the motivation and movement; we experience from desire, we are left with the exhausting task of dragging ourselves through life merely by willing it.

So, desire is a good and necessary gift from God. He created us to have desires, and desires are not, in themselves, bad. But we can also desire things that are bad, or things that are not necessarily bad but may be too strong or out of order. And just like we see with money, work, or any number of things, when desires get out of order, the gift of desire can become a danger, causing us great difficulty in life and holding us back from the things we truly desire most.

02.  Disordered Desires

A common theme I hear from patients, friends, and prominent leaders alike is: “I care too much about what others think of me.” And it has caused me great difficulty in my own life. Why do we care so much about how we are viewed in the eyes of others? And why is this struggle so ubiquitous? It may be you have difficulty saying “no” to others, so you end up overcommitted and exhausted from taking on too many responsibilities.

What is behind all of this? The answer is disordered desires. An incessant desire to look or appear a certain way before others. This disordered desire lives within us all to various degrees and will look different in each case due to our unique makeup, environment, and past experiences. And whether we recognize it or not, it influences the decisions we make and our behavior.

Lust is a strong form of disordered desire. The Bible often uses the Greek term epithymia when referring to lust, indicating an obsessive desire overly focused on getting its object. Lust for the wrong things in life can lock us into a system of control. We end up dominated by our disordered desires, which limit our freedom, and keep us from doing the things we genuinely want to do. For example, you may genuinely want to be present and available to your family, but are frequently stuck at work with long hours and still preoccupied with these matters when you finally do return home. What is often behind this is epithymia for the wrong things (financial gain, career advancement, etc.) which can act as a potent modifier of our behavior, preventing us from doing the things we want to do and keeping us doing what we do not want to do. Over time, this becomes habitual, and works its way into our minds and bodies, all the way down to the level of our nervous system and muscle movements.

03.  Inside Our Bodies

In the book of James we read, “After desire [epithymia] has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:15All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.comThe “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™). The issue of “sin” here is different from “sins.” Typically, when we think of sin, we often think of specific acts (lying, cheating, stealing), but those are individual sins (plural). Sin (singular), on the other hand, is a deeper issue with a habitual or automatic quality to it. Sin comes from the deepest part of us, our heart, but takes on patterns in our minds and physical correlates inside of our bodies.

The apostle Paul refers to this as “the sin which is within my members” (Romans 7:23, KJVScripture quotations from The Authorized (King James) Version. Rights in the Authorized Version in the United Kingdom are vested in the Crown. Reproduced by permission of the Crown’s patentee, Cambridge University Press.). Where he finds, “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it” (verses 19–20, KJV). Take an example like pornography. Perhaps you would like to stop looking at pornography, but you find yourself returning to this habit repeatedly, despite feeling ashamed afterwards and frustrated by your inability to stop. You are now up against an addiction that has powerful bodily correlates. It is no longer easy to merely decide to stop looking at pornography, as willpower is unable to compete with these habits that now reside hardwired into your body. It has become the “sin” within your members, keeping you from doing what you want to do.

In medicine we discuss measures of prevention, because if we can prevent chronic illnesses from developing in the first place, it saves the associated burden of caring for and treating them once they have arisen. Never smoking cigarettes can decrease the chances of developing lung cancer. Eating a balanced diet and engaging in regular exercise can promote cardiovascular health which can lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

It is no different with our spiritual and mental health, although our approaches to promoting health and prevention of illness in these areas are less well understood, and consequently often not discussed. These matters involve the spiritual world, and knowledge of spiritual matters can be applied here just as we do with knowledge of cigarette smoking and cancer. Dallas Willard tells us we know something “when we are representing it (thinking about it, speaking of it, treating it) as it actually is, on an appropriate basis of thought and experience.”Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today (New York: Harper One, 2009), 60. Knowledge of desire and lust is available to us, and it can be applied to our everyday lives to promote emotional health and wellbeing.

