The Future of Christian Spirituality: Part 1 | The Role of Desire in the Spiritual Life

“The reason we do not see God is the faintness of our desire.” –Meister Eckhart


Truth be told, it was desperation that first drew me deeper into the spiritual journey. I was raised a pastor’s kid in a Protestant, fundamentalist home—which means that I knew a whole lot more about paying attention to “oughts” and “shoulds” than giving any attention at all to desire and desperation.  As the very responsible eldest daughter of this pastor, I was “saved” in family devotions when my dad, who was in seminary at the time, was practicing his preaching on us.  One night he delivered a particularly effective sermon on heaven and hell, and even at the tender age of four, I knew what side of THAT equation I wanted to be on, so I “asked Jesus into my heart” right then and there.  

Later on, in junior high school, I made a more mature decision to commit my life (what I understood of it at the time) to being a Christ-follower, but by the time I reached my early thirties I felt stuck spiritually. Married with three young children, on staff at a church I loved, and studying in seminary, my star was beginning to rise, but inside my soul there was another level of truth that needed to be told. In the midst of outward busy-ness and achievement, there was an inner chaos that was far more disconcerting than anything that was going on externally. 

Even though I had been a Christian for many years and was now leading others, I was struggling with some of the basics of the spiritual life. 

Struggling with the Basics

For one thing, I could not seem to consistently love my husband and children; there was an element of selfishness and self-centeredness that was being exposed in the crucible of marriage and parenting that was frightening to acknowledge. At best I was impatient with the demands of life in the company of others; at worst I was angry that people wouldn’t just leave me alone to pursue my own dreams and ambitions.

At first I trivialized my struggle by categorizing it as something like an early mid-life crisis, but the deeper truth was this: after years of being in church, studying my Bible to gain right beliefs, and doing all the Christian things, I still had not moved much beyond self-centeredness and self-interest.

Particularly when love was demanding or inconvenient or interfered with my own desires, I did not know how to die to myself in even the smallest of ways. True transformation seemed just beyond my reach.

What Lies Beneath

As it turned out, my limited capacity to love was the tip of an iceberg that hinted at an even larger reality. Right under the surface of my busy life lurked questions of the deepest kind, questions I could no longer quiet. There were questions about identity and calling: Was there anything truer about me than the “externals” of gender-related roles and responsibilities? Was there anything more defining than how hard I could work, the level of excellence I could achieve and other peoples’ assessment of that? 

There were also questions about the possibility of true spiritual transformation: What about those stuck places that I was just beginning to acknowledge—those places where I could not break free to love? Was there any power effective enough to touch those intractable places in the here and now, or was my best hope for transformation some distant possibility beyond the grave? And there were questions about what was lurking deep in the subterranean levels of the soul: What was motivating the frenetic quality of my life and schedule? Why did I find it so hard to say no, even when my over-commitment hurt those closest to me? Would I come to the end of my life only to mourn poor choices that did not value that which is of ultimate value?

This Can’t be All There is! 

These were painful questions indeed and paying attention to them stirred up emotions I had somehow managed to keep outside my awareness: anger about past pains and present injustices that covered for deep wells of sadness underneath. Confusion about things that I used to be so sure of. Undercurrents of loneliness and longing for more but more of what—God, love, belonging, peace? I wasn’t sure how to articulate my longings, but it felt like I was being swept away. The more I tried to suppress my emotions and questions, the harder I worked to resist them or pretend that they didn’t exist, the more they seemed to wield a subterranean power over me. 

Amid much outward productivity, the interior spaces of my life echoed with words like, “There has to be more to the spiritual life than this.” Sometimes the words were quiet and wistful, full of a profound sadness. At other times they were feisty, fighting words full of a lack of acceptance: “THIS CAN’T BE ALL THERE IS! And if it is—I’m not sure I want it!” Sometimes there were no words at all—just longings I could not even express in words.

What does one do with such unwieldy aspects of the human experience? How does one adequately describe the human heart’s desperate longing for God in the midst of so much religious activity? What do you do when all of the dogmas and methods for seeking God offered within your tradition—Bible studies, prayer journals, more and better preaching, self-help books, small group gatherings—come up so empty? Where does someone who is involved in leading others on a spiritual path go to articulate questions that seem so dangerous and almost sacrilegious? 

This was not a good time to admit to any kind of spiritual emptiness or acknowledge any kind of serious questions about my faith. It was a time for being “good”, for being available when people called, for maintaining outward evidences of spiritual maturity and commitment commensurate with the opportunities that were coming my way. And yet, these interior groanings were real and needed attention. 

