The Flame of Desire
Why is it that people today struggle more with faith than those before us?
It's hard to say this with confidence. We can’t measure the faith of our grandparents or their grandparents. Only God can judge the heart. And besides, we know from reading scripture that all the way back then, even for those who stood face to face with God incarnate, faith came in different doses.
Nevertheless, faith does seem to be harder nowadays.
For most of history, nearly everyone believed in God. It was assumed that we lived in an enchanted world held together by an all-powerful spirit. People expected the final judgment just as they expected rain. This was common sense, but not so today.
Faith is a struggle, and a very real struggle. Why is this?
Part of the problem may be that we often we simply misunderstand faith.
You hear terms like ‘blind faith’ or ‘faith without reason’ and we assume that’s Christian. But in the gospels faith has nothing to do with blindness. It has everything to do with opening up our eyes.
There’s an apologist today at Oxford, named Alister McGrath, who’s traveled across the world lecturing on faith. And he’s had this to say:
"Faith is not something that goes against the evidence, it goes beyond it. The evidence is saying to us, 'There is another country. There is something beyond mere reason'" (Alister McGrath).
This is the gospel. Belief in God doesn’t come from a stubborn decision to submit or the irrational hope for something we can’t see or touch. Christian faith is grounded on evidence and experience. It’s rooted in the fact that we all know in our hearts that God is real, just as we know water is real. Everything in the universe points to another. You can’t have open eyes and at the same time say there is no God.
So why then do we struggle with faith?
Perhaps, because deep down what we’re really struggling with is desire.
We’re so wrapped up in this country that we’d prefer not to think of the country beyond.
With all our gadgets and activities, our television shows, our pop media, and that constant noise in the background, we’re so stuffed up that we don’t really sense a need for God.
Do we lack faith in God because we can’t find evidence for Him, or do we lack faith in God because we don’t want Him, or just want Him a little?
We read this morning from the Gospel of Luke, of the time when Jesus Christ was traveling to Jericho and came across a blind beggar. “When [the beggar] heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’ Then he shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God” (Luke 18:35-43).
“Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.”
Our Lord could have as easily said, “Your desire has saved you.”
This short story of Christ and the beggar is a microcosm of our whole lives and the struggle in our heart to desire God.
The man sat on the road in a world of dust and darkness. He heard that the Son of God was near and cried out for help. But the world around him “ordered him to be quiet.”
This should make you pause for a moment…
What were they thinking? Shouldn’t everyone in the crowd be crying out too? Or don’t you think they could have at least encouraged the blind man in his hope. But that’s not how it goes. The world pressed down on the beggar. “Don’t get too excited.” “Stop being a fanatic about your faith.” “Calm down and stay with us in the dark.” Everyone respects a little goodness here and there, maybe even a little religion when it’s kept in check, but this man was going too far.
We’ve all had moments when the light breaks into our world, as it did for this beggar. We get a glimpse into the country beyond and we reach out for it. But then the world presses down and swallows up our zeal. As we read in the parable last week, the good seed is sown, but it’s soon after trampled on by passersby’s, choked by thorns, or pulled up by the birds. In other words, our desire for God get’s weighed down by other tugs and pulls from the world.
With every effort that we make to reach towards God we will encounter resistance.
You can call it spiritual friction, if you will…
We want to ask more questions, and then our friends dismiss us as silly. We want to spend more time in Church, but all of a sudden we become busier. And then we build up habits which make ignoring God much more comfortable. Most of the time, it’s the little things that pull us away from God – a rude word from someone, a hurtful look, a change in your life – nearly anything can tug at us and block out that constant, inconvenient ache in your heart yearning for God.
It’s no jest when Christ says, “The kingdom of heaven is taken by violence and the violent seize it” (Matt. 11:12). He’s not talking about a literal violence but the kind of force that it takes to push through the crowd and cry out more loudly, “Son of God, save me!”
Our beggar on the road is the true hero. In his persistence, he embodies the very violence that Jesus commends, crying out, “I want God no matter what the cost.”
Faith has less to do with evidence than we think. It has everything to do with desire.
How much do we really want God?
What secret passions are we willing to give up to have Him? How “violent” will we be to find the pearl?
Take a hardy look at the saints in the Old and New Testament. It’s a little scandalizing. King David and Bathsheba; Isaac and Esau; Peter denying Christ three times and Paul stoning Christians. I don’t know how the bible would be rated, but it certainly wouldn’t be PG or probably even PG-13. The men and women that find favor with God are far from perfect. So you might wonder what to make of God who finds favor with such blemished people?
But one characteristic runs through all these righteous men, which makes up for everything they’re lacking: Desire for God.
“You, God, are my God,” King David prays, “earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water…On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. I cling to you; your right hand upholds me.” (Psalm 63).
Isaiah cries with the same heart, “O Lord, We have waited…for You; Your name, even Your memory, is the desire and deep longing of our souls” (Isaiah 26:8).
This is how all the saints pray to God.
How we do we pray?
Do the saints have more faith than the average Joe? Yes. But faith doesn’t drop down from nowhere. It begins and ends in desire.
So what then? Where does this leave us?
Lent begins on Wednesday. Each year we arrive at Lent with this story of the beggar at Jericho. He saw his poverty and pushed through the crowd, crying out, “Here I am Lord. Save me!” This too is our job.
The crowd tried to hold down the beggar. What in your life tries to hold you down?
Is there anyone you haven’t forgiven? Forgive them as quickly as possible. There’s no room in heaven for hate or prejudice and God only forgives us by the degree that we forgive others. Have any habits built up in your life that keep you from praying. Look at them honestly, square in the face, and bring them to the light. Excuses, justifications, distractions…we all have these. But the message of Christ is that we no longer need to be slaves to them.
So the Church brings us to Lent, each year, that we might have a chance to push out of the crowd and fall on our knees to Jesus.
If we think about Lent in terms of all those things we have to give up, then it’ll be a dead burden. But instead, we need to think of Lent as a break from the addictions in our lives and the rat race of the world,. It’s a chance to spend more time with God. Lent is the Christian’s honeymoon, for God gives us these short 40 days to become intimate with Him.
Fasting, Prayer, Almsgiving, the sacramental life, and a little more time in silence…these are opportunities to re-arrange the desire in our hearts – from this world to the next.
How do you desire God more?
Ask any boy scout. How do you start any fire? You begin with a tiny flame, just barely flickering. You start adding kindling, and gradually put on larger and larger sticks –blowing gently all the time– till the flame rises into a bonfire.
Desire for God works the same way. Christ has lit the flame, and He leaves it up to us to add the kindling.
May God grant you all strength to embrace this Lent, and through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, fan the flame of Desire in your heart for our all-loving Savior.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.