Desire in its best forms

God is a jealous, desiring God. How does one describe the unseen, all-knowing, omnipotent, ever-present God? Words and human experience can never do him justice. And yet, God uses words to teach us about himself. He is just, benevolent, holy, and sovereign. These descriptions evoke images of power, of needing nothing. God does not need anything, for in him everything obtains its life.

But notice, he does not only describe himself with terms of power and strength, but also with words that suggest desire and longing. God is not merely patient with us. No, he longs for us and would gather us to him as a hen would gather her chicks (Matthew 23:37). He pursues his wife (Israel) and hems her in even when she runs after other lovers (Hosea 2). He “burns” with jealousy for Zion so much so that he returns her to an honor she does not deserve (Zechariah 8:2-7), even paying the price himself for remarriage. If God desires us, longing for the glory he deserves from his creatures, then desire is not just something that we should resist.

God cares about and fulfills our desires

You cannot accuse God of being an ascetic or uncaring of your desires. We see numerous references to God’s attention to our desires. The Psalmist reminds God that he hears the desires of suffering people (10:17). He not only hears; he also acts. In Psalm 20 and 21, David sings of God’s hand in bringing about the desires of his heart. In Psalm 37, David clarifies the relationship between human desires and God’s response. When we delight in God, he delights to give us our desires (see also Matthew 5:6). He is a father who dotes on his children. He gives good things that satisfy (Psalm 103:5). Jesus picks up on this theme and reminds us that if we, who are evil, give good gifts to each other, then will not God, the creator of the universe, give good gifts to those who ask (Matthew 7:11)? Are you not yet convinced that God delights to fulfill your desires? Then listen to David as he bursts forth in song, “You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing. . . He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them” (Psalm 145:16,19).

I can hear your objection. “But wait,” you say, “There are many desires that God never fulfilled for me. If he longs to fulfill our desires, why didn’t he fulfill mine? Why do I feel so empty? I want to be healthy, married, a parent, happy, content, but my prayers seem to hit the ceiling and return to me.” I do not dispute that living in the wilderness leaves much to be desired. The misery of living in this sin-sick world multiplies daily. Yet, did not God provide for your desires today? Did you not eat? Did you not find momentary rest for your weary body? Did you not see his beauty reflected in something or someone? Ah, we are exposed. We grow complacent with God’s good gifts. They aren’t gifts in our minds, just something that everybody gets. We are far too often like the Israelites in the desert. We overlook the good things God gives us and obsess on what he did not give. God’s good gifts are no accident or afterthought—some sympathetic gesture to a waif. Rather he gives them out of the overflowing desire for his own glory and for the completion of all that he has willed. Every good gift you have received has come because God has ordained your existence in an abundantly provided world (see Psalm 65). He supplies you with your food and with whatever joy, peace, laughter, and righteousness you have experienced.

Fulfilled desires are sweet

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life… a desire fulfilled is sweet to the soul” (Proverbs 13:12,19a). These brief proverbs remind us of what we already know. When our desires are fulfilled, it is a satisfying moment. Even illicit gratification is satisfying, though deadly. “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (Proverbs 9:17). Why else would we go back for more? When our desires are filled, we are comforted and secure. God comforts the brokenhearted and satisfies them with his bounty (Jeremiah 31:13-14). Satisfaction also brings joy and gladness. Moses supplicates, “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14). Satisfaction brings knowledge. The children of Israel, once filled with manna, know that the Lord is their God (Exodus 16:12).

Sexual desire is complex, compelling, and good

Why would God put the Song of Solomon in the Bible? Wouldn’t it be better to use that space to tell us more about himself? What purpose does an erotic book detailing the urges and orgasms of an anonymous couple serve the kingdom of God? The man spends numerous lines waxing poetic about her genitalia and how he wants to play with her. She shivers and aches for her climax. No, this is not a harlequin romance novel. In fact, it is probably more erotic and explicit about sexual desire than our English translations will admit. Those who try to spiritualize the text to mean only something of how God feels towards his church surely do God an injustice. And what of the mysterious phrase that appears in the book on three occasions, “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires” (2:7, 3:5, 8:4)? These would seem to indicate that one must be careful with love and the power it wields. If you are not careful, your appetites may overwhelm you.