What We Do With our Desire 

Although I would not have known to name it this way at the time, this is the stuff of our spirituality. This is where I got in touch with my desire and realized I wanted God more than anything else—more than loyalty to family and religious tradition, more than my job, more than being accepted in the circles I was a part, more than any success I was experiencing, more than theological rightness and certitude, more than looking good in other peoples’ eyes. More than anything.  

This was a frightening time and it was at this moment that Fr. Ron Rolheiser appeared as my teacher.  The very title of his book, The Holy Longing, gave me courage to go on, and his statement, “Spirituality is, ultimately, about what we do with our desire.  What we do with our longings, both in terms of handling the pain and the hope they bring us, that is our spirituality…it is about what we do with the fire inside us, how we channel our eros.” 

It is hard to express what this meant to a young, passionate, melancholy and yet very conservative religious woman who had never in her life considered that there was anything good about desire.  That first chapter alone changed my understanding of myself and of Christian spirituality.  Phillip Sheldrake’s book, Befriending Your Desire, helped me as well, where he writes, “At the heart of all of us is a center that is a point of intersection where our deepest desire and God’s desire in us meet and are found to coincide.”  Who knew?  Not me, until I read these great spiritual authors. It changed the trajectory of my life and witness.

A Deeper Respect for the Role of Desire 

This brings me to my first observation about the future of Christian spirituality:  it will be propelled by greater understanding of and respect for the role of desire and desperation in the spiritual life. As strange as it may sound, desperation that keeps us in touch with our deepest spiritual desire is a really good thing in the spiritual life.

Desperation causes us to be open to radical solutions, willing to take all manner of risk in order to find what we are looking for. Desperate ones seek with an all-consuming intensity because they know their very life depends on it. Like the cancer patient who embarks on a quest to a foreign country, seeking cures that are beyond what can be found in familiar territory, spiritual seekers embark on a quest for that which cannot be found within the borders of life as we know it. We embark on a search for healing that has not been found in all the other cures we have tried. We run all the way out to the edges of our own answers until we have exhausted the possibilities and are finally ready to admit our powerlessness in the face of the great questions and unfixables of our lives.  We come to the point where we know we need help opening to a reality beyond ourselves, and we are willing to rearrange our lives and our priorities in order to find it. 

The Question Jesus Asked Most 

When he was here on earth, Jesus routinely asked people questions that helped them get in touch with their desire and name it in his presence.  He often brought focus and clarity to spiritual conversations by asking some version of the question, “What do you want?  What do you want me to do for you?” Such questions had the power to elicit deeply honest reflection in the person to whom they were addressed, and it opened the way for them to get on a new path of health, hope and healing. 

So what about you? What longings and desires are you aware of right now?  How does it feel to be invited to pay attention to these inner realities as fuel for your spiritual journey? 


FOR FURTHER REFLECTION

For more on the role of desire in the spiritual life, see Sacred Rhythms, Chapter 1. and listen to Season 1: Episode 1 at 20:03 of the Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership Podcast.

Interested in a guided spiritual practice around naming our desire? Become a patron at the $10 level to receive access to this practice!

© Ruth Haley Barton, 2023. Adapted from a presentation given at The Future of Christian Spirituality Conference in honor of Fr. Ron Rolheiser in 2020.

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest (Oct 2022).
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All the way back to when TC8 happened, I felt that you articulated what I deeply felt, yet had no words to describe. I came then, desirous and desperate for the “more”, even though I had no idea it would entail “practice-based spirituality”. And I dove in deeply, not knowing how to swim, but eager to learn. Now, how many ever years later, taking others through a similar journey with the sacred rhythms, I find myself asking church leaders in my community, “how will you offer practices that can allow the people to get in touch with desire?” I am looked at like I have three heads. Yet, your quote about what is personal is most universal, reminds me that I am not the only one who is wrestling with this in our churches today. I am sensing a deeper desire arises in me for the kind of “future spirituality” to which you talk about. Perhaps, that is exactly the prophetic voice that is crying out. So, I continue to pray and live out my own shared experience and hope to live in to this reality. May it be so!

My sister and I are both in our 30s. I have been on the path of slowing down, getting in touch with desire and allowing my image of God to change for a few years now. She is just beginning to acknowledge and take steps toward these deeper realities. She once said to me, “it feels like it would be easier to know and follow God if i hadn’t been raised christian and were just starting to find God now.” I feel that sometimes too, and I think it’s because of this truth about desire.

