When I ask people to describe their Christian faith, I typically hear them recite a list of religious ideas they believe. “I believe in God,” many will say. “I believe in the importance of reading the Bible and following it.” “I believe that heaven and hell are real, and that God judges us for our actions.” As these cataloged beliefs fly back at me with great predictability, I often wish I had asked a different question.

These days I do. If you were to sit down with me for a conversation on faith, here’s what I would ask you: “What are you really hungry for in life?” I want to know your deepest yearnings. What do you crave? What do you long for? Not in an immediately achievable way, as in a nap after an exhausting day at work. I want to know what sorts of yearnings you are willing to organize your life around. What are your deepest desires?

My hunch is this simple: If I can get you talking long enough and honestly enough about your heart’s desires and your greater affections, I can tell you exactly what kind of God or gods you worship. You likely could do the same with me.

“Desire” may seem like a strange word in the Christian lexicon, yet it’s a tender word full of aching spiritual intensity. Desires shape the contours of our lives. When we stop desiring and resign ourselves to living bound by the world we see, we lose something essential to our humanity. This cessation of desire stands in sharp contrast to Abraham and his descendants who, according to the letter to Hebrews, continually longed for “a better country” (11:16). These ancients turned longing into a primary expression of faith. Longing and desire became vital to their relationship with God.

In many respects, we are what we desire. “Appetite, or desire, not DNA, is the deepest principle of life,” said Leon Kass, former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Kass finds human longing and desire to be “the spur to all aspiration … to having a life at all.”

Computers have no aspirations, no curiosity, no desire. Smartphones can’t delight in goals or organize their existence around meaningful pursuits. Left alone, these devices sit passively. But we, in our thirst for satisfying deep human desires, have a built-in restlessness.

The Scriptures commonly refer to this restlessness of ours as thirst. Thirst in the Bible is rarely about water alone. It’s more about hungry souls desperately desirous of God. “My soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God,” the psalmist cries (Psalm 42:1-2). “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).

This ache-in-the-gut variety of longing gets lost in much of American culture where we can turn desire into a quickly achievable possession. A want easily becomes a have in a materially comfortable world. Just go and buy it, whatever “it” happens to be!

Yet faith is never about possessing anything, much less God. Faith revolves around seeking God. The 12th-century mystic Meister Eckhart reasoned that a desire for God was the beginning of faith. “If the soul cannot feel this longing,” he said, “then it must long for the longing.” As far as Eckhart was concerned, the desire of a relationship with God is as special as the relationship itself.

True spiritual desire evaporates when we focus on what we can get from God. As the old proverb states: “When I pray for bread and get it, I think about bread and forget God. When I pray for bread and don’t get it, I think about God a great deal.”

When you and I get to sit down for that precious conversation on faith, let’s not worry about what each of us possesses, controls or even thinks we believe. Let’s think about God a great deal and zero in on one particular desire. As theologian St. Anselm prayed: “O Lord, grant us grace to desire thee with our whole heart, that so desiring, we may seek and find thee, and so finding thee we may love thee.”

Peter W. Marty
Marty, a pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport, Iowa, and publisher of The Christian Century.

Read more about: