A Generous Grace

ideas on practical spirituality and loving each other

Does What I Want Matter? On Desire, Dreams, and Ambition as a Christian

It had been one of those days.  I was trying to stomach a failure of mine in my job, and I sat at the kitchen table with my husband, shaking my head. I explained that this past year, one of God’s key messages for me seemed this idea of making “no graven image”. I had to be really careful, I told him, not to remake God as “the God of what I want”–that Divine Waiter I wrote you about.

But my husband’s hazel eyes leveled with my blue ones. “I think you also have to be careful not to make an image of Him as the God who represents whatever you don’t want.”


He’s not that far off. After all, he met me back in college. In those days–back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and we were all newly on dial-up internet–I lived by the general rule that if I didn’t want to do something, I should probably do it. If  I didn’t want to talk with someone, I’d go overboard to build a relationship. If I wanted to chill, I made sure there was nothing else productive or meaningful I could possibly be doing. I exercised; I fasted; I packed my free time with ministry opportunities.

And there’s some merit to this, right? Galatians 2:20 was my verse. I was all about dying to self. I liked John 3:30, too: He must become greater, I must become less. If I wanted it, it probably needed to be severely curbed. (Is this the point I should mention my abilities in self-denial produced a near eating disorder? …Probably not.)

Of course it got a little hairy that at a Christian college, this people-pleaser found a lot of voices intoning what I should do. (To this day, when I’m stressed, my husband occasionally points out I’m using the word “should” a lot.) But then there was my Comparative Religions class, that pointed out it’s actually Buddhism that sees death to desire as its nirvana.


I’m reminded of God’s words to the Israelites:

He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.

Deuteronomy 8:3

Did you hear it? Did you hear how God created desire in them, just to create space for Him to fill it? God is the creator of passion, of dreams, of hunger, of thirst. Because He’s also the Bread of Life; the Living Water.

I like what blogger Larissa Marks writes in her post, Permission to Want and Desire:

What if God has deposited your deepest desires into you? What if he designed you to know him more intimately in those desires? Consider the reality that Jesus often asked that very question: What do you want? What do you want me to do for you?

(See more thoughts on hope and longing in this post.)

Humility is not a fabric softener on our aspirations–smoothing, softening, and tempering our dreams to the point we’re too modest to reach for anything.

This ability to perceive, prize, and pursue is part of our essential humanness, and it’s the essence of ambition…

God has incited your interest because God wants to speak to you.

Dave Harvey, Rescuing Ambition

Which Wolf Will You Feed?

I’m reminded of this constant tension within us between our two natures: Image-bearer of God, and Infected with Sin. I like the (non-biblical) parable form of this:

An old grandfather told his grandson: “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, and resentment. The other is good. It is joy, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and bravery.”

The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?”

The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”


So I believe the challenge with our desire isn’t that it’s categorically bad, but that it’s both. Both wolves are clamoring to be fed. (Paul communicates this beautifully.) The challenge is identifying which wolf is which, right?

We are self-centered, but we always carry with us abundant proof that this is not the whole truth about our nature.

….The image of God–the image of holiness and love–is still there, though defaced.

William Temple, bishop in the Church of England

God gives us creative choices; works through our desires (otherwise, we’d never eat, never get married, never shower)–as well as freeing us from their chains. Our lusts are maniacally clever, with Satan actually portraying himself as an angel of light. We know Paul’s words: My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent (1 Cor. 4:4).

Truth: If we don’t acknowledge what we truly want–even wrongly want–we allow those desires power to subtly manipulate us. We can even “Christianize” our lusts. As Donald Whitney writes, One way to clarify your spirituality is to clarify your ambition.

Desire, Pixelated

To use a separate analogy, imagine looking through a magnifying glass at a black-and-white magazine photo. What looks like a “black” portion may actually be full of pixels black, gray, and white. We have to look more closely to scrupulously sort the black from the gray and the white.

Jesus’ gut-level prayer in Gethsemane reveals that not even He could tell the difference from His position on earth.  So He simply presented His desire, and asked God to do what He wanted more than what Jesus wanted:  “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” It’s the model to plaster before our eyes, right? Here’s what I want. But my hands are open. I can’t see like You can. Your will is the one that needs to happen here. That’s what I want most.


God’s plan works through our choices, not around or despite them. Our choices have consequences, and we are never forced by God to do anything–we always do what we most what to do. God works out his will perfectly through our willing actions.

Timothy Keller* (emphasis added)

Like this post? You might like

For the Day You Feel Powerless: On Hope and Longing

Serving in Your Sweet Spot? 

“That’s Not Who You Are”

On God and the Dreams of Women


*Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York: Penguin Books (2013). Kindle edition.

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