The Dynamics of Change: Desire

Dr. Brian Allison

We witnessed a filibuster in the Ontario legislature this past week. The New Democrats and the Liberals vehemently opposed the Conservatives' 'Omnibus Bill.' The members of the opposition parties greatly desired to discuss the bill. They also demanded public debate. They wanted the bill to be significantly modified, if not completely scrapped. Accordingly, in their desire to stall procedures and to obstruct the passage of the bill, the opposition members remained all night in the legislature, refusing to vote on the bill and refusing to leave. Strong desire resulted in radical, and even militant, action. Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), the English mathematician and philosopher, remarked, "All human activity is prompted by desire."

Desire is a powerful dynamic of change. Desire is to change as an engine is to a car, or as the wind is to a sail boat. Desire moves one forward to the targeted goal. It drives one on. Claude Adrien Helvetus (1715-1771), the French philosopher, wrote, "By annihilating the desires, you annihilate the mind. Every man without passions has within him no principle of action, nor motive to act." Before one is prepared to change, he or she must want to change. This point probably seems minor and self-evident, but it is absolutely crucial (though not always appreciated) when the matter of change is considered. For instance, a young man who had fallen into adultery went to his pastor for help and direction. The pastor said to this confused young man, "You will have to give up your mistress." The young man responded, "I do not want to give her up. I love her too much." The pastor retorted, "Then I cannot help you. If you have no desire to change, then I can offer you no way for change." Desire is imperative for real change.

Two kinds of desire

In order to be clear in our thinking about this subject, we should distinguish between two kinds of desire. There is the desire of appetite or pleasure and the desire of reward or happiness. First, in considering the desire of appetite or pleasure, we read, for instance, "Now it was after this that Absalom the son of David had a beautiful sister whose name was Tamar, and Amnon the son of David loved her. And Amnon was so frustrated because of his sister Tamar that he made himself ill, for she was a virgin, and it seemed hard to Amnon to do anything to her" (2 Sam. 13:1,2). Amnon had a passionate, sexual love for Tamar, rather than a relational, companionship love. He longed for her physical body. He wanted to have sexual intercourse. So, we further read, "When she brought them [cakes] to him to eat, he took hold of her and said to her, 'Come, lie with me, my sister.' But she answered him, 'No, my brother, do not violate me, for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do this disgraceful thing!...However, he would not listen to her; since he was stronger than she, he violated her and lay with her. Then Amnon hated her with a very great hatred; for the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her [she became the symbol and reminder of his own guilt and shame]. And Amnon said to her, 'Get up, go away!" (2 Sam. 13:11-15). Amnon's passion (sexual desire) moved him to rape his sister. All he wanted was the experience of pleasure. He was controlled by his carnal urges. He wanted to 'feel good.' Generally speaking, the desire of appetite or pleasure is simply lust; it is coveting (cf. Jas. 1:14f.; 1 Jn. 2:15-17). So, one may desire a mansion for show and prestige; one may desire the latest fashions for compliments and attention; one may desire position and power for the sake of image and control. The goal of the desire of appetite is self-gratification. The desire of appetite may also be called the desire of attraction: one is drawn to, and must have, some object, some person, or some experience.

Second, in considering the desire of reward or happiness, we read, for instance, "And He [Jesus] entered and was passing through Jericho. And behold, there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; and he was a chief tax-gatherer, and he was rich. And he was trying to see who Jesus was, and he was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. And he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way" (Lu. 19:1-4). Zaccheus, no doubt, had heard reports about Jesus' teaching and works. At this time, there was speculation and anticipation that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of David. He thus had a desire to see Jesus. This desire propelled him to act. He apparently believed that it would be worthwhile – a kind of 'reward' or a means of 'happiness' – to encounter this Jesus; that, in some sense, he would derive some personal benefit, or that it would be to his advantage. He wanted to feel fulfilled or content. Generally speaking, the desire of reward or happiness is simply aspiration. So, we read, "But earnestly desire the greater [spiritual] gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way" (1 Cor. 12:31). So, one may desire to be a doctor in order to help the infirmed. One may desire to write a book in order to inform his students. One may desire to make a special meal in order to entertain some foreign guests. The goal of the desire of reward is satisfaction (rather than self-gratification) – "Desire realized is sweet to the soul" (Pr. 13:19a). The desire of reward may also be called the desire of action; one is propelled to act in order to accomplish that which is desired. The desire naturally translates into action. In the case of Zaccheus, he ran ahead of Jesus and climbed a tree in order to see Him.

