The theme of discerning desire comes out of my experience of the Ignatian exercises on my eight-day silent retreat a few years ago in the Boston area. The passage that I’ve increasingly been drawn to is Galatians 5. There is plenty of desire language there—holy and unholy. Looking at the New Living Translation:
16 So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. 17 The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions. 18 But when you are directed by the Spirit, you are not under obligation to the law of Moses.
When it comes to my wrestling with any sin–gluttony, sloth or lust, for example—Paul’s words here have very particular and potentially fruitful application for me. Paul says that if I let the Holy Spirit guide my life, I won’t be acting on the cravings of my flesh—sinful nature (16). In my case, the appetites in this body that have been shaped and even distorted by my without-God childhood in which I was raised in a without-God culture.
The desires in me that move me away from God to find pleasure, power, or meaning are the opposite of the movements of God’s Spirit in me. Some desires move me away from God. Others move me towards Him. Some drain me of life. Others fill me with life.
On this battlefield, I end up choosing sides. Sometimes I surrender to sinful desires and abide in that without-God place. Other times, I allow my life to be guided and energized by the Spirit and so abide in the life of God. This battle makes it hard for me to carry out my good intentions—not impossible but hard. I don’t like things to be hard. But if I seek an easy life, I’m probably choosing the without-God side of the battlefield. Father, I am hungry to have courage, resolve and Spirit-inspired discipline to choose life.
19 When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, 21 envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.
Life on the without-God side of this battlefield of desire is fairly easy to spot. Paul gives a fairly comprehensive look at this scene. It is a place where sexual desire is pursued selfishly and with self-serving aims. It is a place where worship is offered to what is made rather than to the Maker. Here we seek spiritual power for our own convenience, not for the furthering of God’s reign. On this side, we allow our anger to cause injury to the bodies and souls of others. We damage and destroy others with our words. We separate from one another rather than live our lives meaningfully connected.
When we allow the prime movement in our lives to be away from holy God-given desires, of course we are moving away from His kingdom reign. Here it is in The Message:
Repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.
There is no life, no goodness, nothing lasting here.