|This article is excerpted from my just-published book
Intelligence for the Christian.
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since reading John Steinbeckís The Pearl in high school, Iíve
been haunted by a reflection of Juana early in the novel. After her
husband, Kino, hauls a basket into their boat containing a bloated
oyster with a mammoth pearl, Juana senses his excitement. Yet she
pretends to look away. ďIt is not good to want a thing too much,Ē she
muses. ďIt sometimes drives the luck away. You must want it just
enough, and you must be very tactful with God or the gods.Ē*
In the story that follows, Juanaís reflection becomes prophetic, as Kinoís burning desire to turn the giant pearl into fortune destroys the simple but peaceful life they had enjoyed. The storyís moral is blatant and chilling: itís dangerous to desire something too much, and often self-defeating.
Beyond her superstition about multiple gods, did Juana have a handle on a principle of life that profoundly determines our own success or failure? Does wanting a benefit of life too greatly hinder our chance of obtaining it? Does God work against us when our desires grow too strong?
My study of Scripture has actually done more to convince me of the importance of desire than anything. Typically, far more is taught in Christian circles about the dangers of desire than about its benefits. Yet Scripture has much to say about the positive--even essential--role of desire in human life, both as a motivator and as an indicator of Godís guidance. When Paul declares in Philippians 2:13 that God works in us, the Greek verb literally translates ďenergizing.Ē Paul is saying that God is stimulating us to do certain things with our life, through giving us certain desires that reflect his will.
Over a lifetime, most of us discover that we are most productive, and best relate to others for Christ, when weíre doing work that we fundamentally enjoy.
Granted, certain desires are dangerous to us, even in small doses. The urge to experience a drug-induced high, or to pursue an affair with a married individual, will only lead to heartache if we give in to it.
But what about the desire for otherwise wholesome benefits of life? Can the longing to develop a certain talent, to succeed in a particular career, to provide for my family, to be married or to marry a certain person, grow so strong that it contributes more to my failing than succeeding?
Letís set aside for a moment the question of whether God himself works against us in such cases, and look first at the human side. There is little question that we often shoot ourselves in the foot when desire grows too strong. One common reason is that, because we are so eager to gain a certain benefit, we may be too willing to make compromises or sacrifices which arenít truly necessary to our success. We may be too ready to sell ourselves short.
When desire is exorbitant, we are also more prone to nervous or impulsive reactions that hurt our chances of succeeding. Our neediness can work against us. When Kino realized he had found an extraordinary pearl, ďhe put back his head and howled. His eyes rolled up and he screamed and his body was rigid.Ē* His exclamation caught the attention of other divers in the area, who quickly rowed to his canoe. News of his discovery soon spread like burning underbrush; pearl buyers schemed to defraud him, and robbers plotted to steal his prize. If Kino had merely kept his discovery to himself for a while, he would have avoided endless problems, and might have had time to come up with a reasonable strategy for selling the pearl. One impulsive reaction forever destroyed his bargaining edge.
In his book You Can Negotiate Anything, master negotiator Herb Cohen observes that in situations which require negotiation, we are usually at a disadvantage if we desire a result too greatly. It is important to care about the outcome, Cohen insists, but ďnot to care too much.Ē When our heart is too fully in a matter, we often do better to let someone else handle the negotiating for us.*
Where Jacob Failed
We find an enlightening biblical example of Cohenís cardinal principle in the odyssey Jacob went through to win Rachelís hand in marriage (Gen 29:18-30). Jacob agreed to serve Rachelís father, Laban, as a field laborer for seven years, in return for permission to marry Rachel afterward. Yet once Jacob had completed this period of service, Laban changed the terms. He gave Jacob his other daughter, Leah, to be his wife, then offered to give him Rachel also if he would serve Laban for another seven years.
Whatís stunning is that Jacob agreed to all of these terms, and as far as we know, never tried to challenge any of them. We might assume that such arrangements were simply traditional at that time. Yet when Abrahamís servant had come to Labanís family previously, to seek a wife for Jacobís father, Isaac, Laban and his father agreed to let Labanís sister, Rebecca, return with the servant to marry Isaac the following day (Gen 24:50-51, 55-60). Abrahamís servant secured a wife for Isaac from Labanís family without having to provide any labor in return. Nor was any service required from Isaac, Abraham or anyone for the prize of Rebecca.
Labanís family agreed so readily to let Rebecca go because they strongly desired for family members to marry within their extended blood family, and options were few and far between. This incentive was so high, in fact, that Jacob almost certainly could have negotiated much better terms for his own marriage to Rachel if he had tried.
Yet Jacob served Laban for fourteen years for Rachel, while no one served a single day for Rebecca. Why such an outlandish difference in terms?
