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Choice Desire and the Will of God: What more do you want? by David Runcorn

May 28, 2016

CDATWOGI knew the author when he was Director of Pastoral Studies at Trinity College Bristol. Since then, he has moved from an evangelical position to a more nuanced spirituality.

I once berated a preacher who was moralising about people with IDs, saying that they bought it on themselves by their promiscuity. I pointed out that Augustine speaks of a ‘God-shaped hole’ which we seek to fill. I reckon that people who seek casual encounters are really looking for love, in which case they are looking, ultimately, for God. Instead of condemning desire, we should be seeking to refine it.

Do we know what we really want in life–what would truly satisfy us? Do we ever wonder what God wants for us or from us? The author looks at the implications of free will, its excitements and its burdens. Speaking plainly and movingly about struggles with faith and life, about hope and exhilaration, he questions many familiar approaches to God, Christian life, and action.

Many think that if something is what you want, then it can’t be God’s will. This book challenges that.

In seeking a faith that has integrity, he faces tough questions of desire, and estrangement from God with poetic vigour and accuracy, debunking crusty clichés and calling us to “grow up” in the hard joyful reality of the human side of a relationship with God.


We are restless. We need somewhere to ask questions. It may not be that anything has gone particularly wrong for us – at least on the surface.

Freedom is the central gift in the Christian faith. It is the free­dom to enter into a completely new relationship with God. This in turn liberates our relationship with each other and our world. One of the most evocative ways the Bible expresses this new life is in terms of spaciousness. ‘He brought me out into a broad place, he delivered me because he delighted in me’ (Psalm 18.19).

It was in this spirit that some of the first Christians called themselves ‘deserters for God’. But they were not opting out of the world into some narrow religious ghetto. Rather they found a joyful spaciousness to live in the world without being confined, manipulated and squeezed into its mould.

Richard Holloway once remarked, ‘So much religion is an attempt to tame the madness of God.’

`Christ has set us free to live a free life,’ St Paul urges. ‘So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you’ (Galatians 5.1, The Message). He goes on to challenge the Church about the temptation to turn their faith into a system of rules and regulations. Christian faith is about living as free people.

The problem with our age is not that we pay too much attention to our wants and passions. We do not take our longings seriously enough. We must befriend our desires.’ We must learn to live in our choices. If this calls us to a life of responsibility it is also an invitation to extraordinary freedom. But above all else this path will call us to a constant renewing of our vision of God. This is a vocation to contemplation, wonder and mystery. Nothing could be more glorious or more demanding.

The secret is now out. Rubem Alves puts it even more daringly: ;What the doctrine of the incarnation whispers to us is that God, from all eternity, wants a body like ours.’

The cross is absolutely central to Christian faith and to salvation. But the story does not begin there. If that is our whole understanding of the incarnation, we are putting the needs of our sinful humanity in the centre instead of God. The coming of Jesus belongs to a much bigger, more mysterious and more glorious vision.

Trying to underline just how radical it was for the Son of God to behave like this, the preacher described Jesus as ‘setting aside his divine status’ and performing an `unGodlike’ act.

But clearly Jesus does not think it is unusual for God to behave like that. Jesus does not have to set aside anything Godly  to act like a humble servant. He is not acting out of divine character. God’s love is like this. Take a closer look. In this serving, humble, suffering, self-giving, cross-bearing gift of Jesus, God is just being himself!

this popular translation distorts what the verse is saying. `Though he was in the form of God’ suggests that in heaven Jesus would have been within his rights to insist on his status but he chose not to. This again gives the impression that in the incarnation and the cross God is acting contrary to what is normally his way.

A better translation is: Precisely because he was in the form of God he did not consider being equal with God grounds for grasping. On the contrary, he poured himself out . . . by taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness . . .he humbled himself.

A God of love cannot do just as he chooses. He is constrained by his nature: he is constrained by his love. Real love always gives space and freedom to the beloved. It involves willing self-limiting, self-denial for the sake of the other, so that they may be free to grow and to choose to love also. For God to create us and this world must involve an act of self-limiting. As soon as love is imposed or demanded it ceases to be love. So God can be present in our lives only because he also, by loving choice, withdraws in some way.

The same point was illustrated by two scientists in a television documentary discussing research into artificial intelligence. One said, ‘If you want the agent to be free — to be autonomous — and not just a computer program you have written for it — then you have to let it go, let it explore for itself and learn for itself.’ The other agreed and then suggested this might be how God creates a world of real freedom and choice. ‘It’s only when the creator has let go of the system that the system can count as having free will. God couldn’t have programmed us in detail. He had to use evolution because only that puts enough distance between God’s intention and my intention for my acts to turn out to be free.’

The greatest limitation in all this debate is that we only know how to speak of God in relation to our own world, our needs and longings. It is very hard to let God be God. R. S. Thomas once wrote a moving poem about this, after seeing a rare white tiger at Bristol Zoo. He was over­whelmed by the sheer beauty, grace and potency of that creature. He also felt the contradiction and pain of its captivity, as it paced restlessly up and down in the confinement of a tiny cage. He asks if this isn’t how God must feel, within the confines of all our attempts to define and control him.

‘God is useless.

I mean, he serves no purpose.

He does not need a reason to exist.

Being God is not a job. No one appointed him.

He is complete in himself.

He just is.

At each stage of the creation story in Genesis God pauses, surveys whatt he has brought into being and declares it ‘good’. The word doesn ‘t mean morally good (as opposed to bad or evil). Nor does refer to technical excellence (i.e. a job well done). The word expresses sheer pleasure – something utterly lovely, beautiful exhilarating to behold. Creation knows itself in God’s desire and pure delight. …..It has been repeatedly vandalised, trashed and horribly misused, but this world still bears all the signs of having been created to be a playground.

And that means creation is useless too. God did not need to create the world. He was not lonely or lacking in any way.

