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Spring 2013 · Vol. 42 No. 1 · pp. 82–91 

Ministry Compass

Simultaneously Satisfying and Insatiable: The Desire for God

Paul G. Doerksen

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.

~ Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

1 My personal approach to writing sermons is pretty simple—when I’m asked to preach, I always hope for an assigned passage of Scripture, which I then study. The point being that I always want the Scripture to generate the content, and not the other way round—that I have some personal agenda that I want to get out there, and then later go to the Bible to kind of give it a bit of a veneer. The danger I’m trying to avoid is that far too often our talk about God is a thinly disguised discussion of ourselves, and we sometimes make God in our own image, I’m afraid. By this I mean that we are sometimes tempted to think about God in very human terms, and make him look like a more refined version of ourselves—which is very misleading.

So, I have to confess that today I’m running this risk. I’m beginning with a topic, and then moving to Scripture—and I do so with a bit of {83} trepidation. So, this morning, despite my own precautions, I want to focus on us as humans, and specifically I want to talk about a common experience—that of wanting, yearning, of desire—whether the object be things, people, or something else. I thought a lot about the nature of desire when I was asked to write a short piece for the Mennonite Brethren Board of Faith and Life about gambling. I tried to write the piece without using the word “gambling” because it seemed to me that the issue isn’t at heart about trying to make fine distinctions between raffle tickets and slot machines, but rather that all of us need to confront what it is we are chasing in our endeavors. And so I didn’t want to leave anyone off the hook, even if you don’t spend your entire paycheck in front of video lottery terminals with a cigarette hanging from your lip and a cheap beer beside you. My argument was something like: gambling isn’t about gambling—it’s about misplaced desires.

Paul Oppenheimer, in his book, Infinite Desire: A Guide to Modern Guilt, says this:

The only genuine human problem is the problem of desire. All other problems, and those in no mean or superficial way, are bound to it by steely or silken ligatures. All religions, in their moral and even spiritual aspects, confront the issue of desire, seeking to temper it, channel it, dam it, and often condemn it . . . [He goes on to describe it as an “exquisite aching, the fiery quest.”] . . . In the modern Western world, infinite personal desire has replaced God. It possesses many of the same powers as the old and now mostly dead god of Christians, Jews and others—of omnipotence and omniscience, for instance, though it is not quite as good at miracles—plus a vastly and paradoxically greater capacity to inspire guilt. It is infinitely subtle, and has no trouble in assuming a Christian or Jewish or Islamic disguise for the sake of many of its believers, who for social and psychological reasons wish to continue calling themselves Christians, Jews, Moslems and other things. Its adaptability, its complete elasticity, is one of its most commendable and bewildering qualities. Nonetheless, one cannot escape the conclusion that this widely worshipped and also despised god [of desire] is merely the divine incarnation of solipsism. 2

That lengthy quotation is just a sample of how one writer, steeped in literature and poetry, recognizes the sheer power of desire. It’s hard to describe—that deep yearning for something or someone; a yearning, a wanting that isn’t always under control, that we can’t quite understand, and don’t know from where it comes; you may not even want your desires, ironically. Think about what you really want, what you really, really want; {84} so much that that feeling itself becomes dominant in your thoughts and emotions. These kinds of feelings are often depicted in poetry and song lyrics as being like a fire—something hot, something that is warming, and cozy, and yet is also always on the verge of being dangerous. Bob Dylan’s song, Caribbean Wind, includes one recurring line in the chorus which is at the heart of this song, i.e., “fanning the flames in the furnace of desire.” Isn’t that a great line? I don’t want to kill it by explaining it, but you’ll easily recognize that a furnace, which is after all just a controlled fire that warms all those inside a house, can quickly become a danger if its flame is fanned too much. And so Dylan signals to us that desire is like a furnace that is being fanned—and who knows what can happen if the flames of desire are fanned? What happens if you fly too close to the sun, like poor old Icarus in that Greek myth?


Let’s pay some more attention to the intensity of desire for a moment. When you really want something, or desire to have a relationship with someone, say, the intensity of desire can be overwhelming. And when it develops like that, you find yourself open and vulnerable, even embracing the possibility that if this goes wrong, you might be facing a world of pain. But still, you say: I want that thing, that experience—I want you.

