Sermon Illustrations on the DESIRE


Are There Only Two Options?

Desire—eros, or erotic desire, to be more specific—kicked in pretty early in my life. I was often overwhelmed by a gnawing hunger and thirst I didn’t know how to handle. God bless my parents and my Catholic school teachers—they all tried—but people can’t give what they don’t have. No one had formed them in the true beauty and splendor of God’s plan for erotic desire, so they couldn’t form me. I was given the traditional biblical “rules” about sex, and my teachers did their best to instill a fear in me of breaking them, but I was never given the “why” behind the “what” of sexual morality.

Okay, those are the rules I shouldn’t break, but what the heck am I supposed to do with this crazy desire inside me? The basic message in the air was that sexual desire itself was “dirty” or “bad” and needed to be repressed or otherwise squelched. To put an image to the experience, it seemed the only thing my “Christian” upbringing had to offer me in my hunger was a starvation diet. Eventually the hunger became so intense that it trumped all fear of breaking the rules.

As I wrote in my book Fill These Hearts, “A person can starve himself for only so long before the choice becomes clear: either I find something to eat, or…I’m gonna die…This is why the culture’s ‘fast-food gospel’—the promise of immediate gratification through indulgence of desire—inevitably wins large numbers of converts from the ‘starvation diet gospel.’ Of course, it’s equally true that a person can eat the fast food for only so long before all the grease and sodium take their toll.

Once the pleasure of indulging wears off, bad food, I came to learn, is no less destructive than malnutrition. Were these the only two options for my hunger: death by starvation or death by food poisoning? Was there any “good food” to be had, food that could actually bring life to my aching soul? I wanted answers. I needed answers! If God were real, I figured he must have some kind of plan in giving us such strong sexual desires. So in a college dorm in 1988, I let loose a rather desperate cry of my heart, a ragged prayer that went something like this: God in heaven, if you exist, you better show me!

And you better show me what this whole sex thing is all about and why you gave me all these desires, because they’re getting me and everybody I know into a lot of trouble. What is your plan? Do you have a plan? Show me! Please! Show me! That’s when I started studying the Bible, and eventually I encountered Jesus in a living, personal way. He wasn’t just an idea to me anymore: I started experiencing the power of his resurrection in my life in dramatic ways, particularly with regard to my sexual brokenness. After years of selfish erotic indulgence, I was experiencing real deliverance and healing from addictive fantasies, attitudes, and behavior.

Christopher West, Our Bodies Tell God’s Story, Baker Publishing Group, 2020, pp. xii-xiii.

The Blessing and Curse of Humanity

Desire haunts us. In its deepest sense, it is a God-given dimension of human identity. As such, desire is what powers all human spirituality. Yet at the same time, spirituality in Christianity and in other faiths is concerned with how we focus our desire. At the heart of Christian spirituality is the sense that humanity is both cursed and blessed with restlessness and longing that can only ultimately be satisfied in God.

It is as though our desire is infinite in extent and that it cannot settle for anything less. It pushes us through the limitations of the present moment and of our present places towards a future that is beyond our ability to conceive. This is why the greatest teachers of Christian spirituality were so concerned with this God-filled desire and with how we understand it and channel it.

Philip Sheldrake, Befriending Our Desires, Liturgical Press, 2016.

Fearing to Want

In her thought-provoking book, Teach us to Want, Jen Pollock Michel describes the tension in listening to our deepest desires: some of them these desires are integral to our identity, but they also can easily be marred by sin:

Brennan Manning was a man ordained into the Franciscan priesthood who struggled with a lifelong addiction to alcohol. He writes in The Ragamuffin Gospel, “Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.” Like Manning, every human is drunk on the wine of paradox and riddled with fear. We each have great capacity for evil and terrific incapacity for good.

These fears can obstruct our will to want. How can we allow ourselves to want, especially when we’re so infinitely adept at sin? How do we ever decide that our desires are anything other than sin-sick expression of our inner corruption? Can we trust our desires if we ourselves can be so untrustworthy?