He does not need our love or worship. So we are not here to make a point. We are not a divinely manufactured product. This world exists simply because God takes pleasure in it.  It is free gift sustained in divine delight – a work of boundless imagination.

Where the exiles gathered, in times of prayer and worship, this song began to take hold of their imagination. There was some­thing therapeutic in its rhythmic cycle; a firm and strong affirmation. It spoke to their longings and hopes. It was a gift for a people in dereliction and despair. The story was not told to explain some distant past. What use was that? It was told to minister to the present

when this awesome Creator God speaks, ‘Let there be’, what tone of voice do you think he is using? Is this the imperious command of an all-powerful ruler, demanding that his absolute will be done? Or is he choosing from infinite possibilities ­’How about . . . ?’ Has God decided yet what he will make? Some suggest the phrase ‘Let there be . . .’ is like a word of gra­cious release — permission to be. Unlike worldly authority that dominates and forces us into submissive obedience, God invites the world into being. Life is given to itself. Creation is given its freedom. God does not impose his order on the world. Things are left remarkably open. There are no induction courses on gardening, animal care or prayer. Adam and Eve are not given a job description except in the most general terms: ‘Go forth . . . I be fruitful.’ The working out of what that means day by day seems to be left to the creatures to decide. Life is possible, not prescribed. Faithful living is found in freedom.

We are left with a story that is definite and heavy on God’s power, choice and will, but has very little vision of what human beings are for — except as creatures made for obedience and who, at first attempt, get it horribly wrong.

Evidence for this is everywhere. For one thing there is too much in this world that is simply unnecessary. Creation is wildly extravagant but none of it is just for show. You never reach the edge of plastering or see where the paint stops when God is at work. This inexhaustible, mind-blowing creativity pours out far beyond all sight and knowledge.

It is the children’s bedtime and we are looking through a new Bible Picture Book. It starts with the Garden of Eden. My heart sinks. Any parent knows the struggle to say something intelligent about pictures and text that are either hopelessly sentimental, plain wrong or which reduce the mystery of creation to a predictable, dull moral tale. There are few more misused and abused corners of the Bible than the creation stories.  We feel guilty because the Bible is the ‘Word of God’ and for Christians it ought to be alive with meaning.

That ancient story actually introduces us to a world that is excitingly open, pregnant with God’s creative presence and full of enticing possibilities. To be made in the image of a God of such unendingly creative imagination, is to find our own vocation as explorers and adventurers rather than employees of a huge wild life park or landscape gardeners. But these illustrations reveal just how hard we find it to tell these stories with any real imagination.  As a result they are powerless to awaken a vision that might seriously turn our world around and even change the way we live in it.

In the foreground an (apparently vegetarian) tiger is strolling past a sleeping lamb (‘Why isn’t he eating it, daddy? Isn’t he hungry?’). The rest of paradise is densely populated with similarly lethal combinations of species. Overhead the trees are groaning with fruit.

In the background, Adam and Eve stand naked (lightly tanned Caucasian), under the shade of an apple tree (is sunburn a risk in paradise?). Though the story says they were ‘naked and not ashamed’ the children’s book illustrator arrives just as they have walked behind a shrub with unusually wide leaves.

They are always just standing around in these picture books. They look vaguely content, smiling in their innocence, but as if they are waiting for some instructions to arrive. After all, what is there for a gardener to do in a perfect garden? Without corruption there will be no weeds. Without death there will be no leaves to rake.  What kind of dominion do they need to exercise in a creation so benignly ordered and complete?

The children quickly sense there is no excitement to be found in this garden and turn over to ‘David and Goliath’ or ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den’. I confess I am glad to follow them.

‘The companionship of creation was an unexpected comfort during the time in the Alps I have already mentioned.  I was in a fragile state.  On one occasion I had spent a long while weeping, feeling lost and frightened in the mystery of the pain and struggling to find God in it.  After a while the tears stopped and I became still with a mixture of numbness and heightened sensitivity that can often follow an outpouring of grief.  I became aware of my small log stove behind me.  There in the corner of the room it crackled and clunked while the leaky old kettle on top hissed and steamed.  It felt like a wise old friend who loved and understood but would not intrude upon this moment by coming nearer.  I became aware of the bare plank walls of my cabin around me.  They felt supporting, secure and sheltering – but without closing in upon my space.  I looked out of the window.  I watched the alpine grasses blowing in the meadow, the clouds tugging at the mountain tops, and felt the cooling air of the approaching evening.  Everything around me seemed to understand.  Without mocking or excluding, they all knew a secret.  All this was sustained in love.  All shall be well.’

Where the Wild Things Are was a very controversial book when it was published in 1963 in America. The outward reason was a concern that the vivid pictures of monsters would frighten children. The underlying anxiety was surely more to do with placing this gloriously anarchic story into the hearts and imaginations of young children in the first place. This is subver­sive literature!

Written only a decade after Thomas’ adventures, Max’s world

is an altogether more potent, risky and conflictual place in which to grow up. It is a story about creative growth through conflict.

Max is testing his boundaries against the powers that constrain his choices. There is a battle of wills. Growing up in this world involves the risky engagement with conflicting passions and relationships. Life is wild. There are monsters to be negotiated.

If God is all-mighty and all-determining, was he really select­ing individuals and nudging their schedules one way or the other, to life or death?

After the long, desperate saga of Job’s sufferings and the exhaus­tive attempts to find an explanation for them, chapters 38 to 42 contain God’s magnificent and dramatic ‘answer’ to Job out of the whirlwind. Two long speeches follow.

The first is a beautiful poetic celebration of creation, from the song of the morning stars and the joyful shout of heaven as the foundations of the earth were laid, to the hawk on the wing and the mountain goat giving birth. But the second speech is an extended celebration of the creation of two wild, mythical creatures — Behemoth and Leviathan. In ancient Near Eastern religion these terrifying monsters represent the uncontrollable, chaotic forces of anti-creation and anti-God. They personify the archetypal human fear of the random element in life, and the constant anxiety that life may fall back into primordial chaos and non-being.

