Desire has always played a central role in human existence, but when our desires become misdirected and inordinate (i.e., disordered), they can easily lead to sinful and destructive actions and attitudes.
Misdirected desires, on the one hand, are perfectly appropriate but directed at inappropriate objects and applied within wrong contexts, as when, for example, someone sexually desires children, animals, or has sexual relations with someone outside of marriage.
Inordinate desires, on the other hand, are desires that are also perfectly proper but improperly fulfilled in terms of quantity. Examples of these include gluttony and drunkenness, the proper but inordinate desire for food and drink. These desires can also manifest themselves in what would appear to be too little of something good, as when an anorexic individual fails to eat enough, or a highly driven person fails to sleep enough.
Thus, misdirected desires are disordered directionally and contextually, whereas inordinate desires are disordered in terms of quantity and extent. Very often, our desires are disordered by being simultaneously misdirected and inordinate. For example, we can desire not just too much food but also the wrong kinds—such as “junk” food which is high in fat and refined sugar while largely devoid of basic nutritional value.
Ever since sin entered human history, our desires have had the potential to be problematic and disordered. This is at least part of the reason why Buddhism tries to solve the problem of human suffering by advocating the complete elimination of all human desire. The logic works this way: If we want nothing, we will never suffer the disappointment of not getting it. Nor will the inordinate desire of greed (for example) cause others to suffer by taking for ourselves more than we should.
In contrast, Christianity does not consider desire to be inherently negative. In Galatians 5:16-17, for example, “the desires of the flesh” or sinful desires, are set over and against the good and righteous “desires of the Spirit.” In 1 Corinthians 12:31, Paul commands us to “eagerly desire the greater gifts.” Even God is depicted with appropriate desires, as in 2 Peter 3:9, which says that He does not desire “that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
We often try to be holy by denying our desires. But if we are not careful, this can devolve into becoming more of a Buddhist solution versus a biblical solution to the problem. To quote C. S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory, “If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised, 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.”
Our desires might not be wrong per se, but perhaps they are not strong enough for the right things because we are either ignorant of or (more likely) in rebellion toward the deeper and more important desires God wants for us. This obliviousness and insurgency are ubiquitously encouraged and promoted by contemporary thinking about the nature of desires, especially in the western world. They are there, it is argued, for no other reasons than to be stimulated and fulfilled. The stronger the desire, the more important it is to encourage and satisfy it. Since sexual desires are some of the strongest desires known to humankind, the narrative screams and demands that we must follow the (especially sexual) desires of our heart. Anything else, it is claimed, is psychologically oppressive and a destructive affront to human flourishing.
In contrast, Christians understand that although extremely important and powerful, sin has deeply impacted all of our desires. Thus, our strongest desires are not necessarily our deepest and most important desires. No matter how weak or how strong, they are often disordered and therefore potentially dangerous. They must continually be harnessed and (re)directed toward the right ends and kept within proper limits. In this way, we can be powerfully passionate, but passionate in the right ways, toward the right things, and to the right extent.
As Asaph so poignantly reminds us in Psalm 73:25-26, “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.”