Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Harnessing the Power of Desire

Last night Lisa and I went out for Mexican food, and I have to confess. I did it again. I ordered a chili relleno, among other things. In fact, I grade Mexican restaurants by the quality of their chili rellenos. Now there is nothing wrong with indulging my desire for chili rellenos, but if I ate ten of them a day; and began neglecting my family so that I could spend more time collecting pictures of chile rellenos, and making youtube videos of myself eating chili rellenos. That would be a sign that something was very wrong with Pastor Steve. Obviously, our appetite for food (or sex) is a God given desire, and one to be grateful for, but unchecked it can become a self-destructive obsession. God’s word does not tell us to deny our desires, but to discipline and redirect them. There are at least four distorted ideas about desire in our contemporary culture that hinder the fulfillment of our deepest longings.

Distortion #1: Putting limitations on our desires is harmful. It was Freud who suggested that the frustration of desire is the cause of psychological ill health; and the idea that “All desires can and must be fulfilled,” is a central theme of our commercial culture; but the reality is that desire is the only aspect of the human being that is limitless. It was Dallas Willard who helped me understand that desire can never be totally satisfied! Thus, we have to set limits on and redirect our desires…or be destroyed by them. The desire for food or sex or rest or thrills is natural…but too much food, hooking up with multiple partners, too much rest and not enough physical activity, or the thrill of a crystal meth high can kill us. The word of God tells us that putting limitations on our desires is not harmful…it’s essential.

Paul puts it this way in Romans 6:12-13 “Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies to make you obey their passions…but present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.” What Paul is saying is that we were never meant to be enslaved by our desires; and that we can experience a new capacity to rule over our bodies instead of being ruled by them. We no longer have to live by the mantra, “I can’t help myself!” but can know in Christ a new power to choose and use our bodies as instruments of righteousness.  As a secular man I have two people to please.  It's either myself or someone else. When I get up in the morning, when I’m thinking about what to put on, when I’m choosing my words at the office or at school, when I see a woman walk down the street, when I’m tempted to break a promise or to be untruthful -- I make each decision based upon what feels right to me or what I think other people want… but as a man or woman of God my options become three dimensional. I have a third option. What would Christ have me do here? How will I dress, or speak, or treat that person in light of his love for them and for me? I no longer have to submit to what others think is acceptable or what feels inevitable. I no longer have to do what my instincts demand. My spirit is in control, and I choose a different path!

Distortion #2: Controlling our desires is impossible. Some will object that controlling our desires is impossible…but the truth is that controlling our desires perfectly is impossible. There is this idea that if you can’t do something perfectly then there is no point in trying. Imagine how many classes you would have failed in school if you had that attitude. I can’t answer every question on this test…so why bother? I don’t understand this subject as well as my professor so why try? I can’t be sure that I’ll be able to win every game if I go out for this sport, so what’s the point?  The point is that the act of trying is valuable in itself; for in the act of trying God is training in us habits of the soul that are even more important.

The fact that we will engage in these spiritual practices with God’s help is why Paul can make an astounding promise, namely that “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6: 14). Paul doesn’t say “sin will have no place in your life”…but that it will not have first place – the dominant place. Don’t worry about trying to be perfect… I don’t believe anyone has given you that assignment. Your job is to keep trying and trusting right along with the rest of us (you’re not alone); and allow him to do the transforming work. Now the Christian virtue that we are trying for is a big one – in Lewis’ words: “either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner or else total abstinence.” It’s a high moral standard…because it is not simply a standard measured by our actions, but by the attitude of our hearts….

There is nothing that eats away at the integrity of a man’s faithfulness in marriage or in singleness like pornography. American spending on porn has jumped from $10 million in 1973 to 13 billion in 2006. I’m told there are 4.2 million porn sites today and counting. Psychologists at Stanford say “This is a hidden public health hazard exploding, in part, because very few are recognizing it as such or taking it seriously” (Journal of Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity / March 2000). How do we face this crisis? For men it will mean understanding that porn is a cheat; that it offers nothing but loneliness and isolation; that it cuts us off from the very thing we need most – relationship. Take no prisoners, destroy illicit material, find friends who care enough to hold you accountable…and don’t delay. For women, it will mean being so very thoughtful about what you are communicating through your dress. As Christians, we need to recover the value of modesty in clothing; and not buy into the female stereotypes seen on the magazine stand and TV that objectify the female body.  Finally, take comfort in the promise of our Lord that with God all things are possible.