In some of the psalms, the chaos monsters are portrayed as arch-opponents of God’s purposes. God does battle with them. Psalm 74.12 celebrates the power of God in overcoming and crushing Leviathan. God is greater than the mighty ocean and the untamed creatures within. The book of Revelation looks forward to a time when all these chaotic elements, personified by `the dragon’ or ‘serpent’, will be finally overthrown (Revelation 20.2, 10).

But here in Job, Behemoth and Leviathan are part of what / God gave birth to in the beginning. ‘Look at Behemoth which I made just as I made you,’ he says to Job (40.15). He even describes his creation as ‘the first of the great acts of God’ (40.19). God seems to find their existence exhilarating and even teases Job for his comparative frailty before them: ‘Can you draw out Levia-than with a fish-hook?’ (41.1). ‘I will not keep silent con­cerning its mighty strength or its splendid frame . . . Who can stand before it?’ (41.11, 12).

This is a long way from the benign, peaceful garden paradise of popular imagination. Here is a vision of a world that includes wild and untameable elements, beyond human strength to manage. God creates them just as he creates human beings. And though he clearly acts upon these forces, limits their destructiveness and on occasion overthrows them, he does not choose to remove them. The picture is ambivalent. These wild creatures are both exciting and threatening, part of creation and also destructive of it. But they are actually God’s creation and celebrated as part of the gift of life. We are asked to hold strongly opposing elements in tension.

In such a world life is both exciting and costly. Choices become more vital, human freedom more precarious and more imperative. Our greatest dilemma seems to be this: if we try to avoid the risks, we will miss the possibilities. There is no ‘safe’ living on offer.

Our greatest struggle in this life is of with sin but with receiving the love with which God loves us.

It is love, not sin, that lies at the heart of the cross…. The well-known verse in John’s Gospel reads, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’ (John 3.16). The text does not say, ‘God so judged the world that he required punishment and death.’ God was not compelled or required to act as he did. The cross is a gift of divine love.

When this idea is suggested in discussion groups, some people react strongly. The language of love is heard as a soft option. It is not tough enough. Humanity is sinful and under judgment. The world needs a drastic solution. ‘The gospel is getting watered down,’ said one person angrily. ‘We must challenge people with the real cross — we must tell it like it is.’

But our own experience suggests that there is nothing soft about receiving love. It can be the hardest thing to do. Why do we pretend otherwise? A conference of counsellors and spiritual directors was asked, ‘What is the most common area_of struggle you meet in the people who come to see you?’ They immediately replied — ‘Being loved,’

But what people say they need is often quite different. When people come asking for spiritual direction (or help in finding a director) I always ask, What are you hoping to find in this relationship?’ The replies are nearly always the same: ‘I want someone to be accountable to’, ‘I want someone who won’t let me mess around’, ‘I want someone who will challenge me and be tough with me when I need it’. The determination to develop a disciplined and mature Christian life is always impressive. But I love is never mentioned. And God is love. Why do people assume that what they need more than anything, to grow close to God, is tough, firm handling?

This is played out in adult society too. We experience desire t in competition. We are rivals for love. We fight to secure a sig­nificant identity by claiming the desire of others for ourselves. All of this means that our places of security, loving and belonging are achieved by excluding others. To have an identity of my own. I must have something that others do not have. To know myself loved and significant I must be part of a group that others are not part of. Thus my sense of personal love and worth is secured by excluding you. Indeed, it requires it. We are nurtured in a society in which the loving, desiring and identity that we crave for our human flourishing is founded on compulsive rivalry and exclusion. And it goes without saying that a huge and sophisti­cated advertising industry thrives on exploiting our anxieties by stimulating constant comparison.

God is love. But he is secure in that love and so he is free. He is not in competition with us or with anything he has made. No rivals threaten him. He does not need our love to fill any personal need of his. He has no insecurity that requires him to establish his identity by excluding anyone else. God’s love is therefore an unconditional gift. It is completely gratuitous — the word means ‘freely, spontaneously given, granted without favour or merit — without good grounds or cause’. He even loves without requiring any guarantee or assurance of how we will respond or what we will do with it. His love is genuinely disinterested and detached. Without any need to take us over or compel us into a response, it leaves us free to choose to love in return.

This is the love revealed in the coming of Jesus. The first thing that happens is that the world simply doesn’t recognise him: `He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him’ (John 1.10). He finds himself a stranger in a world where life is founded on a totally different understanding of love and desire. The two languages have nothing in common. It is a complete clash of cultures. As he begins to reveal himself, his presence deeply divides people, so the stories and parables of Jesus often explore the needs and assumptions of two very different groups of people in his audience.

The pharisee prays a prayer’ of pride: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people, thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all my income.’ Notice his confidence in himself and God is based entirely on his ability to exclude others. Because he is not like them, he knows he is special. His ‘goodness’ requires the exclusion of others who can be called ‘bad’ — for example that tax collector over there (as if God needs a visual aid at this point!).

By contrast the tax collector is a despised, unlovable outsider. Many hearers of the story would have been surprised at the idea that tax collectors prayed at all. ‘Tax collector’ and ‘sinner’ are almost synonymous in the New Testament. This man has nothing with which to offer or entice God’s favour and he knows it. If God decides to be merciful to him it will be an entirely free gift outside of any deserving or means of gaining favour. His whole demeanour suggests little hope that his prayer will be heard: ‘Standing far off, he would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”‘ The scandal or delight of the story — depending on which group you belonged to in the audience — was that the tax collector was the one whose prayer was answered and went home loved.

No one in church Bible-study groups ever chooses to identify with the Pharisee in this story. But the damage done by religious rivalry is evident everywhere. The temptation to find our religious security by comparison, judging and excluding others is as powerful and destructive today as it was in the world of the Pharisees.