Desire translates into action

When we talk about the dynamic of desire for producing change, we are concerned about the desire of reward or action. Let us turn to an Old Testament account about king Asa (2 Chronicles 15:1-15) as we endeavour to understand how one can change, and that for the better. Asa was a good king of the Southern kingdom (Judah and Benjamin). He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord. On one occasion, Azariah the prophet went to Asa and uttered a solemn pronouncement, consisting of promises and threats. The prophet first gave the assurance or the promise of the Lord's presence in response to Israel's faithfulness – "Listen to me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin: the LORD is with you when you are with Him" (15:2a). Then he announced the promise of the Lord's blessing and manifestation in response to their commitment to Him – "And if you seek Him, He will let you find Him" (15:2b). Then he warned of the threat or guarantee of the Lord's abandonment in response to their rejection of Him – "But if you forsake Him, He will forsake you" (15:2c). Azariah the prophet proceeded to remind Asa and the people of Judah and Benjamin of their history, illustrating the pronouncement just made – "And for many days Israel was without the true God and without a teaching priest and without a law. But in their distress they turned to the Lord God of Israel, and they sought Him, and He let them find Him" (15:3,4). He continued to remind them of the serious situation in the past, and that this serious situation was the result of God's judgement – "And in those times there was no peace to him who went out or to him who came in, for many disturbances afflicted all the inhabitants of the lands. And nation was crushed by nation, and city by city, for God troubled them with every kind of distress" (15:5,6). Finally, Azariah exhorted Asa and the people to be perseverant and determined in serving God faithfully, knowing that there would be a reward for such service – "But you, be strong and do not lose courage, for there is reward for your work" (15:7). King Asa wholeheartedly accepted and acted upon this pronouncement (which entailed promises and threats). He diligently served the Lord – "Now when Asa heard these words and the prophecy which Azariah the son of Oded the prophet spoke, he took courage and removed the abominable idols from all the land of Judah and Benjamin and from the cities which he had captured in the hill country of Ephraim. He then restored the altar of the LORD which was in the front of the porch of the LORD" (15:8).

Now, what was determining or propelling the direction and extent of Asa's behaviour? Or, in other words, what was the behavioural dynamic accounting for the readiness to change, not only with respect to his life, but also with respect to the life of the nation? In finding an answer, notice, first, that the promise of reward and the threat of disaster provided the incentive for action. The particular action undertaken was essentially the seeking of the Lord – "And they entered into the covenant to seek the LORD God of their fathers with all their heart and soul; and whoever would not seek the LORD God of Israel should be put to death, whether small or great, man or woman" (15:12,13). The people of Judah and Benjamin sought the Lord; they endeavoured to do the right thing, that which was pleasing in the Lord's sight, and to secure His blessing. Notice, second, how they sought the Lord (and this is the critical point because it provides the answer to the above question – "And all Judah rejoiced concerning the oath, for they had sworn with their whole heart and had sought Him earnestly, and He let them find Him. So the LORD gave them rest on every side" (15:15). So, how did Judah and Benjamin seek the Lord? What was driving their behaviour? They sought the Lord earnestly. In the original language, the term which is translated 'earnestly' literally means 'with their whole desire.' Their great desire fueled their seeking. Great desire was the impetus of their action. Through desire they changed, and that for the better. Change resulted because they wanted to please God; they wanted to live before God; they wanted to be obedient to God; and because they really wanted to change, they did.

Great desire translates into effective action. For instance, during my first year of seminary, about six months after I was converted, I was traveling on a seminary team. There were about five of us in the car. We were returning from a church and we were passing the time by quizzing each other on the content of the Bible. Being a recent convert, my knowledge of the Bible was poor. I was conspicuously quiet. I was embarrassed at my lack of Bible knowledge, and confessed such. Sitting in that car, I deeply desired to increase my Bible knowledge. Subsequently, I began to memorize and study Scripture. I wanted to become competent in the content of Scripture. Desire became translated into action.