Taken from Teach us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith by Jen Pollock Michel Copyright (c) 2014 by Jen Pollock Michel. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Following Your Desires

You follow your desires wherever they take you, and you approve of yourself so long as you are not obviously hurting anyone else. You figure that if the people around you seem to like you, you must be good enough. In the process you end up slowly turning yourself into something a little less impressive than you had originally hoped. A humiliating gap opens up between your actual self and your desired self.

David Brooks. The Road To Virtue, Random House

Holy Desires and the Desires of Our Own Hearts

The fourteenth-century Italian mystic Catherine of Siena recognised this positive and extraordinary power of our desires when she wrote that it makes them one of the few ways of touching God because “you have nothing infinite except your soul’s love and desire” (Dialogue, p. 270). The German Dominican mystic of the same period, Meister Eckhart, suggested that the reason why we are not able to see God is the faintness of our desire.

In the graceful language of desire that permeates Archbishop Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, one of the foundation documents of the English Reformation, there is a difference between following “too much the devices and desires of our own hearts” and the “holy desires,” “good counsels,” and “just works” that proceed only from God’s inspiration. Yet, even “holy desires”—the desires that ultimately find their rest and quietness only in God—tap into energies that are partially physical.

Philip Sheldrake, Befriending Our Desires, Liturgical Press, 2016.

Humanity’s Most Visceral Ache

In her book Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home, Jen Pollock Michel reflects on the nature of home in a transient age. In this short excerpt, Michel focuses on etymology of home in various languages:

Biblical words related to home can denote physical dwelling, family household, material possessions, as well as geographical and social connections, but these words only hint at the emotional dimensions of the English word home and its cousins in German, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, and Dutch.

In these languages home connotes much more than geography and material reality; home also describes an emotional state of being. For the linguistic ancestors of the Old Norse, home, heima, means more than bricks and mortar. In part, its walls are safety, its windows, welcome. Provided there is intimacy and a sense of belonging, a home can be made in almost any place. Home represents humanity’s most visceral ache—and our oldest desire.

Taken from Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home Jen Pollock Michel. Copyright (c) 2019 by Jen Pollock Michel. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

In the forward to the excellent book, Subversive Sabbath, physician and author of 24/6, Matthew Sleeth describes the process of listening to hearts as part of his medical practice. While speaking specifically to the need for rest in a over-worked, over-tired culture, the metaphor could be extended to a variety of areas, including our longings, our desires:

As a physician, I’ve listened to thousands of hearts. During prenatal exams, I’ve heard the rapid swish-swishing of babies still in the womb. Often, moms and dads burst into tears when they hear their child’s heart for the first time. I’ve smiled at the strange murmur those thumb-sized hearts make when they are born into the great big world, fetal shunts closing of their own accord as the baby breathes independently for the first time.

I’ve listened to the chests of three-year-old children as they inhale deeply—and then wonder whether the man in the white coat can hear their thoughts through those tubes attached to his ears. I’ve listened to athletes’ strong, slow hearts. I’ve heard asthmatic hearts pounding away in fear and the muffled sounds of failing hearts.

I’ve listened to the hearts of saints and of murderers. I’m in the first generation of physicians to ever listen to the heart of one person after it has been transplanted into the body of another. Doctors and nurses listen to patients’ hearts using a stethoscope.

Although this is convenient, it’s not necessary. In fact, the stethoscope wasn’t invented until a generation after our country became a nation. For thousands of years, physicians listened to heart sounds without the aid of a stethoscope. They simply laid their ear on the chest of their patients. Now it is only children who lay their heads on the chest of their parents to listen to beating hearts.

Taken from Matthew Sleeth in A. J. Swoboda, Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World, Baker Publishing Group, 2018, Kindle Location 76-83.

Longing and Desire in the Great Christian Spiritual Teachers

Many of the greatest Christian spiritual teachers and mystics such as Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Ignatius Loyola, or some of the seventeenth-century Anglican spiritual writers focus on the language of “desire,” longing, yearning, as the fundamental key to our spiritual growth. All of these teachers, however, also note that while desire is a God-given energy that drives us onwards on the spiritual journey, our deepest desire needs to be carefully distinguished from our immediate wants or attractions.