Distortion #3: Negative attitudes about sexuality, the body, and pleasure are Biblical. The church is often assumed to be “the enemy of sex.” How it got this reputation is both understandable and unfortunate. Augustine, the great 4th century theologian is a good example. Augustine was converted out of paganism, and in trying to put his past behind him, he began to connect the transmission of sin with sexual intimacy. He said that sex for any reason other than procreation was a sin. St. Francis was said to have plunged himself into icy water in order to purge “the flames of sensual pleasure,” and St. Benedict, we are told, tried to drive out the temptation of lust by rolling around naked in a nettle patch! Ouch! With the Protestant Reformation came a shift in attitudes towards sexual intimacy. Luther criticized the medieval church’s condemnation of marital relations for the sake of pleasure. He left his life as a celibate monk in order to marry; convinced that the Bible spoke very positively about the body and our sexuality.

Scripture asserts that it is God who created our sexuality when he made us in his image, “male and female he created them” (Genesis 1: 27) and commanded us to “be fruitful and multiply.” The Bible also celebrates romance; and devotes an entire book to the subject. Just read the love poetry in the Song of Songs: “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me” (Song of Songs, 7:10). It’s been said that God could have arranged for two people to procreate by mixing their ear wax on the head of a Q-tip but he didn’t. We can presume that God is not embarrassed by sex; nor is God surprised by it. He invented it. Lewis has this to say: “I know some muddle-headed Christians have talked as if Christianity thought that sex, or the body, or pleasure, were bad in themselves. But they were wrong. Christianity is almost the only one of the great religions which thoroughly approves of the body – which believes that matter is good, that God Himself once took on a human body, and that some kind of body is going to be given to us even in Heaven” (Mere Christianity Book III. ch. 5). “No one ever hates his own body,” writes Paul, “but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church” (Ephesians 5:29). In a day in which we are obsessed with body image, and afraid of not fitting in, these are healing words. Love your body, it is a gift from God.

Of course – for reasons I’ve already stated about the nature of desire – the Bible does call us to a disciplined sexuality. And I want to affirm again the goodness of the call of God in the Law of Moses, the command of Jesus, and the letters of Paul – where it challenges men and women to come together in lifelong covenant partnerships, to be fruitful and to multiply; to become loving fathers and mothers, as well as to acknowledge how far short we have fallen…the high rate of divorce, and the casual way our culture sees our most sacred relationships. 

At this point it would be unwise to ignore those who say they cannot live within a traditional marriage as defined in Scripture. Considering recent news stories about the bullying of gay youth and several suicides, I want to briefly say this as an evangelical Christian. Regardless of whether our gay and lesbian friends and neighbors know Christ or not, they need and deserve nothing less than Jesus from usnot violence, not bullying.  Let's recall that the Nazis were notorious for sending not only Jews, but the disabled, gypsies, and homosexuals to the gas chambers.  Jesus taught us to sacrificially love, pray for, and witness to our neighbors -- regardless of who they are. This community is no exception. Futhermore, we in the evangelical Christian community need to get our own house in order – by modeling the kind of purity, integrity, and covenant faithfulness in our own marriages and relationships which we want for others and for our society; but having said that I want to end by exposing one more distortion, that…

Distortion #4: At the center of the human being is our sexual identity and desires. It is certainly the assumption of secular culture that our sexual desires and preferences occupy the very center of the human being. Many would have us believe that our sexual desires are the most significant fact about us; as though our god was quite literally, below the belt. Now certainly these physical desires and longings are an important aspect of our embodied human personality… but they are NOT the center or the most important thing about us. Christianity raises the center of the human being 12 inches to the human heart; because the center of the human being, what must truly define us, is not our sexual identity or desires; but our identity as children of God…who belong to him body and soul.  So Paul reminds us that “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith…There is no longer Jew or Greek there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 26-28).

Jesus never tells us to deny our desires, but to refocus that energy for the sake of God’s kingdom: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6: 33). It’s when we focus our desires on what we long for most -- God’s kingdom -- that all the other desires and passions and longings begin to take their proper place and relationship to one another…like spokes around a bicycle wheel. Spokes support the hub, but they can never be the hub. Only the hub can do that, and only God’s rule and reign can bring order to the competing desires and passions of our life.