Desire requires a payoff

How does desire come about? Why does desire even arise? We cannot force ourselves to have desire. We either have it or we do not. Desire comes about or arises from the realization or expectation of a payoffof personally gaining something good or avoiding something bad. With king Asa and his people, there was the promise of reward, coupled with the threat of disaster, and that provided the incentive for action. The possibility or the expectation of reward, as well as the possibility or threat of disaster, created the desire to secure the reward and to avoid the disaster. The New Testament account of Jesus and the Samaritan woman highlights this particular truth. When Jesus had arrived at Sycar, He was thirsty. He asked a Samaritan woman for a drink, and she wondered why Jesus, being a Jew would ask her. Jesus, however, said "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, 'Give me to drink,' you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water" (Jn. 4:10). Jesus sought to bestir her interest and arouse her curiosity. He further said, "Everyone who drinks of this water shall thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life" (Jn. 4:13,14). She responded, "Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty, nor come all the way here to draw" (Jn. 4:15). She had a desire for the water because she was going to benefit from securing it; there was a payoff.

You may have a desire to get an education in order to secure a degree so that you may enjoy being a professional or being financially stable. There is a payoff. Or, you may have a desire to get married so that you may avoid the pain of loneliness or the pain of emotional insecurity. There is a payoff. Or, you may have desire to assume a new executive position so that you may be independent, and not be answerable to people. There is a payoff. So, the birth of desire requires a potential payoff, and if there is no potential payoff, then there will be no desire to change, and, thus, you will not change. For instance, the young man who is seeking help for his sexual problem may know that he should change; he may know what is the right thing to do, but he may have no desire to change. You can know what is right, you can know what you should do, but that is not enough. You must want to change, along with knowing that you need to change. Apparently, for this particular person, there is too much pleasure right now, and there may be too much discomfort later, to think about giving up his sexual problem. For this person, because there is no payoff, there is no desire to change and, as a result, he will not change. Again, a young lady who is spiritually lethargic and cold may say, "I really should change. My Christian life is 'the pits.' I know what the right thing is, but I just do not want to change." She may know that she should be reading her Bible; she may know that she should be attending church; she may know that she should be praying; but there is no desire to do any of these things. Why? Possibly because these things – praying, meditating, and attending church – are viewed as being too demanding, too time consuming; they take away from the enjoyment of leisure and recreation. She apparently cannot appreciate the benefit of doing them.

Self-interest underlies desire

You may be thinking that I am here advocating a doctrine of selfishness in talking about a payoff. The talk about payoff may indeed imply or refer to selfishness, but not necessarily. A payoff may have positive, as well as negative, connotations. Expecting a payoff may suggest that one is selfish, but it may also suggest a legitimate self-interest. Desire may be good or bad. Either selfishness or self-interest may underlie desire. The desire that we are considering here is that which self-interest underlies.

Now, self-interest per se is not wrong or evil. In fact, it is necessary for personal survival. Helvetius argued that self-interest is the motive of all human action. For instance, you may work each day in order to eke out a living and provide for your family, but you are also working for yourself. You enjoy the benefits too. Again, you may go to church to worship the Lord; you may want to give God glory; you may want to seek the Lord and praise His name; but you also go to church out of self-interest. You may want God to speak to you; you may want God to minister to your needs; you may want His grace, His peace, His joy; you may want to be encountered, strengthened, and empowered. Again, as parents, you may be concerned about your children. You may want to protect them from the evils of society. You may say, "I do not want you on the streets after nine o'clock;" or "I do not want you to go to the mall by yourself." Such concerns derive not only from parental love, but also from self-interest – you could not bear to live if something were to happen to your daughter or son. The pain would be too great. Again, you may offer someone a drive in order to help him or her; it is an act of kindness, but self-interest is often present in such acts. You want people to think well of you, or you may enjoy the appreciation expressed.