I remember to my shame a time when I met someone whose behaviour had caused deep hurt to close friends of mine. His actions had become public and he was now struggling to come to terms with what he had done. He was very penitent. For our part we had all told him we loved and forgave him. He found this even harder to take. It would have been easier to cope with if we had judged and shut him out. I sat with him, listening to turmoil, encouraging him of God’s forgiveness and ours. But as I did so I became aware, with uncharacteristic honesty, that I was actually enjoying his discomfort and my role as forgiver and comforter. Being able to minister God’s love to him was making me feel full of heroic Christian virtue and righteousness.

Note that it was the good, devout, sincere people who cruci­fied Jesus. We miss the point entirely if we think that the cross is a consequence of our badness. The cross starkly reveals our problem with goodness. For Jesus, ‘good’ and ‘goodness’ were words whose meaning had become so polluted as to be unusable. When someone greeted him as ‘Good Teacher’, Jesus refused the word even for himself, insisting it could be applied to God alone (Mark 10.17).

So here we have it. In our flesh is revealed a way of loving and desiring that exposes a whole way of life for the manipulative rivalry that it really is. This love is so ‘other’ that it renders all our familiar techniques for finding and knowing love completely useless. What is offered is a totally new way of valuing ourselves.

We have built defences around ourselves carefully and with reason. For those who have been deeply hurt, to be loved without condition can be barely endurable.

Surrounded by massive injustices, sustained violence and unrelenting innocent suffering, our talk of the cross needs to be more than neat legalistic equations about sin, guilt and acquittal. It is, first of all, the place of God’s loving identification with the victims of his world. It is the measure of how tirelessly, and at what cost, God seeks to know and love us as we are.

This is not a knowing of us that sometimes finds expression in the thoughtless ‘He understands how we feel, he’s been here.’ Has he? In what way? Did Jesus ever have a miscarriage? Was he

ever raped or abused as a child? Did he watch his children die of starvation in a refugee camp? The identification is altogether deeper. On the cross, held by love not nails, Jesus is crucified into the hell that is the world’s pain. He becomes the victim of victims. One Christian therapist, working with the most deeply damaged victims of life, would even speak of the cross as God’s apology to them.

If the cross is God’s place of willing identification with us it is also the place of our violent, wilful rejection of him. Jesus is made a scapegoat. Scapegoats are needed in any world where identity is founded on a basis as hopelessly insecure as competing desires. Scapegoats are the chosen victims on whom is laid the blame for those ills a society is unable to face about itself. The community can unite against the common enemy and can ignore, for the time being, the deeper anxieties about its own identity and motivation.

Doves and serpents

When Jesus sends his disciples into the world he calls them to be `wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ (Matthew 10.16). These two qualities are not easily pictured together. How can you be wise and innocent? And don’t snakes eat birds? The older form of the ordination service asked God to ‘adorn’ those who are being made priest ‘with innocency of life’. But I have yet to find any prayers asking God for snake-like cunning! Aren’t we missing something here?

We should by now be wary of assuming we know what qual­ities Jesus has in mind when he calls us to innocence! The word usually describes a state of undefiled pre-experience. It is a form of virginity, and like virginity, it cannot be restored once it is lost. We speak of the supposed innocence of childhood’ in this way. It can only be preserved pure and intact through avoiding those conflicts and experiences that might taint or corrupt its virginal goodness.

But the innocence that us speaks of is clearly quite different. It is learned; and to learn it requires the contradictory virtue of serpent cunning, Jesus calls his followers to an open-eyed and canny understanding of the world; one that can only come from .a full and vigorous involvement in it. Snake-like wisdom is not for fooling. It sees life as it really is – with all its capacity for duplicitous evasion and outright’ evil Christian innocence lies in learning to live by a way of responding that leads to our trans­formation rather than our corruption. It is costly and risky, but it is the way that leads to life.

In the first instance it simply requires honesty in the face of questions. But this is not an area where Christian ministry lives very comfortably with its task. In a church

where I ministered I decided to broaden the traditional confirmation classes to make them more exploratory and enquiring. The next Sunday I adver­tised them, off the cuff, as ‘a kind of Agnostics Anonymous. The interest was immediate and the name stuc . tor theriext few years I ran several groups each year. It attracted people from outside faith who wanted to understand it better, as well as long­term church members who kept saying that here was a place they could ask questions they had not felt able to ask before. We had two ground rules: 1. Every question is valid; 2. You do not have to become a Christian at the end of it.

As the leader I was surprised by how uncomfortable I found the groups. I had to lose control of the process. Until that moment I had not seen just how formulaic  my approach to teaching and discipling actually was. I had been passing on what I myself had received. But my well-intentioned (though anxious) concern to encourage clear and confident faith tended to be prescriptive rather than open. The atmosphere was protective rather than adventurous. Answers were given before the questions. All too easily this could lead to a faith pursued apart from life. Selective non-engagement with the hostile and troubling `world’ is often encouraged as a faithful response to believing.

But in the groups it was the questions that were life-giving. Time and again people emerged with deeper and more authentic relationships to God and to their own lives. People actually came to life in the questions — and so did God!

Since there is no way of withdrawing completely from issues, questions and dilemmas, people can find themselves trying to sustain two lives. Where this tension is most clearly revealed is in the inability of many church communities to relate Sunday faith creatively to the weekday world of work and society. One

person spoke of it as a double pain. She had a costly commitment to work that kept her in the front line of complex moral and social issues, to which there were often no clear answers. But she experienced her church community happily worshipping and praying in what felt like a parallel universe. Her call to struggle in the wilderness was not supported or even understood for what it was.