No, really, its best form

As good as sexual desire is, it pales next to desire for God and being united with Christ. The Psalms are full of descriptions of longings for God. David cries out for God, for his ways, his wisdom, and his presence. How are these depicted? There are numerous depictions of this desire as the cries of one who is thirsty and longing for water (e.g., Psalm 42:1; 63:1, 143:6.). In the New Testament, Paul records a similar sentiment. We groan while we are in this “tent” of a body and long for our guaranteed inheritance (II Corinthians 5:1-5). Notice that your good desires for God will bring upon yourself more pain! Doesn’t this run in stark contrast to much of our current depictions of the Christian life? “Come to Jesus,” we say, “and your life (as you have imagined it) will go well.” Instead, as we draw closer to God, our desire for him enlarges. Doesn’t this run in stark contrast to much of our current depictions of the Christian life? Satisfaction increases, but certainly so does agony as we develop an increasing awareness of our desperate need for God.

Yet do not be discouraged; our desires for God do not end in only pain. We do find satisfaction, comfort, fulfillment, joy, and peace. Psalm 131 depicts satisfaction with God as a baby on his mother’s lap whose stomach is filled, who no longer needs to grab at her breasts for more. When we take worship as our food, Isaiah records that we will delight “in the richest of fare” (Isaiah 55:2). These satisfactions are not just spiritual. Rather they reach out into the far corners of our lives. Solomon, who contemplated the search for satisfaction reminds his readers that any satisfaction we achieve has been a gift from God (Ecclesiastes 3:13).

Update 7.27.2018

Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part One

“Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (ESV).

What Paul is saying here is not terribly popular today. Not in the culture we live in, and increasingly not even in the church. We live in an age that many describe as one of sexual freedom and self-discovery (my sexuality reveals my true identity), and we hear that the Bible is a sexually repressive book, stuck in its ancient cultural time-period, so we need to just move on.

But what Paul says here is not only counter-cultural to us; it was also counter-cultural to those who heard him 2000 years ago. It wasn’t very popular then either! Biblical sexuality has never been something people are naturally or instinctually drawn to—but throughout the Scriptures, God’s message to us has been consistently clear:

What we do with our bodies matters. Our sexuality matters to God.

I’m struck by two things in this passage.

One, the force of Paul’s argument for why it matters that we live in accordance to God’s will for our lives sexually. Notice how many times and ways that Paul speaks about obeying the will of God regarding how to live with our sexuality.

V2: “you know what instructions we gave you through the the Lord Jesus.”

V3: For “this is the will of God, your sanctification . . . that you abstain from sexual immorality”

V4: “that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness”

V5: that you not live like those outside of Christ (“not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles”)

V6: “that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things…”

V 7: “For God has called us…to holiness”

V8: “whoever disregards this, disregards God”

Seven times Paul says that God places a high value on how we live with our sexuality. Seven times he says, in essence, that our sexual behavior reveals our spirituality—that how we live in our body is a barometer of our faith.

We live in a culture that proclaims that sex equals life. We hear that a life lived without sex is a tragedy, and our self-identities are increasingly defined by our sexual preferences or attractions. We are bombarded 24/7 with images, media, and cultural expressions that say that the meaning of life is about sex. No wonder this passage is being dismissed as out-of-sync with what is current.

But, two, I’m also struck by something else in this compact passage: that, in the face of cultural opposition (and probably even the opposition from and struggles of those who were new to the faith), Paul doesn’t water down the gospel on this matter. He doesn’t flinch in saying how important this is.

What Paul says here is difficult to follow, given the culture we live in, and taking into account how powerful our sexuality is.

Would it encourage you if I said that it was difficult for first-century Christians, also?

God knows that this is difficult for his people

Do you notice how Paul hints at this in verse 1? He mentions, first of all, that he was clear in his instruction on how to live as redeemed people: “that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing”—and then he adds, “and that you do so more and more.”

In other words, the Christians at Thessaloniki knew what to do, and they seemed to be moving in the right direction, but it appears they also struggled doing so. They didn’t have it down pat; they hadn’t mastered the subject, or else Paul would not have said, “. . . we ask and urge you. . . in the Lord Jesus” that they continue in that direction. I think this double appeal speaks volumes about their struggles here.

What’s happening in the church at Thessaloniki mirrors what we read in the letter of 1 Corinthians.

