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Draw near: Desire

Lynne Baab • Tuesday November 29 2022

Draw near: Desire

“In the modern period and in Europe and America, we’ve tended to think of religions in terms of belief. That means cognitive assent, cognitive understanding. . . . But most human beings don’t live in that kind of modern, somewhat sterile world. We’re always oriented to our desires. Whether they’re simple desires like ‘I’m thirsty or hungry,’ or whether they’re a desire to see a beloved child or lover, our whole life is about desire. A lot of hymns capture this more affective, aesthetic, openhearted way of experiencing our life and our faith. . . . [Desire] is the openness of the heart and the heart’s effort to find what is most appropriate to it now.”
—Professor Wendy Farley, Graduate School of Theology, University of Redlands [1]

A couple of months ago I wrote about trying to find one word to capture what I want to pray for for friends and family members. As I use my imagination to try to figure out that one word, I am also trying to access my desire for them. Sometimes my desire for people I love is intense: protection for my granddaughter, joy for a friend who often seems down, peace for my mother at 98. So I pray those words with that person’s face in my mind: protection, joy, peace. I’d never thought about these prayers as related to desire. Dr. Farley’s words helped me see some of the ways my desires shape my prayers for friends and family members.

Dr. Farley goes on to say that in our culture we associate desire with consumer desire. “The whole consumer culture is about inflaming desire for things you can buy and building our identity around those things.” She says that desire that is rooted in faith is different. “It’s not about possessing something. It’s not a religious form of consumerism where you think, ‘Oh, if only I get this holy thing, I will be okay.’ It’s opening your heart to a relationship, which is not structured by possession but by love.”

I am quite sure that my deep love for Christian music, both hymns and praise songs, is rooted in the way that words joined with music help me express my desire for a relationship with God and also help me say words of love to God. This is probably most vivid in my post about praying to Jesus our priceless treasure, based on a powerful hymn.

Desire has had a bad rap off and on throughout Christian history. Some theologians have argued that if we are totally sinful without Christ, then our desires must be wholly evil. That view ignores two things: (1) the beauty of God’s image put in us at creation and (2) the way God’s Spirit transforms us into the image of Christ over months and years as we walk with Jesus. Evaluating our desires, then, requires discernment. Is the desire I’m feeling something that connects me to God’s heart for the people in my life and God’s work of transformation in me? Then my desires can fuel my prayers.

 Dr. Farley talks about routing desire in the right direction. We can ask God to guide our desires. In addition, she urges us to ponder the way love relates to a desire for others’ wellbeing:

“I don’t love a person because they’ll make me feel better. I love a person because I think they’re precious. I crave their well-being. I can love the Earth – not as a resource, but I love its raw beauty. I am therefore provoked to want to care for it. . . . It’s this deep enjoyment of a beloved and a deep desire for their well-being.”

“I crave their well-being” makes me wonder how I can nurture more passion for the people and things I love so that my prayers can be empowered by that energy.

Dr. Farley makes an additional argument about the way relinquishing the desire to possess connects us to love. She argues that our love for God is “an abandonment to not knowing, to not controlling. Simone Weil says beauty is what we love without wanting to eat it. And that’s what this holy desire is: desire that is liberated from the craving to possess.”

Dr. Farley has used the vivid word “craving” in two ways. When I love a person, she says, “I crave their well-being.” At the same time, holy desire is “liberated from the craving to possess.” These kinds of desires are a powerful source of energy for prayer. May God help you identify the ways your desires are connected to love and relationship, and may the Holy Spirit guide you into the kind of holy desires that honor God’s intention and work in your life so that you can pray with energy and passion.

(Next week: Prayer during Advent. Illustration by Dave Baab: a full size model at SeaTac airport of The Global Voyager, which was the first plane to fly around the world non-stop in 1984.  If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog sign up below under “subscribe.”)

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[1] All quotations in this article come from “Thinking about God’s Desire with the Medieval Mystics,” interview of Professor Wendy Farley by Amy Frykholm, The Christian Century, June 15, 2022, pages 32-34.

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