C. S. Lewis on Sexual (and Other) Sins
During my sabbatical I have a lot of time to reflect and pray on a variety of subjects that I want to talk more about upon my return. One of the many topics I have been pondering is desire. Specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot about my desire as a pastor to see the people at Calvary desire God even more. I’m desperately longing for this.
Without desire, relationships with God would break down, the human race would cease to exist (having no desire to live, to have children, etc.), and life would be utterly devoid of purpose and meaning. However, desire improperly channeled can also bring us harm. Some desires—illicit sex or a single-minded pursuit of wealth or power, for example—contribute to moral, spiritual, and mental decay and sometimes even physical demise. For all the necessity of preserving desire and focusing it appropriately, it is one of the most important things we never talk about. (I have really enjoyed some conversations with my oldest son about this topic.)
Not surprisingly, God has a lot to say about desire since it is one of his gifts to us:
“If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer (read: pastor) he desires a noble task” (I Timothy 3:1).
“Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
Desire, just like everything else, has been distorted by the fall. “Indeed, all of us once behaved like them in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of our flesh and senses” (Ephesians 2:3). Here, living by the “desires of the flesh” describes the life of the unbeliever—the person who does not know God.
Christians have been rescued from this life of “sinful desire.” Not in that we have been removed from it, but because we have been shown a way through it. We are to say no to sinful desires with the help of God’s Spirit and the guidance of His Word. “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul” (Galatians 5:16).
Desire is both good and bad, but desire is NOT the enemy. Sinful desire is the enemy. We do not overcome sin by killing desire, but by killing sinful desire while stirring up holy desire. (This concept is the heart of John Piper’s book Desiring God: The Mediations of a Christian Hedonist.) Desire must be redeemed, controlled, or, I like to say, directed, by God’s Word with the help of God’s Spirit. We must not rid ourselves of desire—but instead our desires must be fully alive and directed toward God and the good things of his creation. As the sixteenth-century poet John Donne captured it, “That our affections (desires) kill us not, nor die.” Here is a prayer: That our sinful desires would not kill us, but that our desires would live and that they would be fully alive.
We need God’s help to discover and pursue what is worthwhile and so we should ask for it. We need His Word as a guide: “No, don’t follow this desire” and “Yes, follow this desire with all your heart.” We need self-control wrought by the Spirit because good desires can go bad when not properly directed or when allowed to become all-consuming. And we need the community stirring us up to take delight in God (Hebrews 10:23-25).
I’ve been thinking a lot about this during my sabbatical because it is my desire to shepherd the people at Calvary to be people of DESIRE—desiring God above all things and delighting in him and all he has created. I long to do this better; I long for this to be true in my own life more than ever before. I can’t wait to talk more about this with you. But for now I leave you with a lengthy passage that encapsulates C. S. Lewis’ take on desire. I hope it will whet your appetite for my return.
“Supposing you are taking a dog on a lead through a turnstile or past a post. You know what happens (apart from his usual ceremonies in passing a post!). He tries to go the wrong side and gets his lead looped around the post. You see that he can’t do it, and therefore pull him back. You pull him back because you want to enable him to go forward. He wants exactly the same thing—namely to go forward: for that very reason he resists your pull back, or, if he is an obedient dog, yields to it reluctantly as a matter of duty which seems to him to be quite in opposition to his own will: though in fact it is only by yielding to you that he will ever succeed in getting where he wants…”
What Lewis is pointing out here is that you and the dog want the same thing—to go forward. He then says that what we want and what God wants for us are the same thing—the desire for happiness and joy and satisfaction. But we often resist God rather than trust him. He illustrates by talking about lust (a good desire gone bad):
“Take a sin of Lust. The overwhelming thirst for rapture was good and even divine: it has not got to be unsaid (so to speak) and recanted. [In other words, we do not need to repent of the desire to enjoy sex.] But it will never be quenched as I tried to quench it. If I refrain [from Lust or illicit sex]—if I submit to the collar and come round the right side of the lamp-post—God will be guiding me as quickly as He can to where I shall get what I really wanted all the time.”
By saying no to sinful desires (lust, illicit sex) and saying yes to good desires (sexual fulfillment with your spouse, self-control, purity, et al.) we will find what “we really wanted all the time.” In short, when we desireto follow the Lord with all our might, we discover what we have most desired all along.
 I once heard someone say that this passage does not mean that God will grant us our desires but instead teaches that God will make our hearts desire right things. First, this is horrible exegesis construing the meaning of the original Hebrew. Second, if our hearts are truly delighting in God then our desires will be right. Third, a holy God does not grant unholy desires!