From this perception grew the Christian tradition of discernment as the basis for choosing well. All great spiritual traditions seek to identify an object of desire worthy of our human potential and that draws us beyond the superficial or the self-absorbed. The object of our deepest desire, however, which we name as God or the Absolute, is necessarily beyond what can be definitively described, possessed, or controlled. In that sense, the word “desire” expresses a movement ever onward towards an indefinable future.

Philip Sheldrake, Befriending Our Desires, Liturgical Press, 2016.

Love Songs All Address God

In 1998, Nick Cave*, an Australian rock/pop artist, was asked by the Vienna Poetry Academy to give a series of talks on the nature of song-writing. A year later he gave a slightly revised version of the same speech at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Here is an excerpt on the relationship between love songs, God, and “saudade”, a Portuguese word connected to a sense of longing and desire for God’s presence.

Though the Love Song comes in many guises – songs of exaltation and praise, songs of rage and of despair, erotic songs, songs of abandonment and loss – they all address God, for it is the haunted premise of longing that the true Love Song inhabits. It is a howl in the void for love and for comfort, and it lives on the lips of the child crying for his mother.

It is the song of the lover in need of their loved one, the raving of the lunatic supplicant petitioning his god. It is the cry of one chained to the earth and craving flight, a flight into inspiration and imagination and divinity. The Love Song is the sound of our endeavours to become God-like, to rise up and above the earth-bound and the mediocre. I believe the Love Song to be a sad song. It is the noise of sorrow itself.

We all experience within us what the Portuguese call ‘saudade’, which translates as an inexplicable longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul, and it is this feeling that lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration and is the breeding ground for the sad song, for the Love Song. ‘Saudade’ is the desire to be transported from darkness into light, to be touched by the hand of that which is not of this world. The Love Song is the light of God, deep down, blasting up through our wounds.

…What I found, time and time again in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, was that verses of rapture, of ecstasy and love could hold within them apparently opposite sentiments – hate, revenge, bloody-mindedness, etc. – these sentiments were not mutually exclusive. This idea has left an enduring impression upon my song-writing.

The Love Song must be borne into the realm of the irrational, the absurd, the distracted, the melancholic, the obsessive and the insane, for the Love Song is the clamour of love itself, and love is, of course, a form of madness. Whether it is the love of God, or romantic erotic love – these are manifestations of our need to be torn away from the rational, to take leave of our senses, so to speak.

 Nick Cave, Speech: “The Secret Life of the Love Song”, London, March 30, 1999.

*Editor’s note: Nick Cave has at times self-identified as a Christian and at others not, regardless, the argument is an interesting one.

The Oughts and Shoulds

In her book Invitation to RetreatRuth Haley Barton shares some of the many insights she has had since she began intentionally taking inattentional retreats to re-connect with God and her own desires. In this passage she describes how our performance culture often pushes us to take on responsibilities that are often life-draining vs. life-giving:

Functioning out of oughts and shoulds results in a performance mentality in which we become increasingly disconnected from our authentic self. We might even develop a subtle conviction that we are valuable only when we are performing. The simplest way to understand this is that oughts and shoulds come from someone else, so when we are doing things because we think we should, we are reacting and responding to something outside ourselves. Authentic desire, on the other hand, comes from within and is a part of who we are.

Taken from Invitation to Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God by Ruth Haley Barton Copyright (c) 2018 by Ruth Haley Barton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

St. John of the Cross on Spiritual Growth

The famous medieval reformer and mystic, St. John of the Cross, wrote about some of the differences between the early days of a new convert and the long road of obedience that makes up the spiritual life. When someone first begins to follow God, God fills them with a strong desire to follow Him. As one person put it, this initial desire is like a “spiritual starter kit.”

This initial desire nevertheless eventually fades. The strong emotional pull towards Christ lessens, providing the disciple with the opportunity to seek Christ in deeper, more authentic ways. God, John argues, eventually removes the props in order that we might begin to develop a stronger, more mature devotion to God. A faith that is not dependent on emotions but on the solid ground of a deep, consistent prayer life with the triune God. The props are removed not to punish, but to draw us ever closer to the God of the universe.

