She drew in a deep breath, finishing a long litany of explanations, emotions, and more than a few accusations. I paused and rested in the silence, ensuring she was truly done.
Then I turned to him. Familiar with the couple, and having enough trust to risk it amidst the tension of the moment, I smiled at him. He knew what I was going to ask.
“What did you hear? Beneath all of that, did you catch what she wants?”
He groaned. “I have no idea!”
And so, for what could be the hundredth time, we unpacked it. We retraced statements, actions, expressions of emotion, and we unmasked the desires behind them. A relational conflict that previously felt incomprehensible to one party (and obvious to the other) was pulled out into the open, stripped of its behaviors and identified for its root. And there, the real change can begin, both for him and for her.
The Harder Work: Identifying the Womb of Desire
In my work as a biblical counselor, I often feel that what I do isn’t very special. Anyone can listen well, think about what they’re hearing, ask insightful questions, and explore how truth applies. Gospel-believing Christians want to make substantial change in their lives and see Christ transform their hearts in radical ways. But when it comes down to actually applying the Gospel in our most challenging daily moments, all of us find this kind of spiritual growth to be excruciatingly slow and difficult. What gives?
I’ve noticed that a common hang up for many people when understanding themselves and others is lack of skill in identifying the desires that shape their behavior. We work hard to humbly identify our actions, but don’t investigate further to locate the puppeteer drawing the strings.
James helpfully identifies a process that we see play out in every day situations, like the conflict between this couple. “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14-15).
If we’re reflective on some level, the first thing we tend to spot is this “death,” the cost of our sin and the sins of others. We feel it in the relational hurt of conflict, the self-loathing of addiction, the blind desperation of anxiety. The presence of this kind of “death” makes most of us search for the sin that we believe was its seed. And then we try really hard to not do it again, thinking we’ve done all the reflecting necessary.
But James’s theology of sin requires us to go further and uncover the desires, the wombs, that give birth to sin, if we’re to truly have victory over it. Desire is not to be confused with sin itself, as desire is more accurately the hunger pangs of appetites given to us by a gracious God. These hunger pangs for worth, love, success, control, or peace (among others), can either draw us to worship of Christ, for their ultimate fulfillment in Him, or they can become incubators for sin, priming us for acts of self-fulfillment. Intentional spiritual growth requires going beyond behavior modification to fight a sin and instead, pressing into the harder work of determining the womb of desire in which it grew to fruition.
Desire in Discipleship
If you’ve stuck with me so far, perhaps you concede that our desires and the things we love are heavily involved in what we do and say on a daily basis. So how do we learn to spot desire? Are all desires bad or good? How are they meant to be fulfilled?
This, I hope, is a beginning to a much larger discussion, as no article can address all of these questions sufficiently. But here are two starting observations that have been fruitful for me as a disciple of Christ, a mom, and a counselor.
1. Gospel transformation requires that we train our desires with Scripture, not just our thoughts or actions.
Here I borrow significantly from a book that I have profited greatly from, “You Are What You Love,” by James K.A. Smith. What Smith refers to as “discipleship,” I am using interchangeably with “gospel transformation” and “spiritual growth” in this article. Much of his book hinges on the idea summarized in this statement: “Discipleship, we might say, is a way to curate your heart, to be attentive to and intentional about what you love.” Discipleship begins with identifying what we desire and shaping what we love to align with what God loves. Biblically training our desires inevitably leads to transformation of our behaviors, which bear either the fruit of life or the fruit of death.
As a mom, it is one of my most important responsibilities to train the appetites of my children. Just as I train their taste buds to appreciate healthy and substantial foods, I aim to help them navigate the desires of their hearts so that they learn what will truly satisfy their longings for love, value, control, etc. It may take longer, but I want Him to have their hearts, not just their behavior.
As a counselor, this shapes the driving principle of every session: gospel transformation happens as a result of worship. By worship, I mean more than singing songs and lifting our hands, but experiencing awe and wonder as a result of beholding God for who He is and responding with humble surrender. This kind of worship inherently involves our desires and affections because to see God as He is is to love Him. When we behold Him, we are moved to love what He loves and hate what He hates, and so we begin to become like Him. As Smith put it, “Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires, and rehabituates our loves. Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us. Worship is the heart of discipleship because it is the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts.” And so, I actively entrust the work of change in a client’s heart to God by pursuing their worship, not just their behavior.
2. If we don’t intentionally shape our desires, the world will shape them for us to its advantage.
There is great irony that, despite many of us being unaware of the desires that are behind all our actions in a day, the commercial enterprises in our marketplace are not. Most, if not all, marketing thrives on our desires. In her book, “How to Break Up With Your Phone,” Catherine Price asserts that social media capitalizes on “the currency of attention,” harnessing it, quantifying it, and ultimately turning around to sell it. But I would go farther to say the world we live in operates on the currency of our desires, stoking them, luring them, and turning around to sell them. Only we are the losers in that exchange, for we leave more bankrupt than we came.
I was profoundly impacted by an observation made by Mike Cosper in his book “Faith Among the Faithless.” He places our desires in the context of fallen humanity, longing for restoration, a “homesickness” of sorts. This can either lead us to worship God as the only fulfillment of that longing, or it can leave us vulnerable to others who would claim our allegiance. Cosper points out: “[Our hunger is] the homesickness of exiled humanity, longing to get back to the satisfying, peace-filled world we were made for. That hunger intensifies in a culture that thrives on stoking it, and stoking our hunger means inflicting wounds. It’s in the interest of our idols— and in the interest of those who profit from our idol worship— to make sure we are feeling small, defeated, depressed, and inadequate. It makes it far easier to separate from our money. Something in the shadows stokes a sorrow in our bellies, preys on our homesick longings, and sends us off to the temples in search of help.”
Essentially, if we don’t identify our hungers for what they are and discipline them, training them in godliness, the world has an app for that and they are ready to sell it to us, promising satisfaction. If we don’t equip ourselves, those we disciple, and our children to unmask their desires and use them as stepping stones back to Christ, those desires will be poked, prodded, and capitalized by the world for its own profit. Our hunger grows worse, not better, when we try to eat from the world’s table. We leave ourselves tremendously vulnerable in our ignorance.
Listen for Desire
And so, my friends, listen for it. Tune your ears to the language of hunger and appetite and longing in the words of others and the chatter of your own mind. It is always present, but often hidden. Let us not settle for modifying our behaviors but dig in to find the desires that birthed them. Let us be faithful friends to one another, helping each other to discover what longings are directing our choices. Let us patiently hone this skill of unmasking desire, so that every hunger pang can point our eyes to Christ, rather than divert us away from Him.
Morgan lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two little ones. She serves the Church as a biblical counselor and her family is in the process of preparing for missions work in London. You can easily find her with her nose in a book or creating in the kitchen. You can follow along with her on her Instagram