Say what you want, do what you want, when you love someone, when you want someone, something, it’s that feeling that takes over. Whatever else you do, whatever assignments are due, whatever pressures you face, it’s the overwhelming feeling of desire that takes over, and believe me, it’s not easily distracted, not even by the things that accompany that relationship—it’s not that you just want all of a person—but all you want is him, her. And so you say over and over again, “All I want is you.” This song is just one sample of the attempt to capture just how powerful desire can be:

You say you want
Diamonds on a ring of gold
You say you want
Your story to remain untold

But all the promises we make
From the cradle to the grave
When all I want is you

You say you’ll give me
A highway with no one on it
Treasure just to look upon it
All the riches in the night {85}

You say you’ll give me
Eyes in a moon of blindness
A river in a time of dryness
A harbor in the tempest

But all the promises we make
From the cradle to the grave
When all I want is you

You say you want
Your love to work out right
To last with me through the night

You say you want
Diamonds on a ring of gold
Your story to remain untold
Your love not to grow cold

All the promises we break
From the cradle to the grave
When all I want is you

Songs are far more powerful ways of communicating this truth than some speech, no matter how well organized.

But to simply identify and celebrate the existence of raw desire isn’t the end of the discussion, at least in my view. Sometimes I fear, however, that this is seen as the essence of the discussion—i.e., desires exist, and since they do, we feel obliged to act on them, to pursue them no matter what the cost. It’s many a novel or movie that exposes the power of desire, but then also presents the strong message that because those desires exist they should be followed, acted upon.

But it’s not quite that simple. Desires are not simple things that call for only one response—that is, desires are not the same thing as appetites. 3 And so if we pause to reflect just a little, we’ll see that the issues around desire are not straightforward. For example, we might want to ask where desires come from. Are they simply natural? Can it be that sometimes we need to set aside one desire in order to pursue another? Or, that we might have to do something we absolutely hate doing so that we can then pursue a strong desire? Put another way, are desires natural? Instrumental? Terminal?

I really don’t want to get caught up in this kind of more technical discussion, so let me simply register the fact that desires are not simple things. {86} But it’s also not the case that just because you experience some kind of desire for something or someone that you will, just by pursuing it, necessarily come to fulfill that desire. Sometimes, we are disappointed, our dreams die, and bitterly so. And then it becomes clear: you can’t always get what you want. Put another way, sometimes, no matter how hard I try, and I try, and I try . . . I can’t get no satisfaction.

As the Rolling Stones taught us many years ago, sometimes the very thing you want is what you can’t get. But worse, perhaps, is when you get what you think you want, and it turns out that that very thing does not provide the satisfaction we thought it might; it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. And so now we realize that the things that we want, the desire for which may be overwhelming, intense, even mesmerizing, may not only be the occasion for desire, but for the equally overwhelming experience of frustration. What’s worse than getting what you want only to find that that wasn’t at all what you really wanted? Perhaps you just thought you wanted it; maybe you only wanted that thing because someone else showed interest (mimetic desire), and once that person stopped showing interest, your own desire dissipated. And so the fulfillment of desire presents itself as a moving target—always in front of us and yet never realizable, or if realizable, then frustrating after all.


There’s a chilling story in the Gospel of Mark that brings to view some of the complex dimensions of the nature of desire. In chapter 6 we find the account of a deadly confrontation between Herod, the local Roman ruler of Galilee, and John the Baptist. John was in prison because he had the audacity to point out that Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife, whose name was Herodias, was immoral. And the text tells us “she had a grudge against him [John], and wanted to kill him.” But Herod refused. He was kind of afraid of John, didn’t really like John, but he found him fascinating to listen to—very complex dynamics. So Herod protected John. There follows the account of a party in which a toxic matrix of the dynamics of power, desire, bloodlust, and envy all come together. Herod celebrates his birthday, and present are all kinds of officials—courtiers, officers, and leaders of Galilee—and all no doubt wanting to ingratiate themselves further with Herod. And all of this comes to a climax when Herod’s daughter Salome is asked to dance. And the Bible claims that her dance “pleased Herod and his guests.” Because the dance was so fine, Herod tells his daughter that she can ask for whatever she wishes and he will give it. No doubt he’s a bit drunk. Everyone there is mesmerized by the spectacle. And Herod then solemnly swears: “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” {87}

Well now there’s an offer that’s hard to resist. But notice that Salome doesn’t know what to ask for. She’s old enough to incite desire and pleasure, but when she’s asked what she wants, she heads off to talk to her mom, to ask her what she should ask for. Well, you can’t blame her too much. Which one of us really knows what we want? But her mom knows what she herself wants—“I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” Herod doesn’t like this (he was deeply grieved), but his brazen promise to his daughter in front of his guests makes him feel as though he has no options. And so the deed is done. A soldier goes to the prison, decapitates John the Baptist, and the head is delivered, not to Herod, not to any of the guests, but to Salome, the dancing daughter, who didn’t want this in the first place. And the text tells us cryptically that “the girl gave it to her mother.”