The reason is that Abrahamís servant--to use Herb Cohenís expression--cared, but did not care too much. He clearly wanted to succeed and please his master, yet neither his happiness nor his standing with Abraham depended upon his succeeding (Gen 24:7-8). Jacob, on the other hand, was crazed with desire for Rachel. He simply was not in a good state of mind to negotiate fairly for himself, and far too ready to accept the first arrangement offered to him.
Jacobís fatal flaw was that he did care too much. His love for Rachel was nothing short of an obsession. After she died, he developed a similar fixation on her first-born son, Joseph. Yet his exorbitant love for these two individuals set him up for extraordinary heartbreak when these relationships dropped out of his life.
From all the evidence we have, Jacob was not a truly happy person, particularly in his later years. Rachelís death, and Josephís disappearance, left him chronically grief-stricken. Years later, when he was reunited with Joseph in Egypt, Jacob confessed to the Pharaoh that he had been depressed for much of his life (Gen 47:9).
Expecting the Best from God
Appreciating how Jacobís fixations rendered his life miserable allows us to address more meaningfully the question of whether God works against our reaching a goal when our desire becomes excessive. God is, emphatically, not against our succeeding. Nor is he against our happiness. The God of Scripture is not the capricious, prickly god of so much mythology, who must be appeased and petitioned tactfully if we are to gain what we want. God loves us infinitely more than we love ourselves! He desires the very best for us.
Which is just the point. Because God loves us and wants the best for us, he may refrain from granting a desire, if he knows that doing so would actually diminish our joy over the long term. Or he may wait beyond what we feel is a reasonable period to grant it, to allow us to grow to the point where we are better able to handle the benefits and responsibilities that the fulfillment of our desire entails.
Godís concern is that, through it all, we develop character and understanding which helps us realize his best for our life. The good news is that our desires play a critical role in helping us recognize his will. Long-term desires--especially those that have stood the test of time--often give us a vital window into what God wants us to do. God uses our desires to motivate us to take important steps with our life as well. Our most worthwhile accomplishments are usually stimulated by significant desire.
Helping Our Desires to Work for Us
Yet our desires, even for legitimate benefits of life, can become obsessive, as they did in Kinoís case with the pearl, and Jacobís with Rachel and Joseph. How can we guard against this happening? How can we harvest desires that provide us with healthy motivation? And how can we make wise decisions based upon the ones we do experience? Here are some steps that can help:
Broaden your interests, diversify your affection. Jacob wasnít wrong to love Rachel and Joseph, nor to love them deeply. Where he went wrong was in not diversifying his affection more. It appears that for a long time Rachel wasnít merely an important part of his life, but his entire reason for living. It doesnít seem that he had any vocational interests that strongly motivated him or any other significant friendships. I have to wonder if there was a treasure in Leah that Jacob never discovered, because her physical features werenít as appealing to him as Rachelís.
Most tragic was Jacobís fixation on Joseph. Jacob had many other children and, eventually, grandchildren. With the exception of Benjamin, though, there is no evidence that he ever developed the bond with any of them which he enjoyed with Joseph. The results were tragic for both Jacob and his children.
One of the best steps we can take as a hedge against any one desireís becoming an unhealthy obsession is to have a variety of friendships and interests. As simple as the point sounds, it is easy to get stuck in the inertia of life and not broaden our contacts and interests as fully as we can. Each friendship we have enriches our life in unique ways, and most of us do well to have a number of them.
It helps us, too, to understand how resilient God has made us as humans. If one friendship or relationship fails, we can find another that provides as great support to us as the one weíve lost.
Each of us also has considerable potential for experiencing joy through being creative and productive. Here again, though, itís important to have more than one area of talent that we nurture.
Iíll never forget an experience in 1972, when I was visiting Sterling Sound, a recording studio in New York City, to master a Sons of Thunder record. Following the session, I was standing on the sidewalk in front of the studio, chatting with a recording engineer who had helped us. A disheveled beggar walked up to us. I was stunned when the engineer embraced this man, greeted him warmly, and asked him about his family. He then stuffed a $20 bill in the beggarís shirt pocket as that man turned to walk away.
My engineer friend then explained to me that this ragged man who had just approached us was once one of the most respected recording engineers in New York. Yet a fall had damaged his hearing, to the extent that he was no longer able to produce high-end recording. Convinced he had no other meaningful options for his life, he resorted to begging.
This was one of the most tragic examples Iíve seen of someoneís staking his identity too greatly on one talent.
At the other, and more positive extreme, a friend told me how he had helped an unemployed musician he knows obtain a job as a technical writer. The musician initially resisted the idea, complaining that he was only qualified to perform music. He knew nothing about the technical field that my friend was encouraging him to pursue as a journalist. Yet my friend assured him that could do it. He explained that you donít have to be an expert in a field to write about it, but merely able to express information interestingly that others present to you. The musician agreed to give it a try. He applied for the position and the firm hired him. He has done well in this job, and supported himself comfortably.
