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The experience of God granting their desires did not draw the people of God any nearer to him.
The Bible claims that the root of the destructiveness in this world is caused by desire, and we can only escape from that destructiveness by participating in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
Many English versions speak here of “evil desires” or “lust”, but the Greek word is a neutral one. It is the context which determines whether it is being used in a good or a bad sense; and here the context does not point us one way or the other.
So, is desire so destructive? Is it something to be eliminated? Buddhists would certainly agree. My understanding of their belief is that freedom from the suffering which is an inevitable part of human existence is achieved through the elimination of desire.
Yet a person without desire would be a very monochrome person. How could the great reforms of history ever have taken place, had there not been passionate people such such as William Wilberforce burning with desire to see the injustice and oppression of slavery abolished?
When I was a young Christian we were taught, implicitly more than explicitly, that if something outside church was really enjoyable, it was probably sinful or wrong, or both. God had to stamp out our fleshly desires. So if, for example, you found hot weather intolerable, God would probably want to send you as a missionary to the jungles of Africa! In this way your desires would be subdued. Sadly, this created the false image of a God who delights to give to us whatever we find difficult, unpleasant or undesirable.
In the prophetic Psalm 40 (verse 8) Christ Jesus says, “I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” We know it is him who is speaking, because the New Testament tells us (Hebrews 10:5-7). Then, just before his arrest and crucifixion Jesus told his disciples, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). Evidently desire is not always wrong, even the desire to eat a meal with friends.
Another psalm of David helps us to understand this apparent paradox. “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart,” he tells us (Psalm 37:4). Here, it seems, is the key to handling desire. First of all we delight ourselves in the Lord, then our desires come into line with him. Without “participation in the divine nature” we risk our desires becoming skewed, eating into us, corrupting and ultimately destroying us.
This destructive power of desire can be seen in the history of the Israelites in the desert. They had been out of Egypt for only 6 weeks, but already their desires were getting the better of them. “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt!” they complained to Moses. “There we sat round pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve us to death” (Exodus 16:2).
That is how desire deceives us. It has selective memory. It focuses only on the positive and blots out the negative. The Israelites could only remember the food they ate in Egypt and could only see the barrenness of the desert. They conveniently forgot that they had been slaves in Egypt and were now free. The harsh taskmasters, the backbreaking work, the unrelenting oppression quickly faded into the background.
We see the same deceit at work in the person who desires to watch pornography. They seek the intimacy, the thrill and the release that it offers, but forget how empty and unfulfilled they felt after the last time they watched it. Ah, I need another session of even harder porn to fill that gap! That is how we are drawn into the lie.
In my workplace I saw so many people earnestly desiring to climb up the status ladder, to gain a more powerful position; and many did not care who they trod on while they were pursuing their desire. Yet, so often, when they reached the position which they had so eagerly desired, they found it surprisingly empty. The work was not as interesting as they had thought it would be; there were still other people higher, more powerful than them; and they experienced the loneliness of power.
On this occasion in the desert God gave his people what they desired. “That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp”, which turned out to be a nutritious food which they called Manna (Exodus 16:13-36). Yet this fulfilment of their desire did not help them. For in the very next chapter, Exodus 17, we find them once again grumbling against Moses and God because they did not have water to drink. The experience of God granting their desires had not drawn them any nearer to him. Instead, it had hardened their hearts against him, so that ultimately “God was not pleased with them and their bodies were scattered over the desert” (1 Corinthians 10:5).
Many of our prayers focus on a change of circumstances, just as the Israelites wanted to change their food situation. We ask for a new car, a new house, a new job, a new boss, for that person who we find so difficult to be taken out of our lives. Yet God is much less concerned about our circumstances than he is about our relationship with him.
So he does not grant us all our desires. He knows that receiving all that we desire might be destructive for us – look how many lottery winners have found that to be a negative experience. At other times he wants us to seek him more earnestly and so find him, delight in him and move our desires more into line with his. “Your face, Lord, I will seek” (Psalm 27:8).