Now that was a party. You young people think you know how to party; you middle-aged folks think you can still party with your gourmet food and birthday parties to mark someone’s new decade; you senior citizens think you can party because no one is gonna tell you what to do anymore. But have you ever been to a party like this one? It’s absolutely terrifying. Chills me to the bone. Here we see various desires: to take advantage of a brother; to exert dominion, power; to do away with someone who tells the uncomfortable truth; to please people in various ways. And as we watch the interplay of these desires, we see that, here at least, shocking violence results. 4

We often don’t even know what we really want, what we’d do to get what we want, do we? That is to say, sometimes our own desires work to camouflage the things we really want. And so we chase this, we pursue that. We become obsessed with him, focused on her. But when we lie awake at night, staring at the ceiling, surrounded by what we were pretty sure we wanted, it turns out we still haven’t found what we’re looking for.

It’s not as though we don’t find anything at all. It’s just that what we find turns out not to be what we’re really looking for, because frankly, how often do we really know what we’re looking for?

Well it’s not my goal to convince you that because of the complexity of our desires we should now suppress them all and end up with some lame suggestion that our desires, our longings are sinful, and all we need is God. Rather, I want to say that despite all the vagaries, the difficulties of trying to figure out what I want, and what to do with what I want, and what to do when I find out that what I want isn’t really what I want—despite all of that, desire is a very important dimension of being a Christian, or of thinking about being a Christian. After all, the ability to love, to want, to desire is itself a gift from God. So all of us need to pay close attention to these matters. {88}


It’s been interesting to me that in much of Christian writing, there is often a very close relationship between human desire and our relationship to God. As Augustine put it, “The whole life of the good Christian is a holy desire.” 5

Indeed, it is sometimes the case that when we read Christian thinkers or listen to Christian hymns (which is a religious song of praise) and choruses, or read or listen to a religious poem, we are witness to the writer pouring out their emotions to God in such a way that sometimes it’s even difficult to tell if this is religious or romantic. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, (twelfth-century monk) wrote many sermons on the Old Testament book, Song of Songs (a.k.a., Song of Solomon). I’ve often read a piece entitled The Three Kisses with my students. Here Bernard describes his intimate relationship with Christ in terms of evermore intimate contact with Christ—first kissing his feet, then his hands (once he has raised you) and then there’s the ecstasy of the face to face kiss—he’s so descriptive that it sometimes gets just a bit awkward. (You’ll see it also in the vision of Teresa of Avila and the Holy Sonnets of John Donne). Notice what’s happened here: there has been a welding of the intensity and intimacy of romantic desire to the pursuit of God, a move that has sometimes been seen as controversial.

Desire is a funny thing. It’s overwhelming. It has the power to mislead us. After all, four of the seven Deadly Sins directly involve desire that has gone astray—envy, gluttony, lust, and greed. It has the power to control us, it has the power to utterly frustrate us, but at the same time it can provide the impetus necessary to cultivate passions, to order and invigorate relationships, and to energize our lives. So as a Christian, I want to identify and embrace desire and yearning. I want also to learn about the intensity that can lead to danger. But one thing I don’t want to do is to extinguish desire or to assume that to follow Jesus Christ requires the extinction of all of our passions or the detachment from all of our loves. However, it is also true that, as a Christian, I will no doubt find it necessary to detach myself from some desires and to cling to others, and to cultivate others that should be overwhelming and provide focus for my life. In other words, it’s not the case that I have to abandon all of my desires if I want to be a Christian, if I want to be a follower of Jesus Christ, which is sometimes the way things are put to us—i.e., just give it all up and follow Jesus and then your real needs will be met. Rather than thinking about the abandonment of desires, I believe we should think in terms of the ordering of our desires. This means that we will want to abandon our sinful desires, we will try to detach ourselves from others, we will surely want to cling to some, and we will also want to cultivate some desires that currently aren’t part of our lives, but should be. {89}

To be as clear as I can here, as a Christian I believe that the ordering of our desires can only find its way in relation to God. The Christian life is one that at its best is one both of detachment from sin and an intense desire for God. 6 True desire is patient, able to grow with time in ways that can be sustained.

