The recent death of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner was another reminder of the radical and sweeping changes over the past 40-50 years regarding popular attitudes toward human sexuality. While many things could be said about these seismic transformations, two major and interrelated claims have emerged which bear special mention.
First, sexual fulfillment—whether heterosexual or homosexual in nature—is now considered centrally important to human identity and flourishing. Second, and closely related, we are told that suppressing and rebuffing strong sexual desire not only leads to unhappiness, it is detrimental to human well-being and may even lead to psychosis.
The idea that strong personal desires should be sublimated (redirected) and subjugated (denied) in contemporary life is not only considered unreasonable, it’s deemed downright dangerous. Instead, we are repeatedly told that life is fuller and more meaningful when we pursue and fulfill the deepest and strongest desires of our hearts, especially those that are sexual.
It may come as a surprise to some, but the fulfillment of our heart’s desires is actually biblical language. Consider, for example, Psalm 37:4 where David says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
There are at least two things to notice here. First, the desires of our heart arise from delighting first and foremost in the Lord. When we delight in God, He gives us desires for good and noble things, and then fulfills those desires as we trust and seek Him. Second, however, there is an implication: Our heart’s desires could also be directed toward what is evil and base. This is why Jeremiah 17:9 warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.” In fact, we have a choice in the matter.
The decision to delight in the Lord above all other persons and things is the essential and indispensable prerequisite for experiencing divine fulfillment of our heart’s deepest desires. Our heart has to be redirected and reshaped by the things that the Lord loves and values. When we consciously and continually choose to delight in Him, our desires become very different than what they used to be.
At the same time, however, we must admit that our delight in the Lord is never perfect or uninterrupted. We still struggle with those pesky and sometimes overwhelming evil desires of the flesh. As James 1:14-15 explains, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
This dangerous element of strong wrong desire leading to sin is not taken seriously enough in contemporary society, a society that now expects and demands our deepest desires—especially sexual ones—to be granted every right and opportunity to be fulfilled. In this context, we rarely, if ever, want to be told what we can and cannot do as well as when we can and cannot do it. Human selfishness and sin make us prone to demand whatever we want, as much as we want, as often as we want it. But these are the attitudes of spoiled children, not mature adults. Mature adults learn to curb their voracious and capacious appetites. But how do we become mature? We must do two basic things: subjugate and sublimate our desires.
To subjugate our desires means we must bring them under the Lordship of Christ. No matter how strong they are, no matter how much our society has told us we have every right to fulfill them, all our desires must be placed upon the alter of the Lord. As we do, He may or may not see fit to fulfill them, but when we offer them up to Him, He gives us the grace to resist temptation and develop spiritual maturity and strength.
The second thing we are called to do is sublimate our desires. Here, we consciously redirect them so that they might either be fulfilled in their proper contexts or be turned into desires for something or someone better and greater.
In speaking about subjugation in Colossians 3:5, the Apostle Paul uses the language of homicide and slaughter: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
When Paul speaks about sublimation and the redirection of desire in Philippians 3:8-10, he highlights the incomparable joy of knowing Jesus Christ above all else. He knows that without something or someone better and greater to gaze at and aspire to, we would easily fall back into fulfilling our desires for lesser and ultimately harmful and dehumanizing things.
The world is wrong about many of our deepest human desires. Their denial and redirection, far from harming our humanity, is most often the pathway to a deeper knowledge of God and a greater experience of who we as human beings were meant and created to be.
As we continually submit our desires to God, we can, like Asaph in Psalm 73:25-26, honestly say of Him, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”