Why Desire Is a Bad Word

In Christian circles, you’ll often find people who don’t understand how one could be “gay” or “same-sex attracted” without sinning.  In their minds, being “attracted” implies “desiring”, and desiring is an act of the will.  Just as it is simple enough not to desire my friend’s fancy car, it is simple enough not to desire other people of the same sex.  On this view, then, all same-sex attraction is volitional.

Now I think this view is entirely false, but it is false in a very interesting and instructive way.  The problem is with the sentence “Desiring is an act of the will.”  In English, this CAN be true.  When I desire God, for example, it is certainly something that vitally involves my will.  Indeed, I don’t think it is imaginable to desire God passively.  (This would be something like a woman saying she desires her husband, even though all she does is lie in bed waiting to be “acted upon”.  That’s not desire; it’s more like “being willing”, which is not the same thing.)

But desiring, in English, is not only an act of the will.  It’s also something that can be experienced completely passively.  When I smell coffee, I desire it, even though I am not disposed to DO anything about that desire — for various unfortunate reasons that I won’t go into here.

The problem is simple: the English language sucks.  In English we cannot distinguish between passive and active desire in any meaningful way, without using tons of other words.  Greek is much better, in this respect.  When you read the New Testament in the Greek, the Greek is always 100% clear about whether the relevant desiring is active or passive.  In the New Testament, it is possible to passively be disposed to the good, but actively will evil (this happens in Romans 7).  Or it is possible to passively undergo evil, but actively will good.  And so on.

It would be SO helpful for our discussions of sexuality if we understood these distinctions.  The passive experience of desire is not something a person chooses, in any sense of the word “choose”.  My desire for men is nothing like the average person’s desire for money.  It is not something that I “plan” on or “decide” to will.  It is perfectly passive.

Indeed, this is the point of the Incarnation.  God became passive so that man might become active; which is to say, “God became man so that men might become gods”.  And this is precisely the message of Jesus Christ to gay people: “The devil has chosen you to submit to your passions, but I am empowering you to transcend your passions and choose me instead!”

Note how different this is from the message some Christians send: “You have are allowing yourself to desire these things, and you need to stop doing so.”  This message has a grain of truth, because the sinner does – in practice – participate in his own captivity.  But that is not how sin begins.  Sin begins passively.  The word “tempt” in the New Testament is the Greek word “peiro”, the same root that we find in the English word “experience”.  The word means “to be tested” or “to undergo”.  No word in the Greek language is more evocative of passivity – indeed, the only word that approaches it is the word “pascho”, which is the word from which we derive the notion of Christ’s passion.  When Christ is tempted in the wilderness, Christ becomes passive, so that he might – by passing the test – become active.  When Christ contemplates his crucifixion in the Garden, he is fully passive in the face of his emotions, so that he might – by undergoing that experience with patience – actively choose the loving action of sacrificing himself for us.

When anyone experiences sexual temptation, in the same way, he or she becomes passive.  This is not unfortunate, for it is precisely the occasion of the choice to actively accept the will of God, to become active like God Himself is active.  Through resisting temptation, we become like God our Father, for God is pure activity, and nothing can be passive in him.

None of this means that passions are bad, as such.  Passions that tend toward good are good, passions that tend toward evil are bad.  We pray that God spare us the test, but we do not pray that God spare us any emotion whatsoever.  Passive emotions like affection and disgust have their place in motivating virtuous behavior.  Nevertheless, one day they will no longer be needed in order to motivate us toward goodness, and in that day we will be active like God himself is active.

I am reminded of that beautiful hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”: Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father / There is no shadow of turning with Thee / Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not / As Thou has been Thou forever will be.

Passion – passive desire – is precisely this: a shadow of turning.  Active desire is turning, whether turning toward sin or turning toward the living God.

When we make the mistake of thinking passive desire is active desire, we run the risk of condemning others (or ourselves) unjustly.  But we can make the opposite mistake, by thinking that active desire (i.e. lust) is passive desire, and thereby excuse our sins under the mistaken belief that they are involuntary.  Both these mistakes are relics of a very unhelpful English word: desire.

Or rather, perhaps the causal connection goes the other way.  Perhaps we forgot the distinction between passivity and activity first, and then our language got confused later.

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