That great church leader of the fifth century A.D., Augustine, has much to teach us about the nature of desire in his book, Confessions. Augustine himself was a man of passions. As a young man, this pursuit of passion led him to a number of somewhat predictable, tawdry, illicit sexual relationships, but when he becomes a Christian, he seems to realize that the intensity of those passions is not simply to be abandoned. Listen to what he says in one of his sermons: “Give me a man in love: he understands what I mean. Give me a man who yearns: give me a man who is hungry; give me a man traveling in the desert, who is thirsty and sighing for the spring of the eternal country. Give me that sort of man; he knows what I mean. But if I talk to a cold man, he does not know what I am talking about.” 7

Augustine returns often to these kinds of thoughts, and nowhere more poignantly than in Book 10 of Confessions. In some of the most moving passages regarding spiritual desire that I’ve ever run across, Augustine tries to make sense of the kinds of things we’ve been discussing this morning. He famously opens Book 1 with his assertion that the human heart is restless, and our hearts cannot find peace until they rest in God. But this isn’t merely some kind of platitude, some bogus, cheesy “Chicken-soup for the soul” formulation. Rather, he struggles to understand and live with this interplay of physical, emotional, and spiritual realities.

My love of you, O Lord, is not some vague feeling. . . . But what do I love when I love my God? Not material beauty or beauty of a temporal order; not the brilliance of earthly light, so welcome to our eyes; not the sweet melody of harmony and song; not the fragrance of flowers, perfumes, and spices; not manna or honey; not limbs such as the body delights to embrace. It is not these that I love when I love my God. And yet, when I love him, it is true that I love a light of a certain kind, a voice, a perfume, a food, an embrace; but they are the kind that I love in my inner self, when my soul is bathed in light that is not bound by space; when it listens to sound that never dies away; when it breathes fragrance that is not borne away on the wind; when it tastes food that is never consumed by eating; when it clings to an embrace from which it is not severed by fulfillment of desire. That is what I love when I love my God. 8

I really wish we had time to do a close reading of this remarkable passage. But please notice, at the very least, that Augustine wants us not to {90} think that we can find satisfaction in the earthly pleasures of life, and yet, it is only in loving God that it becomes possible to truly find pleasure in the things of this world that are meant for us to enjoy. It is in loving God that our desires can be ordered, sorted out. Our embrace of God makes possible our embrace of his world. Augustine himself mourns the fact that he went too long without this ordering of his own desires.

I have learnt to love you late, Beauty at once so ancient and so new! I have learnt to love you late! You were within me, and I was in the world outside myself. I searched for you outside myself and, disfigured as I was, I fell upon the lovely things of your creation. You were with me, but I was not with you. The beautiful things of this world kept me far from you and yet, if they had not been in you, they would have had no being at all. You called me; you cried aloud to me; you broke my barrier of deafness. You shone upon me; your radiance enveloped me; you put my blindness to flight. You shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for your sweet odour. I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am inflamed with love of your peace. 9

This is Augustine talking about getting his life right—recognizing that his desire for God is simultaneously satisfying and insatiable. He is serious about getting right with God. Like Augustine, this is a truth I wish I had come across much earlier in life, and desire to embrace ever more completely.


  1. This sermon was originally preached at the Fort Garry Mennonite Brethren Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on Sunday, August 12, 2012.
  2. Paul Oppenheimer, Infinite Desire: A Guide to Modern Guilt (Lanham, MD: Madison, 2001), 89. Solipsism is “The view or theory that self is the only object of real knowledge or the only thing really existent.” Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “solipsism.”
  3. Ibid.
  4. See P. Travis Kroeker’s fine paper on this passage in “Making Strange: Harry Huebner’s Church-World Distinction,” in The Church Made Strange for the Nations: Essays in Ecclesiology and Political Theology, ed. Paul G. Doerksen and Karl Koop, 92–99 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011), or René Girard’s “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist,” in his The Scapegoat (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).
  5. St. Augustine, Tractates on the First Epistle of John 4.6.
  6. St. Gregory, known as the “Doctor of Desire.” See Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982). {91}
  7. St. Augustine, On John’s Gospel 26.4. Quoted in John M. Rist, Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptized (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 157.
  8. St. Augustine, Confessions 10.8.
  9. Ibid., 10.38.
Paul Doerksen is Assistant Professor of Theology at Canadian Mennonite University, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He is the author of Beyond Suspicion: Post-Christendom Protestant Political Theology in Yoder and O’Donovan (2009). He is a longtime member of Fort Garry Mennonite Brethren Church (Winnipeg) with his wife, Julie, and three daughters.

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