As mentioned, self-interest is not necessarily wrong or evil; even God appeals to us, and seeks to motivate us, through self-interest. For instance, we read in Luke 13:1-3, "Now on the same occasion there were some who reported to Him [Jesus] about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And He answered and said to them, 'Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.'" Jesus was saying that it was in their best interest to change the direction of their lives. Jesus appealed to self-interest. Again, Mark 10:29 reads, "Jesus said, 'Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel's sake, but that he shall receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life." Jesus again was appealing to self-interest. Again, we read of a commandment given to children in Ephesians 6:1-3, "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER (which is the first commandment with a promise) THAT IT MAY BE WELL WITH YOU, AND THAT YOU MAY LIVE LONG ON THE EARTH." Children are given an incentive for producing good behaviour. It is to their advantage to live in a certain way – self-interest. God repeatedly – at every point in the application and working out of our salvation – appeals to our self-interest. Self-interest is legitimized in the Scriptures. Expecting or anticipating a payoff is not necessarily wrong; and the anticipation or expectation of a payoff creates or promotes desire.

Developing the desire to change

Maybe you know that you should change, but you lack the desire to change. Are you wondering how one may promote desire in order to change? Remember, first, that as a Christian, you are to desire what is good and pleasing in God's sight. As a Christian, you are to desire the things of the Spirit. As a Christian, you are to desire to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. Remember, second, that as you live in this way – that is, pleasing God, living according to the Spirit, and growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, there is a reward. With these two thoughts in mind, we may now address the question: How may one promote desire? You need to meditate on, understand, and appreciate the rewards (that is, the incentives for change) that God offers and has prepared for you. When you understand and appreciate the rewards, you will then be motivated to press on towards securing them. C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) insightfully wrote, "We must not be troubled by unbelievers when they say that this promise of reward makes the Christian life a mercenary affair. There are different kinds of reward. There is the reward which has no natural connection with the things you do to earn it, and is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany those things. Money is not the natural reward of love; that is why we call a man a mercenary if he married a woman for the sake of her money. But marriage is the proper reward for a real lover, and he is not mercenary for desiring it...The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation" (The Weight of Glory)

The rewards that we must consider in order to create and promote desire are either remote or ultimate (that is, rewards that we shall receive when Jesus Christ returns and ushers in a new heaven and a new earth – the rewards of a glorified body; eternal bliss; joyful fellowship, etc.); or they are present or proximate (that is, rewards that we may receive now in the earth as God's blessings for our obedience and faithfulness – inner peace, greater wisdom, fuller joy, etc.). Understanding and appreciating each of these kinds of reward can bring about change for the better.

A. Remote or Ultimate Rewards

Let us, first, consider the effect of understanding and appreciating remote or ultimate rewards. Do you want to change from laziness to diligence in serving Christ, from indifference to commitment? Is this where you need to change? Are you saying, "Well, I just feel too complacent? I do not feel like serving Christ right now?" You know that you need to change, but you have no desire to be diligent, no desire to get involved in the Lord's work, no desire to be active and energetic. What do you do? You should meditate on the ultimate reward that speaks to that particular problem. Think about the promised reward in connection with being diligent and energetic. For instance, the Scripture reads, "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord" (1 Cor. 15:58). You will get a payoff for your Christian service.

Maybe your problem is strained marital relationships. You know that you need to change, but you have no desire to love your wife, or you have no desire to communicate with your husband; there is a deadness in your marriage. You know that your desire should be for a harmonious relationship; your desire should be for good healthy communication. What do you do? You should meditate on the ultimate reward that speaks to that particular problem. Think about the promised reward that relates to having good, healthy, marital relationships. Let it sink in. Let it grab you. So, we read, "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be embittered against them...Whatever you do, do your work heartily as for the Lord rather than for men; knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance." Obedience brings a payoff.

Maybe you are struggling with sexual promiscuity. Is that what you need to change? You know that you need to change, but you have no desire to give up that selfish habit. You enjoy the pleasure too much. You know that your desire should be for wholesome relationships, and for purity of mind and lifestyle. How are you going to acquire the right desire in order to change? You should meditate on the ultimate reward that speaks to that particular problem. Think about the promised reward in connection with being morally pure; or, in this case think about the threat of the punishment (negative payoff) in failing to be morally pure. We read, "Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers shall inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 6:9,10). Sexual propriety has its reward.