Like the musician, we each have areas of talent that are transferable--usually in far more ways than we realize. As we open ourselves to new possibilities, we are often amazed at the doors God opens for us.
Deepen your love for God. The single greatest tragedy in Jacobís life was that he never developed the close companionship with God that his grandfather, Abraham, enjoyed. While Jacob had some special encounters with God during his lifetime, they were only very occasional. It doesnít seem that he ever walked with God. And what relationship he did have with him was mainly opportunistic (Gen 28:20-22).
Had Jacob enjoyed a growing friendship with God, he likely would have kept his relationships with Rachel and Joseph in better perspective. Not only would he have had another, and greater, outlet for his affection, but he would have had Godís counsel and encouragement to help him better order his life. And undoubtedly he would have drawn on Godís strength more readily to move beyond his grief over losing Rachel and Joseph.
I never tire of repeating the cardinal advice of C. S. Lewis. Our problem, Lewis noted, isnít that we love things too much, but that we donít love God enough. If our attraction to some object of life is too strong, trying to reduce our affection for it will not help us as much as striving to increase our love for God.
Everything that we do to keep our relationship with Christ strong and growing contributes toward keeping our desires in healthy focus. The most encouraging part is that, as we open ourselves to Christís influence, he works within us to fashion our desires. While some diminish, others grow stronger. The closer our walk with him becomes, the greater can be our confidence that our desires are reflecting his intentions for our life, and motivating us in the best possible way.
Be patient. When a desire takes on too much importance, usually part of the problem is that we feel it must be met too urgently. The more we can learn the art of patience, the better weíll ensure that our dreams wonít get out of hand.
The most important secret to patience is learning that our experience of joy can actually increase through delaying gratification. We are happiest when we have something to look forward to--even if itís a dream on the distant horizon. Hope is central to our happiness, as well as to our health and vitality.
Here, ironically, Jacob has something important to teach us. He did understand the dynamics of patience well. Itís hard, in fact, to find a more inspiring example of patience in Scripture than Jacobís. He waited seven years for Rachelís hand, then agreed to work another seven. Waiting to marry her not only meant delaying sexual intimacy, but postponing friendship on other levels as well. Yet Jacob wasnít just willing to make this sacrifice of time, but comfortable doing so. He was so gifted at owning his desire as a future hope, that the period of waiting ďseemed like only a few days to him because of his love for herĒ (Gen 29:20).
Laban shouldnít have required Jacob to labor so long for Rachel, and Jacob certainly could have negotiated better terms. Yet his patience in waiting for her is impressive in itself. Where he went wrong was in fixating too much on this future hope alone and not seeking additional outlets for his affection. If we can combine patience with broadening our interests, diversifying our affection, and deepening our love for God, this combination of steps will serve us well. It will help us to stay encouraged, while less tempted to devote more affection to any one area of life than it deserves.
Be open to options where your desire is moderate rather than extreme. There is another step that helps us considerably. One of the best-kept secrets of happiness is that our greatest joy is often found in choosing alternatives where our attraction is moderate rather than extreme.
Many find that they are happiest in a marriage where their romantic attraction to the other is significant but not volcanic. In this case, theyíre able to enjoy the benefits of the marriage, yet still have a life apart from it. And because their neediness is not as great as it would be if attraction were overwhelming, theyíre better able to give themselves to their spouse compassionately, and to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of their partnerís.
Best of all, their affection has a chance to grow, since itís not already at full throttle. Many discover that over the years their attraction to their partner increases, and they feel more ďin loveĒ after ten or twenty years together than when they first married. When romantic love is extreme at the start of a marriage, one is often in for a letdown, as he discovers that the other person cannot possibly live up to his monumental expectations.
I realize that what Iím saying flies in the face of the popular Christian idea that you should ďonly marry someone whom you canít possibly live without.Ē Ironically, most of us would find that if we did marry someone we couldnít live without, weíd be miserable. Our well-being would constantly rise and fall depending upon how well we felt he or she was meeting our needs. And this person, rather than merely being someone whom we cherish as a gift of God, would become our God.
Many major life choices work best when we base them upon moderate rather than extreme attraction. Iím not suggesting we should sell short important life dreams that weíve long held. Nor should we compromise them. Yet sometimes we do need to renegotiate them. This is necessary because our ideals so often have sprung from a mix of healthy and unhealthy influences.
In lifeís real time it often works like this: Godís best options for
our life seem good to us, but less than perfect. The most encouraging
part is that we donít always have to wait for situations to perfectly
match our ideals before taking important steps of faith with our life.
Especially when trusted friends with good judgment feel that an
alternative is right for us, we may do best to choose it, even though
our attraction to it is only moderate. Many find that over time such a
step of faith positions them to enjoy blessings which greatly exceed
their initial expectations. Not a few find they have stumbled upon a
pearl of great price.
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