One for me: “Why on earth did I want a furby?” While our desires can seem mysterious and beyond our control, the Christian tradition has insightful resources to help us understand the nature and cause of our desires. Two thinkers worth bringing together on the topic are Jonathan Edwards, an 18th-century American theologian, and Rene Girard, a late 20th-century French literary critic and philosopher.
For Edwards, affections, or desires, are necessarily kinetic. They are “the springs of motion” that “set men agoing in all the affairs of life, and engage them in all their pursuits.”1 They propel us into action toward the objects of our desires, whether those objects are securing a comfortable lifestyle, wooing an individual or pleasing God. As such, our desires are present in all our activities. They keep us getting up for work, making dinner for our families, shopping for new clothes and gadgets, posting on social media, and worshiping with our church communities. Without them, we would be inert. Lifeless.
Among our many affections, many of us have religious affections—affections which set us into motion toward a religious end. For Christians, this end is seeing the kingdom of God come near. Therefore, these affections propel us into love. We love God and our neighbors, performing works of charity, seeking justice for the oppressed, caring for creation and sharing the good news of God’s forgiveness with those we encounter. And we do this not because we think that we should, but because we have this kinetic desire to see God’s vision enacted on earth.
Unfortunately, even if we agree with Edwards’s description of religious affections, we may not find ourselves filled with them. We may want to be filled and guided by these affections, but all of us experience a mix of desires—some religious, some not. We want to seek the kingdom, but we find also find ourselves pursuing acceptance, success and power. How should we respond to this situation? Can our desires change?
In addressing these questions, Rene Girard offers a helpful exposition of desire in I See Satan Fall like Lightning. He claims that human desire is uniquely “mimetic.”2 While animal desire is confined to instinct, human desire persists after our basic needs are met. This above-and-beyond desire lacks a predetermined object; we don’t instinctively know what to desire. Instead, we learn what to desire by association with our family, friends, coworkers and neighbors. As those closest to us value and pursue beauty, power, community and success, we learn to value and desire those same things and mimic those desires. This molding process is largely unconscious.
Girard calls those whose desires we mimic our “models,” and they are of paramount importance.3 While our desire is and will always be mimetic, we can choose who we take to be our model(s). And this is where our influence over our desires lies.  If we want to change our desire, we must change our model.
If we want to change our desire, we must change our model.
If we want to develop religious affections, we may be prone to select a religious “superstar” as our model—someone like John Piper or Pope Francis. However, all humans experience competing desires, an ongoing war between “the flesh and the spirit” (Galatians 5:17). If we take any human as our model, we will find ourselves adopting their mixed desires. While we may learn to value worship, service and love, we may also be learning to desire a large congregation, popularity or recognition. We may inadvertently begin to compete with our models. We may want to become the better version of them instead of developing a pure desire for God and God’s kingdom.
Girard explains that if we want to develop the religious affections Edwards describes, the only model we can turn to is Jesus himself. Jesus invites us to take him as our model—to follow him in his imitation of God. Jesus knows that only imitating the nonegotistical, “detached generosity of God” will free us from envy, self-obsession and shame so that we can love our neighbors with self-abandon.5
Jesus knows that only imitating the nonegotistical, “detached generosity of God” will free us from envy, self-obsession and shame so that we can love our neighbors with self-abandon.
We cannot turn to Jesus as our model on our own; however, with his invitation, Jesus gives us the means to accept it. He grants us his Sprit. The Spirit turns us toward Jesus and binds us with him and the Father. The Spirit roots us in Christ and shapes us from the inside out. As we remain in Christ by his Spirit, we bear Christ’s fruit (John 15:4-8).
As we journey through life, each of us will always be simul iustus et peccator, both righteous and sinner. We will never outgrow our need for grace. This does not, however, mean that we are victims to desires that wield their power over us. By Christ’s Spirit and guided by the wisdom of Edwards and Girard, we can direct our attention toward Jesus and choose him as our model. And as we do, we can expect to find desires slowly turning from serving ourselves to serving a world desperately in need of God’s mercy and love.
Lydia Nace Suitt holds an M.A.T.S from Beeson Divinity School (’16) and an M.A.R. concentrating in philosophical theology from Yale Divinity School (’18). She and her husband Canaan currently live in Williamsburg, Virginia.