Sunday, November 14, 2010

As Long as It's Real

In Anthropologie, a trendy shop on Lincoln Road, in South Beach, Miami, I heard a catchy anthem for the sovereignty of self:

Say what you say,
Do what you do
Feel what you feel,
As long as it's real.
I said take what you take
And give what you give
Just be what you want,
Just as long as it's real. 

The song, by Brit Lily Allen, came out in 2006, but it’s still getting plenty of radio play. Listen to the repeated chorus a few times and it’s easy to buy the idea: say, do, be what you want, “just as long as it’s real.”

The idea certainly seems harmless enough on a bright breezy day, eating lunch al fresco under the palms that line Lincoln Road, watching the monk parakeets swooping overhead, with all the best a material world has to offer stretched out in every direction.

But come back later to see where that road ends, and review the varied definitions of "wasted". Or wander through Lummus Park, a few short blocks away, and consider how “do what you do” plays itself out in the lives of the drunks and druggies asleep under the sea grape trees, or eating what they find in the trash cans lining Ocean Drive.

Just days before my South Beach travels, a gay friend and I met to talk about faith and practice in a sexually broken, morally confused world. We both expressed deep ambivalence about the challenges of holding clear moral boundaries; both of us care deeply about messages given to younger Christians about sexuality, gender, and holiness, yet have staked out lines on the “slippery slope” in different places, and for different reasons.

“Doesn’t scripture say God gives us the desires of our heart?”

My friend’s question reminded me of all the fairy tales and fables that warn of wishing for the wrong thing, and the repeated moral: be careful what you wish for.  I know that the desires of my own heart have often headed toward dark destinations. Desire allowed to create its own context is more dangerous than we can imagine. If desire is allowed to define us, or define what’s right, we’re in deep deep trouble.

The accurate quote, in part, is this: “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Take delight in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this.” A few verses later: "Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him."

The only safe desires are those lived out in a place of trusting God, and waiting patiently for him. If our first delight is in God, if our context is trust in him, our deepest desires will be fellowship with him, glory for his name, obedience to his word. Which brings us right back to the question of sovereignty: who gets to decide what’s best for me? Is it me? Or is it God? We are deeply in need of a theology of desire. That “I want” voice we’re all born with gets stronger every time it wins.

I’m reminded of a passage from Lewis’ essay, “The Weight of Glory”:

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

It’s not that God wants to deprive us, kill our joy, make us lonely, miserable, unfulfilled. It’s that the things we think we want, the people we think we want to be, the fulfillment we look for are far less real, far less grand, than what God has in mind. We have no idea what’s “real” apart from him.