Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. – Psalm 37:4, ESV
I can’t help but write this post, though I think it may be somewhat more incendiary than my normal wont. No matter. I hold these views deeply, for I believe them to be prodigally, radically Christian. I believe them to be biblical and true. I will admit at the outset an undeniable debt to Kierkegaard, among others (who shall be mentioned along the way).
My community and I have been reading the beatitudes, and those beautiful, difficult, paradoxical teachings have been confirming so many things I’ve suspected all along about desire. I don’t claim to know much about psychology, and I haven’t studied Greek; nonetheless, I believe that Scripture makes it clear that the call to Christ is at first a call to death, and that this dying changes even the way we form and experience desires. Without dying to oneself — that is, without surrendering one’s own will, rights, desires — one will remain incapable of wholly depending upon the righteousness of Christ alone. This principle (the theological underpinnings of which I shall leave untouched, as any attempt at elucidation would be hurried and muddled at best, in so short an essay as this — which shall undoubtedly be muddled enough already on its own) seems to me to imply that one may indeed truly die to oneself, surrending fully each and every human desire to the will of God.
What, then, does it mean to die and be buried with Christ, as Paul says we must? What does it mean to be dead to sin and alive to Christ? What does it mean to be poor in spirit, to mourn, to hunger and thirst for righteousness? I think it means that we should indeed forfeit control of our lives and our desires in surrendering all things to the Lordship of Christ. This is a suffering that we mourn, certainly, yet in that mourning we are comforted. This is a hunger and a thirst that is unquenchable, and yet only in hungering may we be truly satisfied. So many paradoxes, so little time.
Alright, then, upon this admittedly ill-explained and thus somewhat precarious foundation — here comes one example of a way in which I believe this death to self should play itself out in our lives. Everyone has had a “crush,” I believe, and our culture is partially (if not entirely) inoculated to this seemingly innocent emotional state. And yet, I often wonder what it means to submit even this area of life to Christ. More and more, I’ve come to believe that it must mean something far beyond “praying for my future spouse” (after all, Christ never promised anyone a “future spouse”), or simply refraining from behaving illicitly, at least in outward displays of physical affection, at least until marriage. No, I am becoming convinced that in adhering to some simplistic moral law in this respect, we’ve dulled our consciences to the insipid presence of illicit emotion.
Some may think I’ve chosen a strange whipping-boy in “romantic love.” Apart from temptation to oh-so-dreaded physical sins, romantic love seems innocent and wholesome enough. What could be so very wrong with indulging a little crush, batting eyes and giggling, holding hands and blushing? But I believe that Christian love is at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian, and thus that any false view of love and any willing participation in such a falsity is dangerous and corruptive indeed. “Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me!” (Psalm 19:13). I am persuaded that Christians ought, and perhaps even must, learn what it means to allow Christ complete and utter control over romantic, physical, affectionate, emotional love … for only then can such “love” be called Love indeed, with all sincerity.
But how is one to go about submitting such desires to Christ? What does that even mean or look like? Here’s where I get a little radical (though, I hope I may use that term to mean that I seek out roots of wisdom that have grown throughout time and that even, perhaps, find their source in the just and merciful law of the Creator). See, I just cannot bring myself to believe that attraction and emotion “just happen,” that we either “like” someone or we don’t, or that somehow love is a state of being that just overwhelms all our ability to behave Christianly. I think this idea may very well be why so many relationships are broken, why marriages fall apart, and why we’re all so darn confused about love in the first place. Like I said, I’m no psychologist. But in my experience, emotions stem from choices, and desires are formed. We may at first be attracted to someone because of their physical comeliness, or because of shared interests, or for some inexplicable subconscious reason, or whatever. But such reasons only continue to produce those fluttery, fleeting emotions when we allow ourselves to nurture them, to cling to them, to choose to continue to desire that person for those reasons. But are not some reasons better than others, and ought we not strive to learn to desire those things that are good, pure, true, beautiful, etc. (and not in some trite sense of any of those words)? And should we not also learn to put to death desires that are formed on the false foundations of human emotion and attraction, or that we cling to merely out of self-interest or pride?
This is why I hate most “chick flicks,” for they teach us to desire what is merely physically or emotionally appealing. They do not teach sobriety, fidelity, patience, humility. They teach self-gratification and shallowness. This is also why some splendid exceptions among them prove so beautifully instructive — and these almost always began as great literature. (There are so very many *spoilers* hereafter.) Every young girl initially finds Willoughby attractive, after all. But there should come a day when she learns to choose Colonel Brandon, despite her lack of physical or emotional interest in that character (and this may or may not also be the day upon which she learns that Alan Rickman is one of the greatest actors ever … haha). The Swan teaches us not to confuse love with sheer pity or that condescending impulse to change or help someone. And I believe everyone (and especially young men) ought to read David Copperfield and Great Expectations, because among his many insights, Dickens knew so well that although every David may have his Dora, he will learn in the end to desire to choose Agnes, just as Pip will learn what Biddy could have meant. This is maturity, to submit our desires and our emotions to reality, to a view of a whole person, and to the knowledge of what makes someone genuinely attractive and wholesome.
And I will go so far as to claim that only when the relationship is mediated by Christ, only when another is viewed entirely apart from whatever makes them “special” or “right” or “compatible,” can our desires be truly free to love as we ought. For the only good I have, the only thing about me that should be attractive to anyone is Christ. Love is not love when it becomes contingent upon our own changing, unsteady emotional states–love is covenant and commitment. Love is not selfish, inhibited, nor even rational, in a purely human sense. And I don’t believe that any relationship can ever be truly free to experience genuine affection, sincere emotion, and flourishing health unless its inception, its continuance, and its whole being are dependent upon the grace and guidance of Christ. That is, I believe that emotion, physicality, attraction, and such have their place and are, in their truest form, great goods to be desired and nurtured and treasured — but, only within the framework of the Lordship of Christ. And that is a choice, a surrender, a death to self and to selfish desire. That is admitting that Christ alone is what is necessary for life and love and fulfillment — not Christ + marriage, Christ + what I want, Christ + warm happy fuzzies. This is a suffering, yes, but we are called to suffer with Christ, that we may also find truly abundant life in Him. Let us not presume to define abundance or joy by the scale of our own inclinations, lest we never find either.