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A Change Of Desire

A Change Of Desire

Lord my desire is to be like you
To say the things you say, and do the things you do
O, help me hear your still voice through all the other noise
So that I can be just what you want me to be.
– Randy Butler

In his book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard helps set the table for us to properly digest the Sermon the Mount. First, he says, we have to reject the popular notion that the gospel message can be reduced to sin management and behavior modification. The good news of the kingdom is not “if you keep saying no to what you really want, and force yourself to do the right list of things, then you can win a ticket to heaven when you die.” If this is new for you, let this point sink down deep into your ears.

When I was just entering my teen years, wishing to be preacher, I cut my teeth on old “sermon outline” books. Somewhere along the way, I remember running across a 3-point lesson based on this line from Paul: “Touch not! Taste not! Handle not!” (Colossians 2:21 KJV). The exact points have escaped my memory; it was something like “don’t touch a woman before you are married, don’t taste alcohol, and don’t handle illicit drugs.” Who knows. It might even have been the old line “we don’t smoke, and we don’t chew, and we don’t go with girls that do!” I can’t remember. But I do remember the title, and thought the preacher was mighty clever.

I now think that, whatever the merits of his lesson, he was preaching from the wrong text. Listen to the passage from another translation:

You died with Christ. Now the forces of the universe don’t have any power over you. Why do you live as if you had to obey such rules as, “Don’t handle this. Don’t taste that. Don’t touch this.”? After these things are used, they are no longer good for anything. So why be bothered with the rules that humans have made up? Obeying these rules may seem to be the smart thing to do. They appear to make you love God more and to be very humble and to have control over your body. But they don’t really have any power over our desires. (Col 2:20-23 CEV)

Paul here is saying that the Christian religion—rooted in the good news of the kingdom—cannot be reduced to sin management and behavior modification. Seeking to control my sin behavior by just trying harder to live by a new set of rules puts me in a hopeless and miserable position: constant awareness of my failures with no power to be different! This is the very definition of legalism. One is then forced into an endless cycle of doing the same things, using the same tools, and expecting a different result (a phrase some use to define insanity). Trying to change what you do, without having changed what you love, is insanity. It simply won’t work.

Could it be that desire for a good thing has become a bad thing because that desire has become a ruling thing?--Paul Tripp Click To Tweet

The good news of the kingdom of God involves an inner transformation of the heart, mind, and soul—exercised through the habits of the body—in a way that leaves us changed from the inside out. Christian living is not described well as trying real hard to do things Jesus said; instead, it can be described as “growing into the kind of person where the things Jesus said are natural and obvious.”[1] To become the kind of person who no longer desires to do wrong, who loves the right things, is an act of grace, produced by the Spirit of God as we submit to His leading. And it means a change of desire.

Show me what you do, and I’ll show you what you desire.

The Greek word for desire is thumia. When we crave something beyond the ordinary, we experience “hyper” desire, or desire in overdrive. In those cases, the New Testament uses the term epithumia, usually translated as “lust.” “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body,” writes Paul, “so that you obey its evil desires (epithumia)” (Romans 6:12).

There are a few—but very few—places where the word is used in a positive sense. Jesus “eagerly desired” to eat the Passover meal with his followers (Luke 22:15) and Paul had an “intense longing” to see the young, struggling church in Thessalonica (1 Thess 2:17). But in most cases, when our desire is in overdrive, we are craving the very things we are called to give up (Titus 3:3; 1 Pet 1:14; 2:11; 4:1-2; 2 Pet 1:4; 1 John 2:16). And our frustrated, misplaced desire is destroying us from the inside.

What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from the cravings that are at war within you? You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war…You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your evil desires (James 4:1-3 HCSB).

Imagine if we weren’t governed by our desires. What if we knew that our natural desires could not give us ultimate satisfaction? What if God enabled us to escape the pull of desires that war against the soul?

Show me what you desire, and I’ll show you what you love.

In Ephesians chapter 4, Paul describes a person lost—in the world—governed by what they eagerly desire. Paul speaks of “the futility of their thinking,” since they are “darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God.” Such people loose “all sensitivity so as to indulge” in every kind of deceitful desire (Ephesians 4:17-19).

That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:20-24 NIV).

If you live long enough, you will come to see that desire can be deceitful. We have all heard the old Chinese proverb, “be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.” That is true even for good things. Money, food, and sex are not bad in themselves; but our inordinate desire for them puts us in deep water. Paul Tripp wisely asks, “could it be that desire for a good thing has become a bad thing because that desire has become a ruling thing?” Perhaps that is why the Sermon on the Mount calls for Christians to practice fasting, fidelity, and giving—active protests against the passions that war against the soul and seek to dominate our lives.

Desire is given to us by our good and beautiful God. He created us to find pleasure in doing what we want. God does not want us to eliminate desire; if anything, he wants to enhance it! The problem is not desire in itself; the problem is thinking that ultimate happiness or true satisfaction comes from mindlessly pursuing whatever our passions crave. Willard notes “desire deceives by promising you that if just get what you want, everything will be fine.” But this is a lie; desire “promises satisfaction but it never delivers. You cannot satisfy desire by satisfying desire…by the time you’ve satisfied one you’ve got three more.” Instead, God wants to so work on our hearts that with the right understanding of what truly does satisfy, and the right motivation to pursue the good, we will develop desires in the right direction. Willard concludes, “God wants us to grow to the point to where he can empower us to do what we want.”[2]

Show me what you love, and I’ll show you what you will become.

What Christ promises is the satisfying water that, if taken in, will cause us to never thirst again. The powerful Holy Spirit of God can—and will—provide us right thinking about what is good, right motivation to pursue the good, and constant help to will the good. God can so change us that, over time, we want more and more of what He wants, and find less and less satisfaction in the deceitful desires that once dominated our lives.

Changing our desire…is changing what we love.

And this will have a profound difference not only on how we read the Sermon on the Mount, but why we put it into practice. Why do we turn the other cheek when an enemy strikes a blow? Why do we give without expecting in return? Why do we stay true to our word in every area of our lives? For the same reason we don’t kill our neighbors and destroy our friendships. Not because we have to tell ourselves to avoid our desires, but because our desires have been changed into love.

Show me what you do, and I’ll show you what you desire.
Show me what you desire, and I’ll show you what you love.
Show me what you love, and I’ll show you what you will become.

[1] See Dallas Willard, “Anger, Contempt, and Cultivated Lusting,” Workshop of Spiritual Formation, Lesson 2. https://web.archive.org/web/20150606035039/http://www.bethinking.org/human-life/spiritual-formation/2-case-studies.

[2] See Willard, “Anger, Contempt, and Cultivated Lusting.”

EARLIER POSTS IN THIS SERIES
The Complete Art of Happiness: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 1
Life with a Capital ‘L’: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 2
New Things To Love: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 3

THE NEXT POST IN THIS SERIES
The Cost of Apprenticeship: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 5

photo credit: Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1890

Nathan Guy

Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. Nathan lives in Searcy, Arkansas, where he teaches in the College of Bible & Ministry at Harding University.

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