The Weight of Chance Desires

Lately my mind has been rather occupied with the weighty role feelings seem to play in daily American life. It appears that how and what one feels, desires, or prefers is powerfully and increasingly not only at the fore of our experience, but even at the core of our identity. Perhaps this progression is owing, at least in part, to the fact that " the American economy began to shift from a focus on industrial production to one of mass consumption in the early decades of the twentieth century, the psychological and ethical requirements placed upon an individual began to change as well. With growing abundance, more emphasis could be placed upon accumulation, leisure, and the cultivation of personal preferences” (emphasis mine).[1] Virtue is made out of necessity: the closer one lives to basic survival, less attention, time, and energy is given to “I want” and more is given to “I must.” Even in the wake of the recent recession, was it survival that was at stake or the capacity to satisfy our preferences for larger houses, newer cars, vacations, and eating out? It seems we live in a time of catering to what Wordsworth described as, “chance desires.”[2]

Someone has said, "We're all kings now," which I take to mean that we all have, in a sense, the access, power, and privilege, in short, the right of kings. We claim the right to get what we want. I want to go snow skiing in Colorado. I want my fries hot and salty. I want Chip and Joanna Gaines to renovate my house. I want a new car because my “old” car is a 2010. I want my kids to love Jesus and reading and always be safe and healthy. Not all of these are chance desires, or even harmful. Depending on the condition of my heart, these may be benign or they might actually qualify as greed, “which is idolatry” according to Paul (Colossians 3:5).

Not all desires are so benign. We know the struggle of living in a culture, even “Christian” culture. of “I want” or “I feel” while earnestly seeking a Kingdom whose unrelenting requirement is, “I must.”

Charlotte Mason was indeed wise with the following advice and admonishment:

But the first duty of the parent is to teach children the meaning of must; and the reason why some persons in authority fail to obtain prompt and cheerful obedience from their children is that they do not recognize “must” in their own lives. They elect to do this and that, choose to go here and there, have kindly instincts and benevolent emotions, but are unaware of the constraining must, which should direct their speech and control their actions. They allow themselves to do what they choose; there may be little harm in what they do; the harm is that they feel free to allow themselves to do as they wish, without careful thought about what is good and right, highest and best. Again, true liberty is having the personal wisdom and power to do the right and good thing, not simply doing whatever you want (catering to chance desire). [3]

In the young years teaching the “meaning of must” is no easy task; however, it is the easiest time of life in which to do it. Oops. Is there hope for those of us who missed the boat on this “first duty”? Those of us who, perhaps even despite valiant effort, failed to obtain “prompt and cheerful obedience” during our children’s young years? Those of us whose sons and daughters struggle mightily to keep their rooms clean, whose teens hem and haw when it’s time to read or pray yet take to their phones with an avidity we jealously wished belonged to Christ alone?

Yes, there is hope for those of us who, along with our children, have been carried along on the cultural current of catering to chance desires. It is simple actually, and I hope it strikes you like the good news (or reminder) that it is: The Kingdom of God is here. This is the vision that Jesus himself had and imparted to his early followers and all his followers through the ages, many of whom are our favorite teachers, like Charlotte Mason, as well as ordinary folks like you and me. The Kingdom vision in a nutshell is that life is actually better, so good in fact, it becomes indestructible, when I subordinate my kingdom, my life, my feelings, my desires to His. (He, who though King of kings, invites me to address him with the intimate term, “Abba”!) Because “his divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness,”[4] I learn to subordinate my kingdom in big and small ways without waiting “to feel like it.” I practice a “long obedience in the same direction.”[5] I learn the meaning of must.

I must not have the second or third helping of pudding.

I must forgive and move towards _____ who has wronged and hurt me deeply (or slightly!)

I must ask forgiveness for my selfish response to _____.

I must not indulge in “anger fantasies” where I imagine how I might “put someone in their place” who has annoyed or offended me.

That person who votes (worships, etc.) differently than I do, I must regard as the Divine image-bearer that he or she is.

I must put my device away, look my children in the eyes and give them my full attention.

I must not buy the new car because I can’t afford it.

I must not make an idol of my house and landscaping.

By the grace of God energizing me from within and Jesus’ bursting-with-Life Kingdom available right here and now (“at hand”), I willingly succumb to these little self-deaths and a thousand others, regardless of how I feel. In so doing, I learn that feelings were actually meant to serve, not master, me. I taste and see that the Lord is good. I become a participant of the divine (as opposed to merely human) nature.

His Divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. II Peter 1:3-4

[1] James Davidson Hunter, The Death of Character

[2] William Wordsworth, “Ode to Duty”

[3] From Charlotte Mason’s “Concerning Children as Persons”; the text and language are largely hers, but I have freely paraphrased.

[4] 2 Peter 1:3

[5] Eugene Peterson wrote a book by this title

Image: "Cardinal and Theological Virtues" (detail), Raphael