Aching Desires: Taking a Closer Look at the Definition of Sin
Why are you reading this?
Why did you decide to take time out of your day, open this journal, and read through it?
What did you do before reading this? Why did you do that thing? Why did you watch that show, go to that place, or read that book?
Let me up the stakes a bit. Why do you spend time with the people you call your friends? Why are you studying what you’re studying? Why are you at UNC?
I ask all this primarily to bring you to one key question: Why do you do the things you do?
One possible theory, which reflects the thinking of philosopher James K. A. Smith, is simple: It is because humans, at the very core of who they are, have desires.
This may seem anticlimactic for the amount of rhetorical questions I just put you through, but pause for a moment and think about what that statement is saying. If we are desiring beings more so than we are anything else – that is, if we are beings whose most foundational stirrings are desires that by nature want and have to be satisfied – then these desires will manifest in how we live our lives. Essentially, our routinely-lived lives are extensions of these core desires.
At this point, I am not so much talking about what one could call “common desires” (i.e. the desire for a Cookout milkshake or the preference for a certain song), but rather the desires that never seem to quite leave us, the ones emanating from the heart in the form of our deepest longings. A desire for peace, security, justice, friendship, and joy are but a few of such longings. In Dr. Smith’s view, we would say we love the things that we hope can satisfy these core desires. He elaborates, “We are essentially and ultimately desiring animals, which is simply to say that we are essentially and ultimately lovers. To be human is to love, and it is what we love that defines who we are.” Pictorially, Smith imagines humans as arrows, oriented by our desires and aimed at that which we hope can fulfill them.
Yet if humans can be represented by arrows being aimed at something, might it be possible that our aim is off and pointing at the wrong target? Perhaps the best way to answer this question is with another.
What comes to mind when I write the word “sin”? Immediate religious – maybe even hyper-religious – connotations and overtones? Perhaps for some of you, bright red letters against a dark background commanding you to STOP SINNING flash in your mind. For others it may be a tattered metaphorical rule book in your mind’s eye. Others still, perhaps a vague sense of darkness that plagues the world within and without. Or maybe you reject my question and its concept completely.
Whatever your answer, consider first a case study proposed by Augustine, a fourth century theologian:
A man committed murder. Why? Because he loved another’s wife or his property; or he wanted to acquire money to live on by plundering his goods; or he was afraid of losing his own property by the action of his victim; or he had suffered injury and burned with desire for revenge.
Augustine gives a crime – or for our purposes we might say “sin” – and then gives four different but plausible explanations for why someone might sin in this way. But that’s not what’s unique. The more compelling idea is how closely together he links a horrible act with good desires – desires for love, comfort, security, and justice. This – the hazy intermingling of the good and evil – is where sin gets its power.
Contrary to how sin is often discussed in our culture (as well as in some of our churches), which reduces it to the mere breaking of rules or crossing of lines, sin in reality is robust; it interacts with us and we feel its effects (Romans 7). We feel it when we turn once again to that thing we know will leave us feeling empty and wanting more; it comes to us at night to bury us in shame; and it seeps through our bodies as poison threatening to drag us into a restless sleep.
It is because sin is a perversion of our desires, ultimately twisting the arrow away from the One who can fulfill them and curving it either back in on itself or pointing it at some other, insufficient target.
But how can this be? How can something so dead act so alive?
For you who doubt or disagree, consider this: what if the world were created by a loving God, and in this world God created humans, the jewel of his creation, in order that they may know him and enjoy him forever? It follows then that humans would have a capacity (or desire) to fundamentally love God. But then, what if a horrible disease infected God’s creation, simultaneously perverting all that God had made while still leaving traces of the pure creation? Humans would still have desires that yearn for a relationship with their Maker, but ones that only make sense in a fallen world (i.e. a want for peace, justice, rest, etc.). However, these desires now have the disease to contend with.
This is where the glory of Jesus, who is fully God and fully man, shines forth.
See, because Jesus knows what it’s like to be human (Hebrews 4:15) and because he has conquered by his resurrection all sin and death (Colossians 2:14-15), the cure for the disease and all its ramifications – especially our tainted desires – is there for the taking. Do you long for love? Receive the eternal, steadfast love of Jesus (Psalm 136). Do you seek comfort? Turn to the God of all comfort and he will be near (2 Corinthians 1:3-5). Do you yearn for security? Rest in the open arms of the Father (Psalm 91). Do you cry for peace and rage against war? Look to the Prince of Peace and the one who will wipe the tears from your eyes (Revelation 21:4). Do you want to be known? Entrust your heart to the Lord who knit you together and knows you perfectly (Psalm 139:13). Do you feel purposeless? Accept the King’s invitation to live a new life with him – that you might enjoy one another forever – and to him – that others, by your influence, may share in that Joy as well (Ephesians 2:10, 1 Peter 2:9).
The next time your hands are empty and you’re wondering “Why this? Why again?”, turn your eyes upon the Lord of Glory, the One who, with eagerness and joy, satisfies those aching desires.
1. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 51.
2. Augustine, Confessions (New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 1992), 30.