The Rolling Stones had a hit with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” The refrain repeats that line and finishes with, “But if you try sometimes, well, you might find you get what you need.”
That catchy song connects with that universal frustration in not getting what we desire. Maybe, however, the Stones promise, we can get what we need.
Our desires run the gamut from primal things like food to more complicated goals of success and fame. These desires drive us, motivate us, even control us.
We’ve all observed in others how a desire can lead to hurtful actions. On another level, we know our own hearts. We’ve all had the desire to sin—to cheat, to steal, to kill. As fleeting as they may be, we’ve all had them.
People respond to these experiences differently. Part of our culture idolizes our desires as if we have the right to fulfill what we want. Others count all desires as malevolent at their core.
But are desires evil?
How Does the Bible Define Desires?
The Bible uses the idea of desire in a number of different ways. It can mean “to long for” or even a loving, yearning feeling. It can be positive as in to delight in someone. The negative form is lust or greed.
The trees of Eden, created by God, were seen as pleasurable and good, which is not evil (Gen 2:9). But when Eve and Adam were tempted by a desire to be wise in their own eyes, they ate the wrong fruit only a chapter later (Gen 3:6).
It’s similar in the New Testament, where the Greek words for desire can mean anything from longing to passion to wrath and lust. The words themselves are neutral. It depends on the context of what they mean. For instance, the word “zeloo” can mean a commitment to a cause or zeal in a positive sense, or “jealousy” in a negative one.
Desires, therefore, are what we want, the things we long for, and they do have a purpose.
What Is the Purpose of Desires?
Desires reveal the motives of our hearts. Our hearts reveal two things, both our own selfish evil and the longing for a heavenly reality.
On the one hand, we are desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). We desire things that are horrendous and often act on them. At the same time, we grieve over death. We feel outraged over injustice. We want leaders that aren’t corrupt. Parents that don’t abuse children. These are indicators that the sin of the world breaks the heart of the God-image in us. And we want to fix it. At least part of us does.
But we can’t.
Therefore, desires also reveal our inability to do it in our own strength. In Romans 7, Paul describes this state. He knew what is good because of the Law, but he didn’t choose it. He instead chose sin. It leaves him hopeless, where he cries out for freedom from his bondage.
Finally, our desires reveal how good and loving God is. Because God has desires, too.
Are Desires Evil, or Can They Be Good?
God’s desire is to reconcile all of creation back to Himself through His Son, living with us in an eternal family (Ephesians 1:5). Everything He does is based on this love for all people. He created humanity for intimacy and purpose. Even when we messed that up, He seeks to redeem us back through a relationship with Him, hence the famous John 3:16. For God loved us so much…
God doesn’t want anyone to die or be destroyed. God is holy and good, the only good, so the original design of His creation was perfect. It grieves Him when people choose sin, death, destruction over His Life. Jesus wept (John 11:35). If God wants things, desires can be good.
The fact that we have desires, simply, is not evil. In fact, it is evidence that we have been made in the image of God.
However, the Fall corrupted our hearts, the core of us. God’s creative design is good and pure, and when we go against it for selfish reasons, that is sin.
The desire for food is not evil. Our bodies naturally need and desire it. But when we corrupt and pervert it with the human heart, it becomes gluttonous and oppressive (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). The desire for sex and intimacy is good. These are things God created, and His first mission for humanity was to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). But when we corrupt it, it becomes lust, sex trafficking, adultery, prostitution, and more.
The problem isn’t with our desires but what we do with them.
In the English language, we literally define ourselves based on our desires. I am hungry. I am happy or sad. It’s not like this in every language, but in English, we speak an identity based on a temporary state, not the eternal one. That is living a lie.
Desires give us information, but they were not meant to rule over us or be our identity. That leads to slavery. Addiction. Evil. We are eternal beings, and only eternal things can satisfy us (love, righteousness, peace, hope, etc.). Temporary things will never satisfy what is eternal. When we try to make that work, we only create more bondage for ourselves and possibly others.
Jesus dealt with this in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), dealing with the real problem. Our hearts. “You’ve heard it said don’t kill. I say don’t hate.” Because hate leads to killing. Lust is what leads to adultery.
God seeks to realign our desires by placing us back into the original design: revealing to us the eternal through an intimate relationship with Him. He knows what we need and what will satisfy us. The Rolling Stones sang, “You might find you get what you need,” but they still meant temporary things. The One who created us understands the deepest longing of our hearts are for the unseen and eternal that are only available within Himself.