Recently, though, I’ve started to recognize that while the external factors of my upbringing are real, there were also real choices I made in my late 20s/early 30s that squashed desire in exchange for security and approval. It is so hard to sit in all the complex emotions that come up with that! Bleh.

As a woman in my 30s walking this journey, I’m consistently grateful for how much of your personal story you share in your books and articles. Your words have been like a flashlight to me — “Look! She’s been here too. Keep going!” Thank you

This is such an insightful sharing, Rachel. I know you speak for many in your age group who are longing for something different than what they have been brought up with. I love the balance you express between acknowledging external factors that contribute to the emptiness while also owning “the real choices I made in my late 20s/early 30s that squashed desire in exchange for security and approval.” That is a fine line to find but you’re finding it–and in doing so you are claiming your own agency to make different choices now. Yes, this does bring up very complex emotions AND that is where God wants to meet us if we don’t give in to numbing and escapism. It means the world to know that in some way my own story is supporting your journey. Thank you for being so transparent.

Ruth, your article… before, I was feeling like an almost-finished puzzle ready to be admired but now someone has vigorously shaken up the tablecloth where it was set to dust it off, and all the pieces are still in the air waiting to find the ‘right place’ to fall.

Why is it that so much of church life is focused, still, on the oughtness you mentioned. And the importance of being certain, when only a few things are really certain.

Because that’s what we do as humans….we try to find ways to be certain because that is what’s most comfortable for us in terms of maintaining the illusion of control. That is the hard truth.

So now what? I’ve been a teacher, pastor, leader for my whole adult life. At 66 I’m left wondering if this is really all there is. Too much regret and pain cloud what I try to see for the next phase of life.

I hear you…and I can assure you that you are not the only one. This may be the time when the bravest and most important thing you could do is go down into the depths of your desire (even though in the short term it may intensify feelings of regret) to see what’s there and trust that Jesus will meet you (at 66 years old!) with the question “What do you want me to do for you?” I pray you have a seasoned spiritual director who will go there with you and/or ask some of the questions that will help you get there. God be with you.

As I sat with God this morning He reminded me that my word for Advent was walk from Isaiah 2:5 Let us walk in the light of the Lord. I haven’t felt like walking at all this week. Thank you for your faithful reminder. I feel God’s invitation to renew my intention to trust him with all the questions I don’t have answers for and to continue to walk forward trusting that in Him I will find the answers.

May we all “embark on a search for healing that has not been found in all the other cures we have tried.”

This is a very tender sharing, Jeff. Thank you. I love that this article brought you all the way back around to your word for Advent and the awareness that that word is still resonating and guiding you forward.

Desire, properly focused ignites wide eyed wonder, wild delight, and a deepening desperation for more of HIM who longs for us to behold Him as He is!

Amen to that!

“The more particular you make something, the more universal it becomes.” – Greta Gerwig
Ruth, thank you for sharing the honest details of your personal story–it SO helps me/us understand and articulate our own stories–and longings, heartaches, desires, and hope. SO grateful for this treasure.

Thank you for this Ruth. As a Spiritual Director, I frequently listen to this longing and desire in those with whom I companion. When I am deeply in touch with this center, and am acting from this desire in my life, that is when I feel fully alive and connected to my Source.

So true!

I’ve always appreciated the depth of your writings, for 20 + years if my memory is still intact. The Epiphany is one of my favorite days and seasons of the year. I love what it represents. There is something about the Epiphany that touches my soul deeply. I am in tune with your statement about the future of Christian spirituality “it will be propelled by greater understanding of and respect for the role of desire and desperation in the spiritual life.” And, not just our personal desires, but more importantly the desires that God places in our hearts giving us guidance and direction just like the wise men. They were open to being led.

Thank you so much, Rodney, for engaging so faithfully for so many years! I am not sure there is much of a distinction between “personal desires” and “the desires God places in in our hearts.” I think there are desires God has placed within each of us that God longs to meet, and the more personal we experience them to be and the more we are willing to be attuned to them, the closer we are to getting touch with God’s desire within us. Does that make sense? Appreciate you and your thoughtful engagement with these writings.

What you say makes complete sense to me. It describes the journey of my life and my relationship with God, even when I didn’t understand. Yet, I know that not every Christian shares the same view.

It is God who works in you both to want and to do His good pleasure. Poverty and hunger are the void underneath desire, that must itself become desire through God.

Last edited 1 month ago by Michael

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