This morning we’ve been talking about the power of our desires; and how it is God’s plan not for us to deny them or be dominated by them; but to harness them for his glory. Lewis wrote a fascinating story about “a fantastic bus ride from hell to heaven – a round trip for some but not for others.” In the story Lewis dreams of a group of ghostly travelers who have arrived in heaven -- from the infinite gray town below that we know to be hell -- where they are greeted by angelic visitors. In a series of brief scenes we’re invited to observe the choices they make and the consequences which follow…leading them either back to the bus, or toward the foothills of heaven. (By the way, this fiction is not meant to be a theology of second chances after death, but a timeless picture of how our choices lead us either toward or away from God for all eternity.)  

In one of my favorite scenes in this book, the narrator notices one of the passengers, an oily grey ghost who has decided to leave and is headed back to the bus. Sitting on his shoulder is a little red lizard, twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear. The ghost turns his head to the reptile and snarls, "Shut up, I tell you!" Just then one of Heaven's radiant angels -- with burning hands -- sees the ghostly man. "Off so soon?" he calls.

"Well, yes," says the ghost. "I'd stay, you know, if it weren't for him," indicating the lizard. "I told him he'd have to be quiet if he came. His kind of stuff won't do here. But he won't stop. So I'll just have to go home."

"Would you like me to make him quiet?" asks the Burning One.

"Of course I would", says the oily ghost.

"Then I will kill him," says the flaming angel, stepping forward.

The man panics at the thought of permanently losing the lizard and the sweet fantasies the creature whispers in his ear. But he is tired of carrying him around. He dithers back and forth between the two choices and comes up with a variety of excuses. He doesn’t want to bother the angel with killing it.... Besides, it isn’t presently bothering him because it went to sleep.... He assures the angel that he’ll be able to get it under control himself through a gradual process.... and anyways, he doesn’t feel well enough to go through with “the operation” .... for surely killing the lizard will kill him....Instead, he'll go and get his doctor’s opinion (back in hell), and return later.  Finally, he asks why the angel hasn’t killed the lizard yet.  Solemnly, the angel reminds him he cannot kill the lizard without his consent. And yes, it will be painful for the ghostly man; the angel refuses to soften the truth. Finally, in anguish, the oily ghost gives his consent, "God help me!" he cries; and then screams in agony as the angel's burning hands close around the lizard and crushes it.

"Ow! That's done for me," gasps the ghost of a man, reeling back.

But then, gradually but unmistakably, the oily ghost begins to be transformed...becoming solider and solider until -- bright and strong -- he is transformed into the shape of an immense man, not much smaller than the angel. And even more surprisingly, something is happening to the lizard, too.  Though at first seemingly dead, it too begins to grow, rippling with swells of flesh and muscle, until standing beside the man is a great white stallion with mane and tail of gold, causing the ground to shake with each stamping of its hooves.

The new man turns from the horse, flings himself at the feet of the Burning One, and embraces them. When he rises, his face shines with tears. Then in joyous haste the young man leaps upon the horse's back. Turning in his seat he waves a farewell. And then they are off across the green plain, and soon among the foothills of the mountains. Like a star, they wind up, scaling what seem to be impossible steeps, till near the dim brow of the landscape, they vanish, bright themselves, into the rose brightness of that everlasting morning (abridged from C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce).

There are a thousand excuses we can make as we struggle alone with our sin and shame…it isn’t bothering me, I can get it under control myself, I’ll die without it, but in the end there is only one way out, one way to victory. “God help me!” That prayer, sincerely spoken, will always be answered…

Father, thank you for the encouragement that all is not lost however much we may feel tempted or troubled by our own desires; that we are human beings…not angels; and that we are truly sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.  In that knowledge, we pray today for strength to meet each new challenge and every trial; for fresh power to rule over our bodies, rather than be enslaved by them; to know that our needs and desires can serve us rather than master us. Even as we find power in deep friendships or lifelong marriage; may we find our truest identity in the fact that you have called us your beloved children and sealed us with the Holy Spirit.  Forgive us Father where we have failed, grant us healing and comfort in our distress; and raise us up in the power of your risen Son, in whose name we pray.  Amen.

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