"...I shall not want..." - Ps. 23:1
Over recent years, I've routinely had conversations with theologically minded friends wherein we agreed that my tradition's lack of a comprehensive theology of desire is a huge liability, if not only on the practical level. My impression is that this theological blind spot really flows over into most Protestantism. Rigorous thought on how followers of Jesus should relate to desire is few and far between. Certainly on the practical, ordinary, Jesus-follower level the simple question can desire itself be sin? is completely up for grabs. In my branch of Christian subculture that is rooted in the Holiness movement of 19th century Methodism, a blanket ethos generally carries the day on the question of desire. Simply put, if we desire it, it's probably sin. Desire per se is suspect. And while this unsophisticated perspective can sometimes be helpful in Christian spirituality, it is also unsatisfying and perhaps a little dismissive.
We know in principle there's a great difference between need and desire. We may desire that which we also need and yet also desire that which might be nice to have or even that which may actually harm us. Our desires can help shed light on our personal calling(s) in life or clue us in to our destiny; but they can also derail us from attaining either. In the famous passage from Psalm 23, King David uses a Hebrew word that was also used to describe the floodwaters on the earth following Noah's flood in Genesis 8. As they receded, they lacked, they were deficient, they abated. The word is not so much pointing toward new categories within which we may crave more so much as it describes inadequacy in an existing state.
I am in want of food, because there is a lack of it.
I am in want of companionship, because I am alone.
I am in want of grace, because I have sinned, I am poor in Spirit.
Rather than foreshadowing a time when every whim of even the privileged will be fulfilled by God, King David instead envisions the disappearance of the kind of 'want' that only comes about in poverty. While David demonstrated only flashes of self-denial for his carnal desires, he likewise demonstrated his incredible poverty of character. And of course, just as he prayed in the Psalm, foreshadowing into his future, that lack would eventually be filled.
Wisdom is the gift that helps us see the difference between needs and desires. And while sometimes a slippery gift to hang onto, wisdom is most aptly found within vibrant and diverse community. A friend on Twitter recently posted a quote from the author of Amish Grace, David Weaver-Zercher "the community has more wisdom than the individual."
And while we can all think of specific examples where entire communities ran amok in group-think (religious cults, facist nationalism, gang psychology, etc.), going it alone in postmodern individualistic idealism is a recipe for disaster we all can see coming.
A small club of wealthy moms might be able to convince themselves that capitulating to $50 jeans from Fred Meyer instead of $300 ones from the boutique downtown is actually a sacrifice, an accepted lack. But they would be remiss to do so if living eye-to-eye with moms who had been victims of domestic abuse, had chosen the street in favor of a violent home, and had made due with temporary shelters while pulling life back together. A sense of poverty is relative to one's perceived surroundings. We only come to believe we're in lack in relation to others.
Which brings us to the tenth commandment. The sin of coveting is far less about avoiding fueling the jealousy that begets violence (although it includes that) than it is about the cycle of desire created by social isolation or homogeneity. Self-sufficiency, the absence of need, wealth, creates a hedge around us. And when we begin comparing ourselves to others exclusively within our hedge of protection, coveting is a normal response. When our frame of reference is so narrow as to exclude an accurate picture of reality, even our desires can betray us to insanity. In other words, we can get so caught up in apparent lack that we become blind to actual poverty.
I might be convinced that I need $300 jeans. But my real lack is forgiveness for the sin of coveting. This is part of what King David discovered through the Prophet Nathan after his despicable choices surrounding Bathsheba and Uriah. So entrenched in a world far from that which is real, he was convinced his desires were in fact needs; that his reaching out and violently taking yet another sexual plaything was entirely within the scope of reasonable human desire. This only demonstrated his true poverty. And it set the stage for God to change him.
Richard Rohr writes in his marvelous book Falling Upwards, “God seems to be about turning our loves around and using them toward the great love that is their true object.” If only we can avoid making the world a worse place in the meantime of this process.
And so I pray the words of David as a blessing over us - as a prophetic announcement and prediction: we shall not want. May our needs, our lack, our poverty be filled by the One who made heaven and earth. May we live so tightly in community that we don't confuse lack with vanity. May we be humbled by this One -- that we can yet see how we are beggars and don't even realize it. And may even that unacknowledged want also be filled. Amen.