TLimS Week 3: Galatians 2
Last week, I tackled the commonly taught idea of God being the provider of our physical needs. As I said before, I don't think this is a new idea in any way, shape, or form, and ultimately, we as Christians have little trouble believing this (at least cognitively--maybe some trouble living it out). This week, I want to consider what it means that God is also a provider of our wants. This is going to be at least a 2-part discussion (I am thinking 3-part), and this week, I want to spend some time establishing a firm foundation for understanding our wants and desires.
To start with, I want to stress the importance of recognizing that our desires are intensely complex with many layers and even more outside influences. Let me try to use an illustration: if someone asks you, "What do you want in life," what goes through your head? If you're like me, you think of about 5 different things all at once, and that's just in the first 5 seconds of considering this question. There are so many things that you potentially "want," and each thing has multiple sources. Some desires come from your own personal preferences, values, and passions. Others come from your family or your loved ones. Still others come from God and the church. And still others come from friends, advertisements, and culture/society/fads/etc.
If you're not like me, then perhaps your response to the question of what you want in life draws a complete blank! You might not know how to even begin to approach this question, because it just feels too open-ended and too big. Most people probably ask some kind of follow-up question, like "do you mean if I could do anything, what would I do," or "am I assuming I have no kids or other responsibilities?" These kinds of clarifications highlight the complex web that describes what we desire.
So before talking about how the Lord reveals Himself to us as a shepherd through providing for our wants, let's dissect the structure of desire. Now, I know there are tons of really impressive philosophical writings on desire (and I probably should know some of them as a sociologist), but for the purposes of our discussion, I want to think about desire in terms of two dimensions: vertical and horizontal.
Desire's vertical dimension refers to depth. We all have different layers of desire. The word "want" has a completely different meaning when one says, "I want ice cream," and when one says, "I want that job," and when one says, "I want my life to be meaningful." Put simply, there are different degrees of "want."
Meanwhile, the horizontal dimension of desire refers to how our desires change and are affected by other people. In other words, most people's desires do not exist in a vacuum. Instead, they take into consideration those around them. A crude example might be personal hygiene--because I value efficiency, if I didn't consider anyone else's feelings, I might go work out at the Berkeley gym right before having to teach without showering (hey, don't judge--it's hard to be healthy and busy... and it's easier to shower when I get home). But of course, because I actually care that my students will think I smell and are uncomfortable with me, I would never do that (nor would I want to do that). So on the one hand, I want to exercise before class, but on the other hand, I don't. It seems contradictory, but both dimensions of desire are at work here--obviously the depth of my desire to exercise right before class, or more generally to be super efficient and healthy, is not as deep as my desire to care about my students.
Other examples might include deciding what college to go to when your parents really want you to stay close to home, picking where to eat when you are going out with friends, or choosing to accept your friend's party invitation even though you hate parties. The truth is, the horizontal dimension really screws things up and makes it doubly hard to figure out what we want--and this goes triple when it comes to our desires versus God's desires.
Here's where I'm going to transition into sharing my personal experience with this idea. Like most Christians, I had always thought about my decisions and desires in terms of what I want and what God wants. In college, any time I had a decision to make, like should I lead small group, should I take X class, what internship should I do, or what ministry should I be a part of, I always thought about this in terms of my plans versus God's plans. I never found this peculiar in the slightest, as basically every Christian I knew thought and talked about their lives this way. Of course, the goal was to always know what God wanted and to choose it. Sometimes, what God wanted would oppose what I wanted, but lots of times, there would be overlap too (or at least I would be indifferent and God would want something, so I'd just do what He wanted me to do).
So at first, this framework seemed to work: figure out what God wants, and do it. Simple, right? I quickly found out that the problem with this framework was a key question that kept popping up: How do I really know if God wants this? Couldn't I be fooling myself into thinking and justifying that God wants this for my life, when in reality, it's just that me who really want it?
I don't know exactly how God hooked me up with this book--I vaguely remember talking to my roommate about something and he recommended that I read Dallas Willard's Hearing God. In any case, this book has been trans-formative in my life and revolutionized my relationship with God. I highly recommend it and would buy a copy for anyone who was interested in reading it.
Willard, a former pastor and current philosophy professor at the University of Southern California, opens his book talking about the exact aforementioned question that he says every Christian struggles with--how do we know we are hearing from God and know what He wants from us? There's often so much mysticism around the concept of hearing God. When someone says "I heard from God," or "God said to me," this idea is often shrouded in mystery and begs a laundry list of questions. Did this person actually hear from God, or just thinks he/she heard from God? Was it in a dream or a booming voice? Was there a vision, or signs? Perhaps a strange coincidence?
Willard certainly acknowledges the reality of miraculous ways that God appears to humankind throughout the Bible as well as today, but he chooses to focus on what he calls (or the Bible calls) the "still small voice." In 1 Kings 19, Elijah is running away from Baal worshipers and is ready to give up. God tells him to stand on a mountain because He is about the pass by. "Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper." This was the still small voice that the Lord was in.
Willard continues his argument providing several biblical examples to emphasize that God wants to know us through this still small voice, and not primarily through miraculous signs and wonders. In the New Testament, with the coming of Jesus and then, the coming of the Holy Spirit, we see God desiring deeper intimacy--one that transitions away from big visions and booming voices, and towards an intimate, quiet voice living inside us. Willard's argument culminates in Galatians 2:20, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."
This transformed the way I saw my relationship with God. God did not want there to be a continual distinction between Father and son. He did not want to interact with us in such a way that we have our desires and God has His, and we just have to fight to make the right decision every time. No. Instead, God, through the death of Christ, wanted a new relationship--one deeply intimate where our wants and desires slowly meld together with God's wants and desires, so that "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me," and the distinction between our desires and God's desires disappears.
Suddenly, with this new framework for understanding my choices and my desires, I realized I did not have to be afraid of not knowing what God wants. In fact, as I seek God and desire to know Him intimately, and as I desire to listen to His heart, He changes my desires so that the things I want are indeed the same as the things God wants.
If we are to understand how God provides for us and our desires, we must also understand that our desires are not meant to always be at odds with God's desires. In fact, as we get to know God, those wants we used to have (like wanting a nice house, new car, awesome grades, and successful career--none of which are bad, by the way) change and we begin to see them through God's eyes. Our desires become transformed, both vertically and horizontally.
It is imperative to establish this framework before moving on next week and discussing more about how the Lord is indeed our shepherd who takes care of all our desires. A natural question that arises from this framework is, isn't this kind of like brainwashing? I mean, isn't this the same as saying God brainwashes us to want what He wants? This doesn't sound like something we should want... right? Well, I want to argue that one way the Lord reveals Himself to be our shepherd is by molding our desires with His! Stay tuned next week, as I plan to discuss why it only makes sense to want what God wants :).