B. Present or Proximate Rewards

Let us, second, consider the effect of understanding and appreciating present or proximate rewards. Suppose you are struggling with unforgiveness. A friend or colleague has hurt or betrayed you, and you are embittered and angry. You do not want to talk to this person. You do not want to even look at this person. You may desire that this person move away, get sick, or even die. You know that you need to change, but you have no desire to speak to this person or to meet with him or her. Before change can occur, you must desire to forgive, to be reconciled, to have the relationship restored. What do you do? You should meditate on the present reward that speaks to that particular problem. What is the payoff for forgiving your brother or sister and being reconciled? The payoff, among other things, according to the Scriptures is Christian harmony and unity, which precedes the blessing of the Lord (Ps. 133:3) and presents a faithful, powerful witness to the community (Jn. 13:34,35); inner peace and emotional calm – the bitterness and resentment will be discharged (Col. 3:14,15); Christ's favour – if you forgive, He will forgive you (Mt. 6:14,15).

Suppose you are struggling with simple depression. The pressure at work may be too demanding, and you are overcome with anxiety which causes you to feel despondent. You simply want to be alone and sleep your life away. You don't feel like eating. You desire to do nothing. You desire the world to leave you alone. You may even desire to die. You know that you need to change, but you have no desire to get dressed, to go to work, or to talk to anybody. Before change can occur, you must desire to get up and be active; you must desire to press on; you must desire to be free from self-pity. Again, you should meditate on the present reward that speaks to that particular problem. What is the payoff for overcoming depression? The payoff, among other things, according to the Scripture is an effective and comforting ministry to those who are depressed – you can, in turn, give the grace to others which God has given to you (your weakness transforms into strength) (2 Cor. 1:4); physical soundness and emotional stability – depression weakens the immune system (Pr. 12:25); spiritual vitality and fruitfulness – depression retards spiritual growth, and prevents one from being an effective witness for Jesus Christ ( 2 Cor. 7:11ff.).

Securing the desire to change

Now, you may say, "I know what the rewards are that God is pleased to give for obedience and faithfulness. I understand the nature of the payoffs. My problem is that I do not really appreciate these rewards so that they can make an impact on me and thus produce the desire of change. How can I really appreciate these rewards so that I am affected by them and thus desire them? Remember, that desire is simply the will propelled or controlled by self-interested feelings. We can know the reward, but unless we feel the reward, desire will not be created nor promoted (cf. Pr. 13:19a; S. of S. 7:10). So, how may you feel the reward? First, you must realize the truth and value or worth of the reward(s). That is, the truth and value of the reward(s) must become real for you. That means that you may have to expose yourself to the Bible's teaching of the truth and value of the reward(s) until it finally makes an impact on you, until it finally 'speaks' to you – "The unfolding [entrance] of Thy words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple" (Ps. 119:130). That is why Christian meditation is so important. It allows for the deep assimilation of God's Word. You must persevere in understanding God's Word; the result will eventually be appreciation – a grasping of the real significance and worth; and the outcome will be desire.

Second, you must personally accept or embrace the reward(s) or payoff. You may know that there is a reward, but do you realize (as a Christian believer) that the reward is really for you. Often we view the reward(s) as being for others, or given to others – they are objectively 'out there.' But the reward(s) are for you personally. As a child of God, they are yours, if you want them. Therefore, you must pray to God and ask Him to give you grace so that you may really believe and accept – fully appreciate – that the reward(s) are for you. This is a simple point, but so necessary for one to understand and act on, if desire is to be created and promoted, resulting in change. For example, if I bought a new computer system, took it home, and stacked the unopened boxes in my bedroom, my son might be curious and ask about it, but he would not necessarily be excited about it. However, if I were to take that new computer system into his bedroom and tell him that it was his as a reward if he shoveled the walks all winter, I believe that his desire to shovel the walks and keep them clean would be created (not that he would like it). He would view the computer system as his personal payoff, and thus would be motivated to action. It is in personally accepting or embracing the reward that desire is created. Realize that God's rewards, His blessings, are really for you.

What should you change in your life? Maybe you know that you should change, but you lack the desire to change; and if you have no desire to change, then you will not change. Understand the payoff. Appreciate the payoff, and the desire will come. God wants you to change. Let His desires be your desires.