This is the power of the New Covenant. With the Holy Spirit with us, we have been made partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). We have been empowered both to want and to act what is good. It was only possible through God.
Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), a natural byproduct of the divine nature. Alone, we can only wrangle corruption by corruption. Corruption always wins in that case. But with the Spirit of God, we now have the power to place our desires where they should be, in submission to the good and perfect will of God, the Kingdom design that will be the best, both for us and all people.
This humbles us. And that is good. Grace comes with humility. If I think I got this covered and can handle my desires, then the scripture says God Himself will resist my pride (James 4:6-7).
For a practical example—the Bible promises a glorious entrance into heaven for the faithful (2 Peter 1:11). God wants us to desire that. But the same desire can be perverted. Fame in this life, people worshipping us, feeding our ego. That is essentially what Lucifer did (Isaiah 14:14). God wants to protect and save us from that end.
3 Ways to Know if a Desire Is Evil
Joshua got in trouble when he made a treaty with an enemy God wanted Him to destroy, but Joshua only forgot to do one thing. He didn’t ask God. The Gibeonites came to Joshua and deceived him, and since he didn’t check with God first, he made an agreement with the enemy (Joshua 9).
The Devil has been at this a long time. He knows how to make the desires look innocuous and innocent when they will destroy us. The solution isn’t to just deny every desire, however. That’s religious legalism. The Apostle Paul tells us to “put to death the deeds of the flesh by the Spirit” (Romans 8:13). Again, I can’t discern what is evil and good about my desires on my own, or even how to deal with them. I need God’s help.
The first step in dealing with desires, then, is to stop and ask God. Then listen to what He says. Most decisions that lead us to bondage and death can be traced back to that simple reality. Did we check with God first?
Seriously. If we are children of the Father, we literally have constant access to the Person who knows everything. By simple logic, therefore, since I don’t, He absolutely knows more than me. Every time. Why wouldn’t I ask Him when I have an enemy trying to steal, kill, and destroy?
We don’t because we think we have the best plan, and it surprises us when God often has a different one. It’s difficult to believe God’s plan is better. We thought ours was pretty good, right? But God loves us and is out for our good, even when His plan seems to take a wild turn.
Making sure we are listening to the Spirit, here are three simple questions to ask when dealing with our desires.
- Will this desire lead to sin as defined by the Bible? Will this desire lead me to go against God’s holy design for my ultimate good?
Knowing that God’s desire is for my eternal good out of His love, I must think about the logical end of participating in this desire. We think this is an easy one, but our hearts are really good at justifying things. To think we are immune to it is pride. Desires can lead us into positions and situations that will compromise our integrity or just plain get us into disobedience and sin. Take a moment to think through where paths will take us. And yes, the Bible is clear about these things.
- What is the motive of the desire? Is it for my good and the good of others?
If the desire is simply for my own pleasure, then that’s a warning sign. God loves celebration, and He’s not a killjoy. He made the wine at a wedding to keep the party going (John 2:1-11). But when celebrating or enjoying life becomes about my pleasure alone, then I’m in trouble. Godly celebration is never separate from spiritual self-control and the needs and dignity of others. The scripture is clear that we are to think of others and not ourselves (Philippians 2:3).
- Is this desire controlling me? Have I proven the ability to say no to this?
It is for freedom that we’ve been set free (Galatians 5:1), not to place ourselves again under bondage. Addicts are willing to steal, manipulate, and do all sorts of things to feed what they think they need, what controls them. We can be in bondage to all sorts of things, even things meant for good—careers, families, relationships, etc. My career is meant to give provision and an expression of purpose and witness. When that career becomes an identity and I feed it instead of my family or my time with God and the community of faith, that career controls me.
To be honest, even a job of “ministry” can be a bondage if I am controlled by that activity and not able to submit that ministry to the will of God.
It is counterintuitive, but the secret is this: submitting what we want at the moment to the will of God will eventually lead us to more joy and glory than we ever imagined. Submit to His loving will. Then we get all that we want and need in abundance. That’s what He desires for us.
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Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/AntonioGuillem
Britt Mooney (with his amazing wife, Becca) has lived as a missionary in Korea, traveled for missions to several countries, and now lives in Suwanee GA as a church planter that works bi-vocationally with Phoenix Roasters, a missional coffee company. He has a podcast about the Kingdom of God called Kingdom Over Coffee and is a published author with Say Yes: How God-Sized Dreams Take Flight.