04.  The Flesh, the World, and the Devil

If we are to understand desire on an appropriate basis of thought and experience, we must examine the structure of disordered desire and understand how it works within our world and inside of us. The Bible discusses three areas where God, for a time, has allowed his will to not be done on Earth as it is in heaven: the flesh, the world, and the devil. And we can trace a significant portion of our spiritual and emotional unhealth back to an interplay between these three realms.

The flesh is what the human being is able to accomplish by their own natural abilities, independent of God. I can go through medical school and residency training largely out of the efforts of the flesh. The “flesh,” like desire, is not inherently bad in itself. God created the flesh, and some impressive things have come out of the efforts of the flesh through the course of human history, but also some disastrous ones. We were never meant to operate solely on a basis of what we can do by our own strength, but to have our abilities in submission to God and his purposes.

The “world,” biblically, is not referencing planet Earth, but rather a system that exists all around us. It is interwoven into our society and culture and passed down from generation to generation. It results from a large number of people, over time, living on a basis of their natural abilities without God. The idea of who is popular and unpopular in grade school is an example of the world; another is how the neighborhood you live in or the type of car you drive offers you a certain level of status and social standing. These are matters of the world. And the world is of human origin, it was not created by God.

The devil, or the “prince of this world” (John 14:30), works to disrupt God’s plan with human beings, and utilizes a powerful but predictable strategy of using the things of the world to manipulate and control human behavior, mostly outside of our awareness.

05.  The Things of the World

The world runs off disordered desire. And the things of the world are evident for all to see. Gambling too much in Las Vegas, having an affair, being a workaholic or an alcoholic, caring too much about what others think about you, credit card debt, exploitation of children, racism, agism, Ponzi schemes, toxic leaders, and so much more all have their roots in disordered desires. The apostle John lists three things that constitute the world; “everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world” (1 John 2:16). These are the exact three things we see Satan using to tempt Jesus in the desert, as well as Adam and Eve in the garden. And he has not had to modify his strategy; Satan continues to use these same three things of the world to tempt us today.

The lust (epithymia) of the flesh is a disordered form of bodily desires. It includes bodily pleasure associated with things like sexual fulfillment, consumption of food, adrenaline rushes, euphoric feelings from substance use, etc. Again, desire itself is not bad, and physical pleasure is a good and beautiful thing. But the idea of epithymia has become a disordered desire that has left the boundaries of good and appropriate desire for something that is now quite excessive and harmful. Desire for food is good for health and life, but lust for food leads to stress eating, health problems, and wasteful spending and consumption. Sexual desire is good for a healthy intimate relationship, but sexual lust leads to the abuse and degradation of others, feelings of shame, and things that must be done in secrecy and hiding. The lust of the flesh is one aspect of the world the devil will use to tempt us and steer our behavior away from what is good.

The lust (epithymia) of the eyes is a disordered desire for how we view things, including the way we view others and our concern with how others view us. We want an office with a view, and to have an impressive title or credentials. We size each other up by the clothes we wear, the car we drive, and who we associate with. Again, there is nothing wrong with having a desire for others to think positively about you, to be recognized, or to take delight in beauty. But when the desires of the eyes become the lust of the eyes, it leads to things like cheating or taking advantage of others to get the promotion at work, working too many hours to support a lavish lifestyle, or putting unnecessary pressure on your child to perform so it makes you look good. The devil keeps us busy doing what appears to be very good and noble deeds, while our families suffer at home, and we find ourselves personally in a state of exhaustion and burnout.

The third thing in the world, the pride of life, is the lust to be better than others. A disordered desire to exalt yourself above others and to bring them lower. This makes us feel powerful. It is found in places where we have authority, where we say the word and things happen. This could be in having other people that report to you at work, the influence you have over particular causes that receive your financial support, or having the power to terminate someone else’s job, lease, or legal rights. Just like with the other two things of the world, there is nothing wrong with desiring authority or positions of management and influence, but when it becomes the lust for power, we see things like workplace sexual harassment and assaults, racial or gender discrimination and inequality, oppressive dictators, etc. The devil is in a good position when individuals have power that far outpaces their character.