David Martin adopted exactly this bold strategy when, as a young Christian, he became a student at the London School of Economics. It was an aggressively secular institution at the time. He was the only Christian in his department and he came from a fundamentalist Methodist background. ‘I exposed myself deliberately to as much contrary thinking as I could, in order to work out a position . . . I stood at the crossroads and took whatever came. I suppose it is the most Christian thing I’ve ever done.’ This is nothing less than risky faithfulness to the wilderness of the Spirit.

Today he continues to be known as a firmly committed Christian and one of the world’s most eminent sociologists. He argues that two convictions lie at the heart of the Christian witness in the world: a belief in the power of the gospel to trans­form life; and an uncompromising sense of the iniquity of evil. The hope of the gospel is found precisely in the place that most threatens it. You cannot have one without the other. A world‑view dominated by evil will lead to withdrawal, hopelessness and despair. But a gospel without a shrewd discernment of the reality of evil will degenerate into the ineffectual ‘happy consciousness’ that he fears is infecting the Church in its desire for relevance and growth. In the moment when, for our salvation, we are being driven into the wilderness, our temptation will be to spend our time building amusement arcades.

In one of Graham Greene’s novels, a priest is sitting in a confes­sional listening with growing impatience to the familiar litany of petty grudges, minor infringements and the familiar preoccu­pations of sterile devotion. He loses his temper and snaps, ‘Why i don’t you confess your real sins?’ The penitent looks up at him in blank incomprehension. Greene’s priests are better advertise­ments for whisky than pastoral practice, but here the question goes to the heart of the matter…. When we define sin solely in terms of wrong actions or thoughts, we trivialise it. Our diagnosis does not go deep enough. The problem is more radical and fundamental. Jesus furiously castigated and mocked the religion of his day for its pedantic obsession with external standards of behaviour. Who we are always comes before what we do. Our choices, desires and actions will always flow from our sense of personal identity. Our deepest need is not primarily to stop doing or saying bad things. The power and significance of sin lies not so much in what we are doing or saying, but in who we think we are.

Real sin — the sin that is still Original to this world — is at root an insistence on being what we are not — a desire for a life other than the one we are given. So it is ultimately the pursuit of a world that does not exist. This way of life unfolds as a helpless and tragic case of mistaken identity.

In my experience, where a person feels f secure enough to share such a story in a church context they often start by saying, ‘Of course, I know you won’t agree with this but . . .’ Official religion is expected to stand in judgment of their experience and find it wanting. It means that many people, finding their lives unexpectedly touched by signs of profound spiritual reality, never find a place where they can talk about it and discern the significance of what they received.

By ancient tradition, at the beginning of Lent, Christians receive the sign of ash on their foreheads. As they do so they hear the sober words, ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return; repent and believe the gospel.’ Ashing is a universal symbol of human mortality, of grief and mourning for sin, and of penitence. This is a season for serious reflection and for practising the disciplines that strengthen the fight against every­thing that denies Christ. Christian living is to be marked by watchfulness, careful self-examination. There are tears to be shed. There is no cheap grace. It is the way of the cross. The three promises made at baptism must remain the foundation of our living: ‘I turn to Christ; I repent of my sins; I renounce evil.’

But there is another symbol for this season — a complemen­tary one. Some- Greek_Orthodox communities mark the start of a quite different way. For them the first day of Lent is treated as the first outdoor day of the new year. Lent is the beginning of spring. After the long death of winter, here is the first sign that new life is coming. We must go out to greet it. The community celebrates this day by climbing the nearest hill and flying kites on the fresh spring wind!

Always more important than what we turn from is what we turn to. Here we meet the Spirit enticing, provoking, driving, inspiring us in the struggle to turn from our bondage to a useless evil, to live boldly and be caught up into the adventure of divine love.

AMAN was wandering through the heat of the desert. He seemed to be looking for something. His name was Macarius and he would become one of the founding saints of the Egyptian Coptic Church. His problem was that he knew God was calling him to build a monastery, but he did not know where. He searched the wilderness asking God to show him the right place to build it. ‘Give me a sign’. ‘Show me’. ‘Is it here ‑

or over there?’

But God was silent.

At last, after another day filled with fervent prayers for guid­ance an angel appeared with a message from God: ‘The Lord is not going to show you where to build the monastery. He wants you to choose the place. If he tells you where to build and things go wrong, you will only blame him. So you must choose.’

The sheer courtesy of God towards us is something little prepares us for. Surveying the range of human roles and jobs for comparison, God recognises himself more fully in the life of an earthly slave than in the status and power of an absolute ruler. It is not surprising if this is hard for us to adjust to. We may instinctively go on relating to him through the authoritarian, directive will we think God ought to have.

Although God’s love and human free will is stressed, we are little more than mildly animated puppets. God’s will for Macarius is to give him his own will. And obedience to God’s will requires him to enter a freedom of his own. To obey God is to be free.

the story warns us against a narrow understanding of what guidance is about. It is much more than making factually `right’ decisions about what God wants us to ‘do’. His plan is ‘not a blueprint: God shows no interest in the precise practical details here. His loving interest is focused on Macarius and the kind of person he may become as he fulfils God’s purpose.

So guidance is not a technique to be mastered but life to be entered. The question ‘What decision is God guiding to me to make?’ is part of a much bigger and more important question: `What kind of person is God willing that I may become?’

Finally, this is a vocation Macarius must freely choose. There are very practical, particular reasons given why this is important. God knows that if Macarius is to be faithful to his vocation when the going gets tough, it must be something that he has freely chosen. He must own it. This is shrewd pastoral leadership. Passive conformity can be confused with real faith, but it can never inspire the determination or endurance that faithful living requires.

I once heard a preacher castigating this selfish society where people ‘choose to do what they like when they feel like it’. He compared this to being Christian. Pausing dramatically, he said, ‘Frankly, we have no choice!’ He spoke with great authority. We all nodded in agreement. This was real commitment to Jesus. The message I heard at the time, I confess with some relief, was that we could leave the more difficult issues to God. But he was wrong. Christian discipleship is a call not to choiceless obedience but to responsible freedom. The Bible is full of challenges and invitations to make choices and decisions.

Christian choosing involves cross-bearing. It means being willing to live from a divine dis­content at the way life is. To live in penitence at our complicity with systems of discrimination. To live in costly identification with the suffering victims of an unfair world. We point to a king­dom that is coming and seek to live lives that reveal its breaking-in. The Christian communion finds its truest meaning in this context. Some churches have a practice of carrying bread and wine up to the altar to be consecrated, broken and shared. Words of offering are spoken. In one form of these God’s people are challenged as to what they are doing:

What do you bring to Christ’s table?

We bring bread,

Made by many people’s work,

From an unjust world

Where some have plenty

And most go hungry.

At this table all are fed, And no one is turned away. Thanks be to God.

What do you bring to Christ’s table?

We bring wine,

Made by many people’s work,

From an unjust world

Where some have leisure

And most struggle to survive.

At this table all share the cup Of pain and celebration,

And no-one is denied.

Thanks be to God.

You can avoid having to live with what  you want. If you desire the unattainable, you can desire without fear of contradiction. It will be a noble failure. You will be surrounded with much sympathy.

The fault always lies with the people, circumstances, organ­isations that surround you — and even God. Nowhere and no one will ever fulfil your desires (though of course you were not asking for much!). It could be your church, your marriage, fam­ily or work. Once your desires are safely out of reach you will never have to bear the responsibility of living with them — of having them tested in the crucible of committed relationships…. A thriving free-market economy is dependent on people being stimulated to want and to acquire, but to lose interest quickly in order to rejoin the restless search

One of the Gospels chooses to launch the earthly ministry of Jesus with an unexpected account of a village wedding that Jesus attended with his family (John 2.1-11). The story is well known. The wine runs out at the reception. The celebration is in danger of drying up almost before it has started. Behind the scenes, Jesus takes action and the result is startling. He turns more than 330 litres of water into what the master of ceremonies describes as the best wine he has ever drunk. This after the guests had already drunk their way through the original supply! This is more than generous. It is irresponsible — even mischievous. Isn’t there a moral issue here? (What excuses did the guests offer when they were late into work the next day — ‘God gave me a hangover’?) John calls this miracle the ‘first sign’ of Jesus. Not simply first among many — but the `Archsign’. This is the sign that is the key to interpreting all the signs that follow. This sign ‘revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him’.

What is it a sign of? It is a sign that a wildly generous, intox­icating, joyful love is now revealed in the world. A love that never stops at what is strictly necessary. This love will transform beyond all that is needed or the occasion requires. To contem­plate the glory of God revealed at the launch of Jesus’ earthly ministry this is what we must picture: a small village wedding party surely in an advanced state of joyful, helpless inebriation, as yet oblivious to the true source of their blessing!

What is it a sign of? God’s love among us. The world is a wedding.

We are tempted because we are more alive, not less so.

Third, the temptations of Jesus are the consequence of being filled with the Spirit. His struggles in the wilderness are directly linked to the descent of the Spirit upon him. He is in the wilder­ness because the Spirit has forced him there. In the yearly cycle of scripture readings these stories are usually read during the season of Lent, where the emphasis is on the struggle against sin and the need for discipline. But they might equally be read in the season of Pentecost. Temptation can be a fruit of the Spirit!

The wilderness of the Spirit

If this challenges our expectation of where temptation may be coming from, it may also change our vision of the Holy Spirit. All four Gospels describe how the Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism ‘as a dove’. As if to stress this as a physical encounter rather than a figurative reality of this encounter Luke adds ‘in bodily form’ (3.22).

In his book Wild Beasts and Angels Michael Milton questions the significance of this and offers some unexpected insights.’ Down the centuries Christian art has traditionally portrayed the descending Spirit in this scene as a small, delicate, pure white dove. But that is not the kind of dove that is described there. The Greek word describes a rock dove. This bird is neither immediately striking nor attractive. It looks like an ordinary English woodpigeon. Rock doves like rocky and rugged desert terrain. They make their homes in inhospitable and hostile places where human life would instinctively feel under threat and at risk. This is the bird that mysteriously appears overhead and descends on Jesus as he emerges from the water.

If the Holy Spirit should choose this bird to embody his life and character it is not surprising to find that the one who receives it is compelled to enter the wilderness that is its natural habitat. Far from offering protection from the raw dilemmas of human life and choice, the Holy Spirit is found to be a tough provoker and tester of life. He risks leading us closer to the vul­nerabilities that surround our conflicting desires. In his presence our desires, longings and choices are not lessened, but become I more vivid, more vital.

The parable of the prodigal desires

One of the best-known stories that Jesus told provides an inter­esting study of desire. It is commonly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luk;15.11-31). But it is in fact a story about two sons and their father who handle their desires in radically different ways. We should always be suspicious when a story is so evidently misnamed and only told in part.

The younger son is restless. He is full of impatience and goes to his father and demands his share of the family inheritance. Notice he is actually asking for what is rightly his and his desire is not wrong. It may even be a healthy sign that this young adult is ready for more responsibility. But he is asking too soon. For a son to make such a request in the culture of Jesus’ day was to insult the father — effectively to wish him dead. What his father feels about this we are not told. But the father gives the son his share — and his freedom.

The son goes to a ‘far country’. Did he have to go so far away? Perhaps a symptom of disordered desire is that it always feels like escape. He enjoys himself enormously. No need to be grudg­ing: this is a first taste of freedom. Despite what many people assume, the storyteller does not suggest decadence. It sounds great! But desires and passions do not pay the bills. Money runs out and he finds himself bankrupt. His personal crisis is matched by a crisis in the world around him. There is famine in the land, and he is forced to take work where he can. He, a Jew, ends up tending pigs, and he is hungry enough to eat their food. His life can sink no lower.

But now, in his despair, comes a moment of grace. (Perhaps Something clicks. The storyteller says ‘he came to himself’. This is a revealing phrase. The ‘far country’ is not just a physical place. In some very significant way this young man has been in exile from himself. He has lived far from his own deepest desires. He now sees where to his cost ‘the compass of his own excite­ment’ has led him, and recognises where he really belongs. He decides to return home and ask for a place on the most menial terms. He has surely disinherited himself — ‘make me your hired servant’. He rehearses this speech each step of the long journey home.         ,

Near and far

The older son is a quite different character. He appears to have been a model son and heir — reliable, dutiful, responsible and contented. When his lost brother returns home he is outside, working. It is quite implausible that he was unaware of the

–commotion in the house and of what had caused it. But he stays outside. So he too is outside the father’s house. And the father comes out to meet him too. His father speaks of his love and excitement that the son he thought he had lost was home alive. Now the older son’s restraint gives way. Beneath the surface of a dutiful, loving son a deep well of festering bitterness is uncovered. He insults his father, accusing him of favouring his brother and of neglecting him. He disowns his brother — ‘this son of yours’ ­and castigates his brother’s profligate living in terms that suggest a vivid imagination and probably envy!

This son too is in a far country — a bitter and sterile place full of self-pity, resentment and anger. He too has squandered the riches of his inheritance — by taking them for granted and for­getting to celebrate. He too was a prodigal son. He has never risked the vocation to enter and know his desires and longings. Whenever I preach or lead discussion on this story I find that the older son receives overwhelming sympathy. It is not fair: `You never gave me what I desired.’

The father’s reply is very revealing: ‘It was all yours to enjoy all along. You never asked.’ The older son’s inheritance too was there to be entered and enjoyed. But he had left it unused and uncelebrated. He too had lost the gift and privilege of being a son in the father’s house. He never renounced it like his younger brother. But there in the field he complains of how he has been a slave ‘all these years’. The older son turns out to be a person­ality eaten away within by unlived, unrisked desire.

In the end, who is furthest from the father’s home and love? If the younger son needed to return to his true home from the far country of his own indulgence and impulsiveness, the older son must find a way home from the sterile wasteland of his own `goodness’.

The first shock of the story — especially to the devoutly reli­gious in the audience — is that the son who risked living most fully and even irresponsibly with his desires actually achieves his true desire. His elder brother — who had never left the father’s home, who had never risked any engagement with his passions,

never celebrated the free gift of his inheritance — ends in bitter exile.

The prodigal father

What is most often the telling of the story is the third prodigal desire. The most extravagant and wasteful behaviour in this story is surely the father’s. No parenting manual would encourage that kind of indulgence in the face of such irrespon­sible behaviour. But this, says Jesus, is how God loves. The heart of the story is the wildly prodigal desire with which the father loves both sons.

This is, perhaps, the most wonderful and disturbing desire of all. More important than our own desires is the knowledge that we are desired. The deepest awakening of all is to the discovery that we are loved with a wild, prodigal love — without condition.

We love, because he first loved us. We desire because God desires us first.

H And this will be our greatest struggle. What has prepared us for the terror of being loved without condition and the disabling grace of being undeservingly loved? Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we play hide-and-seek. But God plays too.

I was once listening to a man who had come to talk through some areas of his life that he seemed unable to resolve. They were not major problems but he lived with a continual naggiog sense of frustration and felt powerless to change the way things were. We talked around the issues and feelings for a while and then I asked him, ‘If you could choose, what do you really waist for yourself ?’

He went silent and then began talking as if in answer, but actually changing the subject. In my experience, people can very rarely answer the question directly and often end up trying to avoid it — though they are usually unaware of doing so. As we talked it became apparent that this man had been taught that to have personal desires or personal wants is selfish. He had given his life to Jesus. ‘The cross is “I” crossed out.’ He should only want what God wants. His social and family background similarly inhibited of listening to feelings or managing emotions.

For other people the question may expose a deep sense of personal inadequacy and lack of personal confidence. ‘I am small and insignificant. No one will be interested in my desires and wants, they are so petty and unimportant.’

Others have never felt any such inhibitions about pursuing what they want. ‘I just feel like it’ is justification enough. But their lives are filled up with the accumulated jumble of their motional and material choices. They are quite unable to distin­guish a feeling that is a mere emotional reflex and something that comes from the depths. They live under a tyranny of distraction. Clearing a space from which to begin to sort through to real priorities and authentic longings needs considerable time and energy.

Thinking and feeling are assumed to be opposites. We separate them as mind and heart. This assumption has ancient roots in western philosophy and theology. Influenced by Greek thought, some of the early church teachers (though by no means all) believed that feelings and emotions were part of the inferior, sensual, physical world. Mind and spirit were regarded as su­perior, and the goal of Christian life was to achieve a passionless state of pure spirit, untainted by earthly passions.

In the second story of the creation of Adam, after he has been given a beautiful garden to live in full of everything good, there comes a surprising moment. God suddenly declares, ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ (Genesis 2.18). Well, was anyone sug­gesting it was? The reader has the feeling of having missed out on an important conversation between Adam and God. All we hear is God’s conclusion at the end of it.

There in the original goodness of creation, surrounded by all ‘ the fullness of what God has given, Adam is a creature of unful­filled longing, of frustrated desire. He feels incomplete. Notice that this is not a hunger that the presence of God can satisfy. The story is told of a man who found courage to say in a Christian prayer group how lonely he often felt. ‘But Jesus is your friend,’ said one well-meaning group member. ‘Jesus doesn’t play golf ! was his reply.

The search is on, and imagining the next scene is very funny. God sets to work creating vast numbers of animals and birds and brings them to Adam to name. It is a task that demands prodigious feats of imagination, yet it requires something much deeper than that. Remember, Adam is seeking and searching for what he desires. He does not seem to know exactly what he wants or needs. And nor, apparently, does God; at least it is not an answer God can give him. For Adam, it must involve searching, meeting and making relationships. All that lies behind the symbolic task of naming an other.