Stuart Strachan Jr., source material from John Ortberg: Who is This Man?, Zondervan.

Teaching Us What it Means to Be Human

In her engaging work, Teach us to Want, Jen Pollock Michel describes the nature of The Lord’s Prayer:

To borrow from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lord’s Prayer is our “yes to God’s earth.” The Lord’s Prayer is incarnational in the same way that Jesus is incarnational. It teaches us what it means to be fully human and pictures for us the good life.

To pray it again and again is to imbibe the holy teloi of God. But that plunge into holy desire doesn’t remove us from earthly life; it implicates us, gets us busy in the business of loving and worshiping God in our neighborhoods and churches and cities.

Taken from Teach us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith by Jen Pollock Michel Copyright (c) 2014 by Jen Pollock Michel. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com


Oliver Twist and the Desire for More

In one of the classic scenes from Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, the misfortunate young orphan, Oliver, is stuck in a workhouse, laboring for long hours and getting barely enough gruel to keep himself alive. When he and his fellow laborers draw lots to see who should try to get some extra food, Oliver loses.

He approaches the overbearing and overweight master, Mr. Bumble, with a humble request, “Please, sir, I want some more.” This greatly perturbs Mr. Bumble and the leaders of the workhouse, who sell Oliver into apprenticeship to get rid of the troublemaker.

Oliver had a good reason for wanting more, of course, since he and his chums were almost starving. But the desire for more grows in the hearts of those of us who have plenty as well. In fact, this desire often leads us off track in our lives and leadership, as we eagerly seek for more when we already have all we need.

Taken from Mark D. Roberts, Life for Leaders, a Devotional Resource of the DePree Leadership Center at Fuller Theological Seminary


A Desire No Experience This World Can Satisfy

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. . . .

If I find in myself a desire that no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably, earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Macmillan.

My Desire Carries Me

Have you ever played in a swimming pool and tried to hold a beach ball under the surface? Its tendency-you might even say its penchant and desire-is to rise to the surface. It is “restless” when it is held under the water. It keeps trying to sneak up from under your feet or hands, bursting towards the surface.

It wants to be floating. Conversely, when I try to placidly float on the surface of the water, my weight wants to take me to the bottom. Augustine…describes the analogy…“Wherever I am carried, my love is carrying me.”

James K.A. Smith, You are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Baker Publishing Group.

Our Divinely Designed Tastes

The creation of food, tongues, and the human digestive system is the product of infinite wisdom knitting the world together in a harmonious whole. The symphony of glory that sounds from the triune being contains notes of corn salsa and Sour Patch Kids, of sweet tea and rye bread (the kind that fills the belly). The variety of tastes creates categories and gives us edible images of divine things. “Taste and see that the L ORD is good!” (Ps. 34:8).

Our sense of hunger and thirst are divinely designed to highlight the soul’s hunger for spiritual food: “Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). And there’s no shortcut. Apart from our experience of empty stomachs and parched throats, of full bellies, quenched thirsts, and the incredible variety of taste, our spiritual lives would be impoverished, and we would have no real vocabulary for spiritual desire, no mental and emotional framework for engaging with God.

Joe Rigney, The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts, Crossway, 2014.

That Blind Pressure to Grow

This excerpt from the Catholic priest Ronald Rolheiser is quite profound. It is reminiscent of that great line from Dr. Ian Malcom in Jurassic Park: “Life finds a way.” Speaking on the subject of desire and energy, Rollheiser shares an incident a friend once shared with him:

A friend of mine relates how, after buying a house, he decided to get rid of an old bamboo plant in his driveway. He cut the plant down, took an ax to its roots, and, after destroying as much of it as he could, he poured bluestone, a plant poison, on what remained. 

Finally, he filled the hole where the plant had been with several feet of gravel that he tamped tightly and paved over with cement. Two years later, the cement heaved as the bamboo plant began to slowly break through the pavement. Its life principle, that blind pressure to grow, was not thwarted by axes, poison, and cement.

Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, Bantam Doubleday, 2014.

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