Passion’s Provocation and Purpose: Avoiding Idolatry in a World Ruled by Desire
By Joe Bruni, Copyright 2019
“Every poet and musician and artist [and ministry leader], but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to the love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him”
“There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
We know how easy it is to make something into an idol. Whether money, power, success, status, happiness or a loved one, our hearts are “idol factories” as John Calvin observed, always seeking to worship something that we have deemed worthy of devotion. At an early age we experience pain or joy and in response we make vows of devotion. “I will never experience that terrible thing again.” Or “I will have a spouse that makes me happy like that when I grown up!” Or “I will have financial security so that I can provide more opportunities for my kids.” Or, and especially for those of us in ministry, “I will never sell out or loose my edge and my passion for this ministry!”
Each of these vows speaks to a desire that resides deep in our souls. These longings—for protection, for peace, for security, for intimacy, for purpose, for happiness and for impact—point to the way God has wired us to find Him to be the One we worship and the One who satisfies.
Our longings, that we are hard wired with, and that ultimately are for God Himself, are rightly expressed in desire for and enjoyment of the good things God has created. In our desire for and experience of created things, our hearts were made to experience God and move toward Him the Creator and Sustainer. But in our sin, the condition that has corrupted every part of us, we twist our longings and misdirect them. The sinful nature seeks to replace our core desire for God with the created things, reshaped into our own image. This is why, even when people pursue their longings in healthy ways, it can easily lead to idolatry and disaster.
C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, for instance, gives an example of a mother who, upon entering the edge of heaven and being offered heaven and God Himself, can only focus on her son who is already in heaven and why God “took him from me.” Her “love” for her son dominates her thoughts. She has made his happiness and comfort, and her possession of him, her absolute desire and goal. She is inevitably hurt and betrayed by anyone who gets in the way of her relationship with him, including God. Her affection for him is all consuming.
Unfortunately, as much as we have to separate out particular things like money, status and power to discuss and identify our idols, I don’t believe that our hearts’ idolatry develops as clear cut as that. I think our idols function in complicated stories and pictures of “the way things are” and/or “the way life ought to be.” For most of us, our hearts are sophisticated in their idolatry, weaving together many different desires and passions to create a story-line or life-picture that we are committed to more than anything or anyone else. And, for those of us in ministry, our story-lines or life-pictures have a lot of self-focused ministry impact, success, importance and glory tangled up in them.
Redemption of our longings and the tearing down of our idols powerfully begins when the Lord gives us new life. When we are born again, the regeneration of our hearts, alive in Christ, begins to repent of idolatry and to worship Him. This new life, that is born of the Spirit and connected to Christ and His work on the cross, has its affections and passions captured by our first true love.
It is this intimacy with Jesus that re-engages our desires and reorients them toward what they were made for. Then we begin to grow through time in His word and prayer (and through all spiritual disciplines) and we begin to love what He loves, to long for what He longs for and to grieve what He grieves. The process involves a sensitivity to God’s Spirit who connects our story-line and our life-picture to the story of redemption. Most of this process stings, because the Spirit is revealing to us many parts of our story and our picture that don’t match up and don’t fit in. But as we continue to place our longings before God in repentance and trust in Jesus and submit to Christ as Lord, our hearts develop new habits that realign with His Kingdom values.
So we must ask: “Does this mean, as a follower of Christ, I should avoid really loving something and enjoying it... a lot?” and “How do I know when I love something too much? At what point does my love for sports, for example, become problematic in my relationship with God? Do I need to fear deep affections for something or someone?”
For some Christians this has become a deep concern: How do I know when my desires have crossed the line, and how do I stand back from that line to make sure I love the Lord “more than all of these”?
The truth is, if we pursue our passions while in step with the Spirit, with a heart of worship toward the Creator and an intimacy with our Savior, then God does not weaken our desires. He supercharges them in the context of His presence, power and plan, redeeming them to be useful for pointing us to Him, participating in His redemptive work and cultivating the world as toward our original calling.
