The following is adapted from my forthcoming book, Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart which looks at the longings that drive our deepest and even darkest desires and how God wants to use those longings to reveal his plan for our ultimate fulfillment. It is available NOW for pre-order!
Christians have a complicated relationship with desire. We desire many things, but so often our desires get us into trouble. They can wreck our lives, ruin our relationships, lead us into sin, and cause us no end of misery and regret. Because of this, we Christians often treat our desires with suspicion if not outright fear. This tendency is, perhaps, understandable, but what if there was a way to stop being suspicious or afraid of your desires? What if I were to tell you that even your most neurotic and destructive desires could be transformed into an engine of divine actualization that propels you down the path toward both a more joyful life in the present and the fulfillment of the ultimate destiny God has in store for you? And what if I told you that this truth about the authentic Christian relationship with desire was affirmed again and again by the most orthodox traditions in our Catholic faith?
Love & The Re-Orientation of Desire
Falling in love with my wife was a transformational experience for me. Suddenly, everything was about her. Love has a way of radically re-orienting us away from ourselves and toward the other. We find ourselves by losing ourselves.
In a similar way, when we make an authentic response to God’s invitation to enter into a relationship with him, something amazing happens. Suddenly, everything is about him. Our hopes, our dreams, our relationships, our desires become re-oriented. They don’t go away, but they take on a new significance. They point, not to themselves, but to new ways we might come to know God better, and draw closer to him. Directly or indirectly, our desires become entirely about him.
The Three “Ways” of Desire
Christian mystics over the centuries have discovered that divinization (theologians’ term for the process by which God leads us into total union with him) refines our desires through three distinct stages or “ways.”
First, in The Purgative Way we experience a rehabilitation of desire as God shows us to satisfy our earthly desires in healthy ways.
Next, in The Illuminative Way we experience the enlightenment of desire as we discover that God has been reaching out to us through our longings and wants to reveal himself to us through them.
Finally, in The Unitive Way we experience the unification of our desires with the very heart of God. In each stage, both our flawed desires and the flawed ways we try to satisfy them undergo a transformation that allows us to achieve ultimate fulfillment by propelling us toward our divine destiny. Through this process, we learn that God is not the enemy of our desires, but rather he seeks to satisfy our desires to a degree that we didn’t know was possible. He longs to meet the deepest needs of our heart–even needs beyond our awareness.
Entrusting Your Desires to God
The three “ways” of desire teach us that our desires are not to be feared and extinguished, but blessed and transformed. Whatever your desires are–no matter how disordered they may seem or how much trouble they may cause you–you can only find happiness by surrendering those desires to God and boldly asking him to teach you, not how to destroy or ignore your desires, but how to fulfill them in ways that will give him glory and lead to our ultimate satisfaction in this life and union with him in the next.
Indiscriminate indulgence in our desires or the relentless persecution and condemnation of our desires both ironically produce the same miserable outcome. Both false responses to desire facilitate our brokenness, frustration, and separation from God. Only by discovering and embracing the godly longings driving our desires and asking for God’s instruction on how to fulfill those desires in ways that are pleasing to him can we hope to achieve true peace and ultimate fulfillment. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI,
…we must not forget that the dynamism of desire is always open to redemption….We all, moreover, need to set out on the path of purification and healing of desire. We are pilgrims, heading toward our heavenly homeland. The pilgrimage of [desire] is not, then, about suffocating the longing that dwells in the heart of man, but about freeing it, so that it can reach its true height (2012).
To learn more about how to reclaim the divine purpose behind the deepest and even darkest desires of your heart, check out Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart.