“Sometimes, you have to be okay with ‘no’ as the answer,” I told one of the boys recently. I had been working downstairs in the office when I heard the skirmish. One son had something another wanted. The first said, “no,” the other son took it anyway. It happens.
In my high-powered negotiations, I spent a few minutes explaining the fine balance between respecting each other’s property and being willing to share. This was not news to them; they knew the drill. But in the end, I threw out this extra bit of advice, the part where “no” must sometimes be the answer—given and accepted. Then I paused.
“I struggle with that, too,” I confessed. “When I want something, I have a hard time when the answer is “no.” But sometimes, that happens.” I stood there for a minute thinking about some things I want even now, how the answer seems to be “yes” for some of them, but not all. I don’t feel okay with that. Not yet.
With peace restored, I hugged the boys, told them I love them, and headed back down to the office. But I haven’t stopped thinking about what it means to be okay with “no,” especially when it really counts.
The difficult thing about wanting—whether the answer is “yes” or “no”—is the disappointment that follows. The let down. I am never so sure that something will satisfy me as in the moments immediately after a “yes” or a “no.”
“No” bears the pain of unrequited love, untouched beauty, withheld pleasure. For a while, the deficiency seems unbearable. Eventually, though, other desires fill the vacuum. The new want consumes me.
“Yes,” on the other hand, offers the thrill of victory, the joy of attainment, the pleasure of tasting. But nothing I want and receive ever lasts. When the object of my desire is mine, all mine, the euphoria quickly wears off. I want more.
When we want, we experience disappointment despite the answer. Could the solution to our suffering, then, be simply to stop wanting? Putting away all desires would result in less joy, true. But we also would avoid the pain of “no.” Joy for pain: a fair trade?
Fair or not, this trade forms the basis of the four noble truths of Buddhism. Truth 1: suffering exists. Truth 2: suffering is caused by desires and cravings. Truth 3: avoid suffering through suppressing desire. Truth 4: suppress desire by following a path away from desire.
Several years ago, author Larry Crabb was speaking at a chapel service at a Bible college where I worked. He talked about the grave disappointment surrounding our desires, how much of our suffering results from wanting. He said often, when we don’t get what we want, or when we get what we want but find it to be unsatisfying, we respond not with anger or rebellion, but with apathy. We stop wanting. This, he said, is not how the Bible suggests we respond to desires. All this does is turn a lot of Christians into practicing Buddhists, trying hard to conform to the four noble truths.
In her book Teach Us to Want, Jen Pollock Michel invokes G.K. Chesterton, the British writer and Christian apologist, as she discusses this same response to wanting. “ . . . he compares Buddhism’s and Christianity’s solutions to evil desire. Buddha proposed we get rid of desire altogether and considered it a contagion against which we must be inoculated. Chesterton argues that the Christian gospel does not obligate us to give up on our desires but rather to judge their nature.”
I’ve followed my desires down too many dangerous roads to believe giving them up is easy. It’s not. But I also have wrestled with my own capriciousness for longer still. I have a hard time judging my desires. I don’t know if what I want is God’s best for me. I find it difficult to discern the Spirit’s voice. The heart that was turned toward God in conversion years ago has gotten better and better over the years at imitating the voice of Jesus.
Putting off desires is difficult. Understanding desires is more difficult still.
In the book of Job, despite the tragedy of all that has happened to him—losing everything he owns and nearly all his family—it is his longing that keeps him hoping.
My days have passed, my plans are shattered.
Yet the desires of my heart
turn night into day;
in the face of the darkness light is near. (Job 17:11-12)
And in his shallow hope, he learns to desire again, not just for the things that were restored to him, but for the Restorer of all things.
Hope changes desire for the Christian.
“The Christian story, centered as it is on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is the only story for making sense of desire and loss,” Jen Pollock Michel writes. “Not all is right with the world, this world. But our story isn’t over yet. More will be written. And the resurrection of Jesus Christ is like a seed of hope sown into our stories of despair; it’s the opening chapter of the new creation, where death and disease, sin and suffering promise to be reversed; where beauty and hope—life—will one day be renewed. This is the reason to desire: to pray boldly and to believe that God wants to do good in the world, even if that good fails to be fully realized now.”
WORD COUNT: 910
AUTHOR: Jen Pollock Michel
TITLE: Teach Us To Want: Longing, Ambition & the Life of Faith
WHERE TO GET IT: Follow the link above to order it from Amazon, or to help celebrate Jen’s book launch, I have an extra copy of her book, Teach Us To Want: Longing, Ambition & the Life of Faith, to give away in the next few days. Everyone who leaves a comment on this post or signs up to receive my blog in their email inbox through noon on Wednesday, July 23, will be registered to win. The winner will be posted on the In Your Own Words post next Thursday, July 24, and I will contact the winner as soon as possible for shipping information.
Photo above by Bruno, via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License. Design by Charity Singleton Craig.
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