When What I Desire Is The End of Suffering

teachustowantMy friend Jen Pollock Michel has written a beautiful book called Teach Us To Want: On Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith. It is exquisitely written, theologically profound, and I am savoring each page. Jen asked a few writers to share their thoughts on desire and what we really, really want. I was honored to guest post over at her blog last month: this here is the more detailed version.

The prayers of my youth were filled with desire. Prayers for a boyfriend, for college scholarships, for permission to go on the sleepover at the popular kids’ house. I wanted those things with a guilty, drenched need, and did not know where else to turn than to the God who gave good gifts. Those were the good gifts, as far as I could understand them.

The prayers of my adulthood still carry echoes of the prayers of my youth. In truth: I still pray about men, opportunities and friendships. However, I find that the life of being a mom and friend in a sin-soaked world are leading me to pray a host of different prayers of desire: “Please, I want it to be better. Please, let it not hurt anymore.”

We have weathered a good number of storms over the years, but I remember clearly the first tsunami of pain which made me pray that prayer most fervently. Our family was devastated by violent crime and we had no answers, no balm.

Instead we had questions, the most oppressive of which was this: “why would a good God let this happen?” We wanted so badly for things to be well with our loved ones, we desired good things from the one who “gives people the desires of their heart” (Psalm 37:4), and wasn’t he supposed to be the one who knew how to give his children good things? If we asked for a fish, would he give us a snake? If we asked for an egg, would he give us a scorpion? (Luke 11:11-12)

And yet there we were: snake-bitten by crime, scorpion-stung by violence.

I would not say that, having endured that trial, that I solved the ‘problem of evil’. That particular suffering challenged my faith significantly, but even in the absence of finding intellectually satisfying answers to my heartbroken questions, I still found myself drawing closer to God rather than pulling away from him.

Unglamorous as this may sound, I believe the main reason I stuck with Jesus was that I didn’t have any better alternatives. Again and again I was drawn back to John 6, where the disciples challenge Jesus with his teaching saying “this is hard to accept!” Jesus’ challenged them in reply: “will you leave me also?” Peter’s reply rang in my ears for weeks: “to whom else shall we go? We know and have believed that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:60-69)

In the wake of our trauma, I considered my options: I could deny there was a God (not really an option.) I could opt for a different religion: Islam (but Allah seemed so capricious.) Hinduism (but I really wasn’t persuaded, and the pictures gave me the creeps.) It was looking into Buddhism, though, which finally pointed me back to Christianity.

The four noble truths of Buddhism teach this:

All is suffering (dukkha), and

 Suffering is caused by desire.

 If one can eliminate desire, one can eliminate suffering.

 Finally, the Noble Eight-fold Path can eliminate desire.

My soul rebelled. The notion that the suffering we were experiencing was caused by a (wrongful) desire to not have things hurt seemed unconscionably inhuman. Far from helping me find peace, Buddhism made me angry: it was simply NOT TRUE that we were suffering because we had a wrongful desire not to suffer.

I needed someone to say that the suffering was wrong.

I needed to know that longing for wholeness was good.

I needed someone to say that ‘good’ was, in fact, good; and that ‘evil’ was truly ‘evil’.

I needed to know that my desire for things to be right was not a denial of my truest spiritual self, but in fact a deep expression of my truest spiritual self.

In Jesus, I found someone who did just that. He wept over death. He “set his face” towards the things he wanted to accomplish. He grieved over the bad, and gave his own life “for the joy set before him”. My soul needed to know that both grief and hope were appropriate and full expressions of the human experience.  In Jesus, I found someone who acknowledged and affirmed that both my desires for joy and relationship and my desires for pain and suffering to end were good things. And more than that, they were things he desired for us too.

The timeline in which those desires would be met still needed some negotiation.

But the desires themselves were good and God-given, even in the valley of shadows.

The prayers of my adulthood are filled with such prayers.