See, the temptation is to either become a stoic Christian, avoiding the impact and emotion of wrestling with our longings and passions for fear that they might get out of control. Or the alternative is to become an epicurean Christian, pursuing fulfillment of all our passions and desires for created things and sprinkling some Jesus in to keep it all in balance. For the epicurean Christian, we want to use God to justify experiencing as much joy and pleasure in this life for as long as possible. So we still pursue our idols like the rest of the world but with Jesus as our moderator who will keep us balanced and extend our happiness and comfort for as long as possible. And for us stoic Christians, we want to use God to justify our disregard of passion or affection, protecting our hearts from the disappointment of how our idols may let us down. Both stoic and epicurean Christianity are ways to stay in control, focus on self and avoid intimacy with God.
One of the ways throughout the history of the church that followers of Christ have avoided the questions and challenges of earthly desire all together has been by becoming a monastic. By joining a community of like-minded Christians in taking vows of celibacy, simplicity and poverty, they have the opportunity to focus solely on Jesus and pursue disciplines that would bring deeper intimacy. To me this is admirable and in many cases a beautiful display of devotion to Jesus. The monastic life is a unique calling that has become more rare today than ever. But if you’re like me, your response to the monastic option doesn’t seem attractive or helpful.
So then how shall we live… in the world but not be of the world? The answer is intimacy, identity and surrender. To live as a genuine follower of Christ in the world is a calling to intimacy with Jesus. Intimacy with Him will reshape our desires to love what He loves and love the things of this world the way He loves them. It is also a calling to surrender our very lives, with all of our passions and desires, and find our identity in the cross. It is our Lord who, “for the joy (passion) set before Him, endured the cross” for our sake and is now “seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Christ’s surrender is that power behind our surrender which actually allows us to experience the things of this world with more richness and joy.
And finally, it is a calling to focus on how we, with our passions and desires, can be part of God’s kingdom-building work in this world. Our calling is to be cultivators of this world and ambassadors for the redemption God is bringing to bear in this world. In humility and repentance, we trust more deeply and venture further into God’s grace for us and His work in the world. It is in this that our desires and passions become great and powerful gifts and tools that fuel our passion and action for Him and for His kingdom.
“Nothing, not even the best and noblest, can go on as it now is. Nothing, not even what is lowest and most bestial, will not be raised again if it submits to death. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. Flesh and blood cannot come to the Mountains [heaven]. Not because they are too rank, but because they are too weak. What is a Lizard compared with a stallion? Lust is a poor, weak, whimpering whispering thing compared with that richness and energy of desire which will arise when lust has been killed.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
Stoic vs. Epicurean Christianity:
Where do you lean?
Would you say you are an emotional Christian?
Is it more dangerous to love something not enough or too much?
Are our desires generally good or generally bad?
Which influences your decisions more, your heart or your head?
Which is better: To engage deeply in secular culture/community or to engage in Christian culture/community?
My desires, other than my desire for God, are dangerous.
Which is better: To enjoy the privilege/wealth that God has given you or to give away the privilege/wealth?
Areas of anxiety in my life are indicators that I don’t trust God.
If I spend a lot of time doing something I love and feel like I can’t get enough, then it must be an idol.
As long as I give away at least 10% of my income, I can use my wealth for my own plans.
Christian leaders should be less affected by and attached to the created pleasures of this world.
If I’m a good pastor/ministry leader, then I shouldn’t struggle with things in life the way others do.
Suffering is a part of life; if we have faith we should just be able to accept it.
Self-care is for people who don’t trust God enough.
Answer key: If you chose mostly 1’s then you lean toward Epicurean Christianity. If you answered mostly 2’s then you learn toward Stoic Christianity.
How would we rewrite these questions to express a life of intimacy (with Christ), identity (in Christ) and surrender (to Christ)? Check out our rewrites here.