What’s Love Got to Do with It?
Looking for desire in the pages of Scripture
It’s a rare blessing when a writer transforms your thinking on a certain subject. With her book Teach Us to Want (IVP, 2015), Jen Pollock Michel has done just that. In our continuing efforts to understand, promote, and enhance Bible engagement, we’ve come to appreciate this writer’s emphasis on how a passion for God drives us to Scripture. We invited her to share her thoughts on spiritual desire.
I’ve come to think that Bible reading (and Bible teaching) depends on readers paying attention to small, inconspicuous details. Maybe you’ve been learning that too. In fact, as I’ve spent the last several years studying the role of desire in the life of faith, I’ve realized that my misunderstanding ( desire is always selfish and self-serving; desire can never be trusted) was owed, in part, to sloppy Bible reading.
I had always assumed that the biblical writers, like me, blamed human desire for human treachery. That was an easy conclusion to draw, not least because humanity’s fall from grace is easily pinned on desire gone wrong: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate …” (Genesis 3:6 ESV). Furthermore, New Testament writers like James seemed to confirm my suspicions about the irremediable nature of human desire: “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14–15 ESV). The Bible proved (or so I thought) that human desire was the snake that could never be charmed.
What I have since realized is that biblical writers don’t blame desire so much as they qualify it. Or perhaps more precisely, Bible translators are tasked with this nuance: it is they who choose suitable “desire” words according to the context of a passage. As an example in the Old Testament, when the Israelites are warned against “coveting” in the Ten Commandments, the word for “covet” is actually a neutral term for desire. It can be translated, according to Hebrew scholar Robert Alter, as “yearn for,” “desire,” “lust after,” and “want.” But because the connotation in Exodus 20:17 is clearly prohibitive, translators picked “covet” to suggest corrupted desire. In the New Testament, the most common word for “desire” in the Greek is epithymia; similarly, this word can be translated as desire, craving, longing, lust, coveting, and passion—again according to context.
The linguistic neutrality of “desire” in the Bible tells us something about its very nature: desire is not inherently evil. We can want good (or bad) things, and we can want them in right (or wrong) ways. And this begs us to ask this important question: if Bible translators are tasked with discerning desire before blaming it, shouldn’t we follow their lead?
As James K. A. Smith writes in Desiring the Kingdom (and more recently in You Are What You Love), human beings are desiring creatures. This is to say that desire steers our lives far more than our beliefs. To try and give up on desire is guaranteed as much success as trying to give up on air. We breathe, and we want. This is what it means to be human.
We can’t give up on desire, nor should we—because desire doesn’t only power adultery and greed; it fuels mission and prayer and personal transformation. To believe that God has raised Jesus from the dead but is powerless to change the nature of our desires—from self-service to self-sacrifice; from hatred to peace; from bitterness to forgiveness; from lust to love—is to say that the gospel has only cosmic consequences; that it fails the personal. And this is certainly not what we believe as Christians.
“It is God who works in you, both to will and work for his good pleasure,” writes the apostle Paul (Philippians 2:13 ESV). One evidence of spiritual maturity is the degree to which our desires are conformed to the desires of God. But like a transplant patient, we will need a new heart. Thank God, however, that there is a Donor—Jesus Christ! By baptism into Christ’s death, we die (slowly and sometimes painfully) to our unholy desires; through his resurrection, we are raised to new life—even the newness of desire.
As we read the Bible, let’s look for the little words that make sense of desire: both its pitfalls as well as its promise. Even more importantly, let’s look to be formed into the kind of people who love what God loves—and hate what he despises.
The kind of people whose only will is that His be done on earth as it is in heaven.
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