Friday, December 19, 2008

Appetites

In the long list of God’s gifts to humanity stands the awesome bestowal of … the barbecue. I must confess, I love to grill. There’s just something good and right about standing over a smoking barbecue in my “Kiss the Cook” apron, wielding those mighty tongs. I open the lid and smokey goodness billows out, filling the neighborhood with the delicious smell of sizzling steaks. Even my vegetarian friends seem to have a special place in their hearts for that savory aroma. Eyes brighten, mouths water, appetites are aroused.

Appetites are a pretty normal part of the human experience. Stomachs grumble to be filled. Nostrils breathe deeply to smell the fragrant air. Eyes widen to behold something remarkable. Ears strain to hear a beautiful song. Bodies desire sexual release. We all have cravings that call out for satisfaction.

One time, Israel's King Solomon commented on how persistently these natural desires stick with us, “The eye is never satisfied with seeing nor the ear ever filled with hearing” (Ecclesiastes 1:8). Appetite and satisfaction. It’s a cycle that grows and wanes, but never really goes away. With various measures of strength, every physical sensation we have comes with an accompanying itch that longs to be scratched.

Our immaterial senses are much the same. Minds hunger to discover, organize, and choose. Hearts thirst to love and be loved. Imaginations long to discover and create. Souls crave meaning and destiny. Spirits long to know God.

The wanting we carry inside is inescapably embedded in our humanity. Inescapable and, in fact, good, when understood and stewarded correctly. When left to its own independent, unsupervised impulses, however …

Amidst the beautiful and joy-giving cycle of hunger and satisfaction, our appetites come with a warning. When unrestrained or misdirected, these things that move us toward motivation, growth, and joy can become unthinking masters that drive us to excess at great cost to our person and community. Hunger becomes gluttony. Sexual intimacy becomes lust. Rest becomes laziness. Organization becomes obsession.  Enjoyment becomes hedonism. What was once good becomes a destructive force of evil, hostile to us and those around us.

“For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things” (Philippians 3:18-19).

When appetites turn self-centered and indulgent, they quickly become what the Bible calls, “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life” (1 John 2:16). On one hand we’re reminded that, “Everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude, sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-6). On the other, we’re challenged to, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (Romans 13:14).

The tension between gratefully participating in the satisfaction of our appetites and restraining them from becoming chaotic masters of our personhood has caused great angst for many. Some have gone so far as to vilify appetites all together, prescribing various systems of ascetic self-denial in the hope of liberating themselves from all desire, internal and external.

From the 9th century BC, Jainism or Jain Dharma has taught that the soul’s true divine nature is accomplished and freed from reincarnation when the inner enemies of desire are conquered. Buddhism, beginning in the 4th century BC, teaches that the experience of suffering is ultimately from appetites or attachments to desire that should be transcended. Greek Stoicism, starting in the 3rd century BC, considered all passions evil and to be overcome. Even many Christian monastic groups, including the Desert Fathers (3rd century AD), have embraced similar philosophies in an attempt to become more holy and wholly surrendered to God. The common belief these systems share is that human effort or will power can effectively conquer appetites and cravings.

With such religious ambition to be rid of the cravings that trouble us, it might be surprising to hear that the Bible says, despite the measure of effort applied, such legalistic methodologies do little to set straight our demanding appetites. “These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Colossians 2:23). Sure, some cravings get shifted around or hidden, some behaviors get redirected or subverted; but ultimately the result is simply the rise and indulgence of yet another appetite… the appetite for independent control and the vanity of external appearance.

And there’s the rub.

While practitioners hope for liberation from their appetites, the great irony of legalism is that it actually becomes a form of bondage in itself (Galatians 4:21-26). The ten commandments are famous symbols of Christian faith; but the Bible explains that the real reason God gave them to Israel, along with the rest of the Mosaic Law, was, “so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God. No flesh will be justified in his sight by the works of the law; for through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:19-20). God’s law was never intended to be a path to liberation, although it did help curb at least some measure of destructive indulgence. The primary purpose of the law, however, was and is to reveal the impossibility of overcoming self-centeredness and appetite-idolatry through mere human effort. It was designed to reveal our great need for a Forgiver, a Helper, a Savior.

What’s so great about Jesus (among the many things) is that he came to set us free not only from the destructiveness of self-centered appetite-indulgence but also the impossible demands of the law. “It was for freedom that Christ set us free” (Galatians 5:1). “Therefore, brothers and sisters, you also were made to die to the law through the body of Christ and were joined to him when he was raised from the dead so that we might bear fruit for God. We have been released from the law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter. For what the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending his own son in the form of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who no longer walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 7:4, 6; 8:3-4).

What we could not do, Jesus did for us. And what we cannot do now, God’s Spirit, given to those who receive him, does through us - leading and empowering us in supernatural ways to live a life that is otherwise impossible. Ultimately, through this functional union, both our appetites and our will are reconnected in utter dependence to the God who directs and empowers them in life-giving ways. And that’s where the tension is resolved - in the person, presence, and power of God, living in and through us. In him is the perfect balance between satisfying appetites and denying their idolatry. And in living that balanced self-stewardship through us, Jesus achieves his desire, “that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be made full” (John 15:11).

Once again, reconnection to - and utter dependence on - God are revealed as the most beautiful, enjoyable, life-giving realities humanity could imagine.

As we continually entrust ourselves to God through Christ, we are increasingly freed to celebrate our experience of appetite and satisfaction while empowered to subject those appetites to his lordship through periodic exercises of self-denial, reminding our appetites that they are good but not god. So, in the supernatural leading and power of God's Spirit within us, we savor food, resisting gluttony, and at times we fast. We enjoy marital sex, resisting immorality, and at times we are celibate. We engage in learning and intellectual reflection, resisting pride, and at times we are still.  We welcome comfort, resisting sloth, and at times we intentionally choose hardship.  We appreciate fashion, resisting vanity, and at times we are purposefully plain.  We delight in good music, resisting compromise in the message or mood, and at times we are silent. The only craving we do not periodically cease from is the one for which satisfaction is actually God. It’s the appetite for God himself. That’s a craving we can never indulge enough.

While all this is, indeed, good news, there still remains the question of how to practically enter in to the reality of God directing and empowering our will and appetites in life-giving ways... 
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