This is the fourth post on desire and discipleship.
Every morning at breakfast I sat staring at the back of the cereal box. I was looking the picture of a WWI biplane sweeping through the air. The pilot’s scarf streaming behind him. Guns blazing.
For just three box tops a genuine replica of a WWI warplane could be mine. My five-year-old heart was set.
I doggedly worked my way through three boxes of cereal that I absolutely hated (and no one else would touch.). Well, strictly speaking, I poured out several bowls of cereal when nobody was looking.
But my desire to have that plane drove me relentlessly.
I daydreamed endlessly about being that pilot. Bursting through the clouds. Descending furiously on a numerically superior foe. Narrowly winning harrowing dogfights with superior skill and courage.
Finally, I collected the required box tops and mailed them off to the cereal company. After what seemed like decades, the package finally arrived. Inside was a gray plastic plane with a wingspan of at most two inches.
My childhood disappointment is a tame example of a kind of spiritual bait and switch. Or to use a churchy word: idolatry. It looks something like this.
Our desires fall for a sort of false advertising. We find ourselves organizing our lives around the pursuit of something that promises to make us happy. Eventually, we discover that we’ve been taken in by a false promise and find ourselves emptier than when we first began.
In the classic bait and switch scheme, a retailer advertises a product at a low price in order to get customers into the store. The sale item is out of stock. Sales clerks then pressure customers to buy an available product that turns out to be a higher quality but, of course, more expensive.
By contrast, spiritual bait and switch works by making something appear far more desirable. What we want is attainable, but not right away. It’s just out of reach but for a season.
To get the thing we want, we have to give up many other things. In fact, the deadliest spiritual bait and switch operation strives to make us devote ourselves to the very thing we pursue. We become idol worshippers.
The Bible teaches us this principal with vivid stories. For instance, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. They believed that it held the secrets to moral wisdom and godly existence. In reality, eating the fruit introduced them to shame, fear, conflict, and alienation.
While wandering in the desert, the Hebrews grew restless. Moses had ascended Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and was taking much longer than they had expected.
So they tossed aside not only Moses but God himself and fashioned a Golden Calf to worship. They believed that they had erected a comfortable god, one that could never leave them and never lead them to places unfamiliar and fearful.
What in fact they did is place all their hopes on an inanimate object that was powerless to love them, protect them, guide them and sustain them.
Desire has the capacity to focus our lives. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart.” (Matt. 5:8) According to Soren Kierkegaard, being pure of heart means being able to desire one thing above all others.
All other desires fall into line with reference to this central desire. We put what we take to be inferior desires on hold or disregard them completely. We may be willing to sacrifice relationships, our health, our financial security and our reputation for the sake of this overriding desire.
God designed our hearts to desire one thing above all others. Relationship with him. Everything else will follow when we pursue righteousness. Jesus said, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matt. 6:33)
God is not one thing among other things. He is the source and the sustainer of all things.
Our desire for him is not like any other desire. It’s the desire that organizes all other desires, and also our thoughts and our will. To put it simply, this is our desire to base our life on something, to cling to something that justifies our existence.
The root challenge for us humans is that we can focus that desire on objects that have no chance of satisfying us. Idolatry is the desire to make anything other than God the god of our lives.
Sex, money, power, career success, and fame are among the common idols people worship. They promise us happiness.
In their place, they can help to make our lives rich and rewarding. But they cannot in the end defeat death, overcome tragedy or redeem failure. But when we dedicate our lives to them, they only give us emptiness, loneliness, and regret in return.
Cynthia Heimel makes the point vividly in the case of celebrities (thanks to Timothy Keller for the reference):
I pity [celebrities]. No, I do. The minute a person becomes a celebrity is the same minute he/she becomes a monster. Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Barbra Streisand were once perfectly pleasant human beings with whom you might lunch on a slow Tuesday afternoon.
But now they have become supreme beings, and their wrath is awful. It’s not what they had in mind. . . .
The night each of them became famous they wanted to shriek with relief. Finally! Now they were adored! Invincible! Magic!
The morning after the night each of them became famous, they wanted to take an overdose of barbiturates.
All their fantasies had been realized, yet the reality was still the same. If they were miserable before, they were twice as miserable now, because that giant thing they were striving for, that fame thing that was going to make everything okay, that was going to make their lives bearable, that was going to provide them with personal fulfillment and (ha ha) happiness, had happened.
And nothing changed. They were still them. The disillusionment turned them howling and insufferable. (from Tongue in Chic column, The Village Voice, January 2, 1990)
Acknowledging God as God, and rejecting all counterfeits, is the chief challenge and defining purpose of our lives. Paradoxically, this is the only desire that, by God’s own design, seeks something other than fulfillment. But that is for the next post.