06.  Discerning Our Desires

Each one of us has been formed by a unique set of desires that include deep longings that God has divinely placed inside of our being, good desires we generate as God’s unique creations, and disordered desires we have picked up from being raised in a world apart from God. Thomas à Kempis explains, “Not every desire is from the Holy Spirit, even though it may seem right and good to a person at the time. It is hard to tell just what is urging you on to want this thing or that. Many people are fooled in the end who at the beginning seemed led by a good inspiration.”William C. Creasy, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis: A New Reading of the 1441 Latin Autograph Manuscript (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1989), 131.

With the possibility of immense blessing as well as disastrous consequences both stemming from our desires, we must have wisdom and grace to navigate this complicated terrain well. Much of the modern world is focused on desire fulfillment, where blindly following our desire too often becomes an adequate guide for the decisions we make and for life in general. We do what we want, how we want it, and when we want to. The pattern of the world is to resign our wills to our desires, many of which are disordered and unhealthy. Taking the knowledge of the spiritual world discussed above, we can see now how this can lead to devastated lives, both individually and collectively. Desire itself is indifferent to what is good, and instead demands only satisfaction from its object.

If you desire pizza for lunch, and no obstructing forces get in the way of this desire, you will find yourself eating pizza later that day. If it is a disordered desire, you may purchase the meal with a credit card even if you don’t have the money available to purchase it. You may even show up late to an important meeting because you waited through a long line in order to get the pizza you wanted. This is because desire is a powerful motivator of behavior, and it spreads through our thinking and influences our thoughts and reasoning.

If you have a disordered desire to buy a house that is outside of your budget, you will start to find that desire coming in and affecting your thoughts. “This house would really save me a lot of time I currently spend doing home improvement projects on this old house.” “And the Johnson’s would be our neighbors, they’re really great people.” “The kids would have a nicer yard to play in.” And you find yourself buying a house you cannot afford, and now your family is in a tough financial position because you were fooled by the deceitfulness of your disordered desire. Now apply this to something more serious and you have someone getting into a marital affair with the same slow line of reasoning which all stems back to a particular disordered desire.

This becomes most evident when we are unable to do what we really want to do. Paul tells the Galatians, “The desire of the flesh is against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, in order to keep you from doing whatever you want” (Galatians 5:17, NASBScripture quotations taken from the (NASB®) New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995, 2020 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved. If our disordered desire is in conflict with what is good, we will do what we desire. From the examples above, we know the importance of financial responsibility and the associated difficulty financial irresponsibility can bring upon us and our loved ones, but we accumulate debt outside of our budget by purchasing what we cannot afford. This is the current state of reality for the human being: in bondage to our disordered desires, limiting our actual freedom and leaving us unable to do what we really intend to do.

And it is precisely this trap of disordered desire that prevents us from pursuing the deepest longings of our soul. As C.S. Lewis points out, “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.C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, rev. (New York: HarperOne, 1980), 26.

07.  Dealing With Disordered Desires

The solution or way out of this trap is through our will. God did not just give us desires, but he gave us a will, or spirit, or heart. And the function of the will is to make decisions or choices. The will deliberates, going back and forth between available thoughts and feelings within our minds and formulating a decision. Resigning our will to our desires, as was mentioned above, is a decision we make whether consciously or not. And that decision is unhelpful in discerning between our good desires and our disordered desires. The appropriate place for desire to be is under a will that is acting for what is good. The will offers us a place to make decisions for what is good outside of, and even in opposition to, our feelings when need be.

So instead of living our lives on a basis of blind desire fulfillment, we are to submit our desires to what is good and act for the good of ourselves and others. But it is not that easy. As we saw with sin (the disordered desire to manage our life on our own terms), we have taken on habitual patterns of deciding and acting which now lie hard-wired in our bodies and go off almost automatically, often from subconscious provocation. We act based on disordered desires, and we think we are actually getting what we want, when in reality, we are being controlled and manipulated by the devil through the things of the world: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.