Almost the entire letter is a question and answer session between Paul and the church on all the problems the church had. Let me list them:

  • There were divisions and factions fighting over leadership.
  • Paul had to defend his apostolic ministry, because many thought Paul was an inferior apostle—there were better preachers out there than Paul.
  • They had relational and business conflicts, and they were taking each other to court.
  • They had marriage problems, divorces, struggles by those who were single.
  • They had fights over worship, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, etc.
  • They had people in the church who questioned whether Jesus really rose from the dead.

And, you will notice this thread throughout the entire letter—they really struggled with sex and sexuality. Big time. Paul addressed matters of incest, prostitution, sex outside of marriage, distorted views of sex within marriage, and homosexuality. Sexuality was a big topic and a big problem in the church at Corinth. In fact, throughout all the new churches!

It looks like the first century church looks a lot like ours, doesn’t it? Is that discouraging to you? Does it make you wonder if anybody really follows Jesus, if obedience to Christ is even possible, especially in this area of life?

It shouldn’t. Remember the kind of person Jesus is; remember how he was described. In Luke 15:2, he was derisively referred to as the man who receives sinners. And eats with them, too! That’s us!

There is no ideal, pure church. As long as the church is following Christ, it will remain messy, because God saves messy people.

A healthy church is not one without problems, it’s one where problems are addressed with grace and truth (that’s the gospel—the good news of how God has rescued us). And if the gospel of grace and truth is being taught, then we will see people changing, but it’s God who does the changing in us. He knows that change—and the speed and quality of it—is unique to each person.

Today, the ever-present sexual struggles in the church are evidence by some that we need to rethink what the Bible says about sex. But what is unpopular now was unpopular then. In spite of the struggles of the early church, the message never wavered.

God is still calling his people to live with their sexuality in holiness, according to his design. And we are to do so even when we struggle. Especially as we struggle.

Christian spirituality has everything to do with our bodies. And that is why, after six times mentioning how important this is, on the seventh time Paul nails home the final point: Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

Our sexuality reveals our spirituality. How we live with our sexuality reveals the allegiance of our hearts. As Paul also wrote: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20).

(Looking ahead: more reasons Paul gives on following God faithfully with our sexuality and how to do it. )

Click to read Part 2Part 3.  Part 4.  Part 5.

Updated 5.12.2017, 5.31.2018

The second testimony in our series is written by “Susan,” who says, “My self-described labels changed…but my identity in Christ is secure and permanent!”

Twenty-one years into my marriage, my husband announced one day, “I’m leaving you for another woman.” I was devastated. I fell into a deep, emotional abyss as my life and my heart broke into a million tiny pieces. My friend, who had been talking to me for several years about Christ, stepped into my pain with gentleness and love. Into my broken world she ministered to me, sitting with me for hours as I poured out my pain and my tears. She read to me from the Bible and continued to share Jesus with me.

Several months later, I did ask Jesus into my heart and accepted him as my Savior. My friend and I continued to meet almost daily. Ours was a completely new level of relationship for me. With her I felt complete and deeply known for the first time in my life. I needed her desperately and soon began to long for her when she was absent. Without noticing it, my life began to revolve around our time together. When we were together, she held me as I cried, rubbed my back, and dried my tears. Her touch was such a comfort to me, and there was an intense feeling of being connected.  It was just a matter of time before we moved into sexual touching and then a full sexual relationship. Even as a new Christian, I knew that this was not okay with God, and I struggled to understand how what felt so right could be wrong. After several years, our secret relationship became public, and what then began as a new devastation in my life was actually the first step of a new journey into wholeness.

This new struggle lasted for many years. I have moved from identifying myself as a lesbian, to a woman who struggles with same-sex attraction, to a follower of Jesus who has experienced relational brokenness. I have learned, with the help of godly counsel and Bible study, that the intense, all-consuming, emotional connection I craved from another person was not God’s design for healthy relationships. What I perceived as intimacy was a dysfunctional enmeshment, an entanglement of two relationally broken people looking to each other to fill the space that only God can fill. I had put my relationship with my friend on the throne of my life, occupying the place that belongs only to Jesus. Praise God that he continues to heal me as I seek to worship only him and find the answer to all of my longings in Christ.

Notice how “Susan” describes the change she experienced in her sense of identity: from lesbian to same-sex struggler to a follower of Christ who battles temptation in this area. How is this hopeful for you as a woman or man who is tempted to cross God-designed sexual boundaries in order to feel loved?