The long cast list of creatures that Adam-meets and names, but without finding what his heart is seeking, serves to build up to the explosive moment of recognition — at last — when he sees Eve. But it is surely also significant that in searching for the sin­gle object of his desire, he must engage with the whole created world.

The important thing is that Adam acts on his longings — though at this stage he has not even put them into words. He must follow the ache. With God’s help, he goes stalking his desires.

If the first task is questioning and naming, the second involves waiting. Does anything in our society nurture the positive experience of waiting? Quite the opposite. It is a waste of time and money. We are endlessly attracted to things that make life go faster for us. So our lives are marked by restlessness and we learn to fear the spaces in our lives that might deepen the present moment. This is so much a part of our daily living that we are largely unconscious as to how compulsive our patterns have become. It is so easy, so unthinking to turn on the television, pour a drink, pick up a phone, the moment a space opens up for just too long to be comfortable. One of Adam Phillips’s clients was always in a hurry. When he walked along the street his girlfriend complained she could never keep up with him. In a restaurant he chose quickly from the menu and then sat with thinly concealed frustration while others enjoyed pondering what to choose. He was a man who always `knew what he wanted’ and went straight for it.

Phillips tried to help him explore why he avoided ever being in a place of indecision — the place of waiting between things. Was this a man who really knew what he wanted, or was his decisiveness a need to avoid a deeper indecision and an anxiety about desire? ‘Between waiting, wanting and doing something about it there was a terror, a delay that seemed unbearable.’

Because he always moved so fast from choice to decision his ‘desiring was always premature’ and actually provided a short-term surface relief from his deeper and more fearful indecision.

So what are our emotions and passions meant to be in our lives? Just that — emotional and passionate. There is something entirely right, Christian and (ultimately) holy about the longing to live richly and freely out of our God-given passions.

But feeling itself is not our goal. Our wantings and longings give us somewhere to start from. They make a beginning possi­ble. With their energy and life, we must go searching.

This challenges the picture of Christian living as a constant struggle against our weakness; a battle against our capacity for ‘falling’ into sin. The gospel is much more than a remedy for our weaknesses. It is, more importantly, concerned with the con­version of our strengths. Christian faith is offensive in this world — not defensive. It is the gates of hell that are under threat from the triumph of Good, not the doors of the Church that are under threat from the power of evil. If we are to be faithful to God’s longing for human beings, if we are to be fully and passionately alive, we shall need all the energies God has created within us. We shall not have strength for the task without them. William Blake speaks of the Christian task as ‘seeking the form of heaven with the energies of hell’.

There was an appro­priate diffidence about the way that our genitals used to be called our ‘privates’. By contrast it has been suggested that we have shifted the fig leaf from our genitals to our face. In so doing we have lost not only the mystery of our sexuality, we have lost the secret of our identity.

All too frequently, agape is taught as the higher, Christian love to be chosen exclusively. Eros is the love that must be denied. But the two cannot be separated without harming both. Eros is positively needed for our understanding of Christian prayer and formation. Agape that avoids eros remains a rather bland, lofty ideal. It avoids some of the very places where love becomes specific, particular. Eros earths agape in real living. It is to eros that St Paul turns as an illustration of the love Christ has for the Church when he compares it to the intimacy of sexual union in marriage (Ephesians 5.21-32).

‘It is no matter of regret to God [that] the universe is not a piece of streamlined engineering. It is meant to be what it is — a free-for-all of self-moving forces, each being itself with all its might, and yet (wonder of wonders!) by their free interaction settling into balanced systems we know, and into the complexities whereby we

I exist’. Austin Farrer, quoted in John V. Taylor, The Christlike God (London, SCM Press, 1992), p. 18

‘The play of creation, as we perceive of an improvisation than the perfoi script.’ John Polkinghorne, Faith, !. (London, SPCK, 2001), p. 110.

‘If grace is true, you must bear the true, not imaginary sin. God does not save imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and sin boldly, but trust and rejoice in Christ even bolder; who is victor over sin.’ Martin Luther’s words come in a pastoral letter to an anxious friend. Imaginary sinners are those who define sin in terms of wrong doings. They are in grave danger of self-justification. Life preoc­cupied with avoiding lapses is not Christ-centred and leads us away from the gift of grace. It can also lead to a certain kind of anxious, separatist and safety-first approach to living, fearful of compromise — as if sin is something you can withdraw from in this world. Luther argues that real sin is actually our radically fall­en humanity and separation from God. We all share in this. We are helpless to avoid it or resolve it of ourselves. We must confess it and live in it boldly. So Alexander Jensen concludes, ‘Luther’s “sin boldly” is definitely not a moral “free ticket”, encouraging immorality, but a morally most serious matter, leading to freedom and responsibility’. See his ‘Martin Luther’s “Sin Boldly” Revisited: A Fresh Look at a Controversial Concept in the Light of Modern Pastoral Psychology’, Contact: Interdisciplinary Journal of Pastoral Studies, no. 137 (2002), p. 2.

See also Befriending Our Desires by Philip Sheldrake

and The Education of Desire – T. Gorringe

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From → Spirituality

One Comment
  1. Ben doherty permalink

    As I have traveled South Africa searching my soul, seeking God and trying to find my way as a Christian, my mind wandered back to reading this book by David Runcorn. I remembered the amazing wisdom in it and I prayed that somehow I would find an excerpt from it on the Internet. After some fruitless searching I found that you’d put some of the book up on your page, and I almost cried I was so happy! The words here repeatedly describe and illuminate what’s going on in my life right now – I’m amazed. Im sure God orchestrated me rediscovering this book at the perfect time and you played a part in that so THANK YOU!!

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