If we are to escape the bondage of our disordered desires, it will be by the grace of God. From the approach of the loving Word and Spirit of Christ, the human will can surrender to the will of God. It is at this point the Holy Spirit can come in and bring a new power, strength, and direction to the human will to guide it for what is good. This starts the slow, progressive journey of using our Holy Spirit-empowered, surrendered will, to choose new thoughts that, over time, become the solution to the “sin that is within our members.” We develop new habits of acting for what is good as we fill our minds with new good thoughts and their associated feelings. We then find ourselves with the capacity to do something good we may not have wanted to do, as well as the ability to refrain from doing something we would like to stop, but previously were unable to do so.

This is the mark of emotional maturity, being able to do what needs to be done. And desire is now back in its safe and appropriate place: not repressed or denied or eliminated but submitted to what is good. Back to the example of caring too much what others may think of me, with emotional maturity I can tell someone “No,” or let them down if needed because it is the good thing to do, regardless of what they may think of me. I am no longer controlled by the lust of the eyes and Satan’s use of it.

08.  Putting It into Practice

To grow in emotional maturity will require a training process. The spiritual disciplines can be a means of transforming what is inside of us through our Holy Spirit-empowered, surrendered, human will. Since we run largely on autopilot from habitual patterns of desire, any minor disruptions can bring us face to face with the reality of desire at work in our everyday lives. To grow and mature, we can, and must, intentionally choose to enter into disciplines and practices that disrupt these habitual patterns.

One practical step to better understand our desires is the discipline of fasting. Food serves as such a primary bodily need that any interruption will have us quickly taking our desires head on. When you start fasting, you cannot stop thinking about how hungry you are; the desire that was quietly running your life in the background has now taken center stage. As we learn to fast, our focus shifts from our desire for food to the God who provides us with an alternate source of nourishment and sustenance. Jesus told his disciples, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about,” (John 4:32), and there is much for us to learn here. Start out small—such as fasting from lunches—and begin to notice how desire works in real life, as well as how you respond when desire is not satisfied. Through fasting we learn experientially to not get what we desire and still be okay. As his disciples or students, Jesus will instruct us along the way.

Another practical way to deal with our desires is to practice the discipline of silence. Although we typically associate silence with quietness or solitude, we can also practice silence by choosing to remain silent in the company of others. Just like fasting, you will be hard pressed to find a day you cannot easily put this into practice. We are communal beings, and that is a good thing, but the words we speak to those around us are influenced by our disordered desires. We may be concerned with how others view us, so we exaggerate, lie, or often just say too much attempting to manage or control what others think. Instead of putting our spin on things or getting the last word as a kind of personal public relations campaign, we can choose to remain silent, holding back what we may have wanted to say, and allow people to formulate their impression of us independent of our words. As we learn to practice silence in this way, we shift our focus from how we appear before others to learning to trust God with our identity. God will meet us in our humble efforts and provide the grace necessary to grow us in emotional maturity.

09.  Our Deepest Desires

Beyond simply liberating us from the domination disordered desires hold over our lives, there is a positive side to emotional maturity as well. Our newly found freedom to act independently from how we happen to feel allows us to pursue satisfaction of our most deeply held desires. No longer controlled by the flesh, the world, and the devil, we are freed up to pursue the deep longings of our souls, finding contentment and satisfaction with our lives. We pursue intimate fellowship with the Trinitarian God, or in Lewis’ picture, we take God up on his offer for a vacation at the beach, and we catch glimpses of that vacation now, as we learn to discern and follow our simple and our deepest desires in loving submission to the Father. But we cannot skip the steps required to get us there. Willard writes,

The intention of God is that we should each become the kind of person whom he can set free in his universe, empowered to do what we want to do. Just as we desire and intend this, as far as possible, for our children and others we love, so God desires and intends it for his children. But character, the inner directedness of the self, must develop to the point where that is possible.Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 379.

Emotional maturity—coming to terms with our desires—is part of the inner character development necessary for God to empower us to do what we really want to do.


Michael Gary Walsh, (MD, University of Colorado School of Medicine; MA, Christian Formation and Soul Care, Denver Seminary), is a board-certified psychiatrist in private practice in Iowa. He is a spiritual director, host of Inside the Cup Podcast, and speaks and writes on the intersection of mental health and Christian spiritual formation. Follow him at