Updated 5.19.2017

The first testimony in this series is written by Ellen Dykas, Harvest USA’s Women’s Ministry Coordinator. She writes about being ‘spousal-sexual’—is it a new category to consider?

After I began to serve with Harvest USA, I attended an Exodus International conference in 2008 and participated in an open discussion among women’s ministry leaders who serve in sexual-wholeness related ministries. The focus of our discussion that day was this heated question: Is change really possible for the same-sex attracted person? In the room were nearly 25 women from all over the country, and they talked about the different stories of their homosexual experiences.

Many of the women were now living lives of sexual abstinence as singles, after having turned to Christ. There were a few women who, while at one time openly identifying as gay, were now married to Christian men. Others, who through emotional dependency found themselves in homosexual relationships, were now growing wisely in loving other women well within godly boundaries.

All their stories were testimonies of change, each one specific to her unique life. One testimony, however, really hit my heart. A married woman named Ann said, You know, I’m not attracted to women anymore, but I’m also not attracted to men; yet I adore my husband!”

Ann’s story of having grown in her identity in being a loved daughter of God, and then being ‘spousal-sexual,’ really rang true for me personally. I am not someone who is same-sex attracted, but I am also someone who hasn’t had the “typical” heterosexual crushes that my friends all had. There have been a few men with whom I have experienced emotional and physical attraction, but for most of my life I felt very “other.” I didn’t seem to fit in any category.

But Ann’s words really taught me afresh that it only takes one man to be a husband! So, I began to focus my prayers for relationship along this path: “Lord, if you have marriage for me, then I ask you to keep my heart and ALL my attractions guarded until and unless they be focused on

the man you’d have me to marry. I want to be ‘husband-sexual!’”

This freed me up so much and was another huge way the Lord moved in my own heart years ago to grow me in seeking to have my heart set on Christ and his will, rather than fitting into categories of sexuality that our culture (and the church, too) have defined as our identities.

For my next three blog posts, I’ll be sharing testimonies from women who have wrestled with same-sex attraction and also have been a part of the ministry of Harvest USA. Each of these sisters will share their unique stories and personal thoughts on how Christ brings true “change.”

What are your thoughts about the idea of “spousal sexuality?” Do you think as a category it is helpful or unhelpful? Please share your thoughts!

Updated 5.19.2017

Paige Benton Brown spoke at the 2012 The Gospel Coalition’s Women’s Conference from 1 Kings 8 and gave a rich exhortation concerning how we do or do not reveal that we are the temple of God. As Paige phrased the question, “Do we have a quality of ‘templeness’ within us?” In her talk, Paige was actually one of the two women I heard who did apply her message to sexual sin in women. She brought out the challenging but rich calling that we all have to be the home of the Lord:

“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, ESV).

Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Our bodies are not our own to do with them whatever we please. This is a powerfully counter-cultural message, especially when the spirit of our age proclaims individual autonomy and self-expression as the core foundation of our identities.

Sisters, when we attach ourselves romantically to our female friends; when we relate sensually to one another physically and perhaps even sexually; when we chat sexually with others with our mouths, texts, and keyboards; and when we are sexual with ourselves or anyone who is not our husband, we are failing to give glory to Jesus, our King, Savior, Healer of our hearts, and Lord of our bodies. We are in fact being sexually ‘insane’ if we pursue self-expression and autonomy from God. Such an attitude reveals a deceived and rebellious heart that demands to do what I want, when I want, and with whom I want.

Do you not know that your body is a temple of God? Will you not treat yourself and your body as God sees you? Will you allow Jesus to rein you in to himself with love and kindness and to rule over your desires, fears, relationships, and sexuality?

Why would you want to do that? Because you were bought with a high price, the life of Jesus himself, so that you could live in the glorious freedom and beauty of being the woman God calls you to be.

To develop these ideas further and glorify God with your sexuality, check out one of Harvest USA’s mini books, Sex and the Single Girl: Smart Ways to Care for Your Heart, which is available in the Harvest USA bookstore. Also, we have a curriculum for women who are struggling sexually, called Sexual Sanity for Women: Healing for Relational and Sexual Brokenness. This resource was written to assist you in delving more deeply into the hope and redemptive ‘sanity’ that the gospel of grace promises to us in our relational and sexual brokenness! Visit the Harvest USA Online Store to take a look at our resources.

Updated 5.8.2017

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