By: Chalice Overy
Originally printed in Prostitutes & Tax Collectors
A few days ago, I was attending an interfaith service at my church. We heard teachings from a Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith leaders and participated in some aspect of the prayer traditions of each. After each faith leader spoke, the congregation was asked to share something with one or two people that they did not know. The Christian minister asked us to talk about what our hearts were longing for. I knew the answer as soon as she asked the question. I’m 37, single, and have never been married. Right now, more than anything, my heart longs for love.
I was invited into a group of two other women, and I let them speak first. When it was my turn, I simply said “Love”. With no explanation or elaboration, I voiced the deepest desire of my heart at that moment.
As I reflected on it, I realized that this honest and simple response represented a great deal of maturation for me. I got pretty serious about my faith when I was 14, and in my faith community I was consistently taught that my desires were bad. Anything that I wanted proceeded out of the sinful desires of my flesh. These desires had to be laid aside if I was truly going to deny myself and follow after Jesus. Instead of embracing and pursuing the desires of my heart, I was encouraged to learn and pursue the desires of God’s heart–to long for spiritual fruits, eat my fill and learn how to be satisfied.
As a young Christian, I was intentional about bringing my desires in subjection to God’s desires. I immersed myself in church life. I was there every time the doors opened. If I desired to go somewhere on a Sunday morning, afternoon or Thursday night (Bible study), I denied myself and went to church. If I wanted to take a nap or watch TV after school, I denied myself until I had finished my devotional time of prayer and scripture reading. On Fridays, I fasted to practice self-denial so that when I was tempted to “gratify the desires of my flesh”, it wouldn’t be so hard for me to resist. I was building up my spiritual stamina.
The teaching I received and the practices that developed caused me to constantly question my own desires. Not necessarily the routine things like what I was going to eat, or what socks I would wear on a particular day. But if I REALLY wanted something, if it captured my attention, if the thought of having it made me smile, I felt guilty about pursuing or even embracing that desire because it represented the “lust of my flesh”. I think this was especially true when it involved a person. How many times had a desire for a person caused someone to fall out of God’s good graces? There was David and Bathsheba, Sampson and Delilah, Solomon and his foreign wives, and the list goes on. These stories had been used to warn me of the dangers of “falling” for someone.
For years, I handled my desires with extreme caution, especially when it came to romantic relationships. Don’t spend too much time! Don’t invest too much emotional energy! Don’t enjoy yourself too much! What I did invest in was ministry. I started preaching at age 17, and I was a senior pastor at age 26. Ministry was my life, and I found a great deal of fulfillment in using my gifts in a way that was purposeful.
Somewhere along the way, it began to occur to me that if God could give me purposeful gifts, maybe my desires were purposeful as well. Maybe God created me to desire certain things because those things were actually good for me. Maybe God gives me certain desires because the pursuit of them positions me on the path that God intends for my life. It was because I came to embrace my desires as God given that, in this sacred space, I could be comfortable expressing that the deepest desire of my heart was for love. But I was quickly reminded that not everyone was “there” with me on the journey.
The other Sister in the circle must have been brought up in the same kind of church with the same kind of teaching that I was, because my response made her antennas perk up. She was afraid that I might be talking about the kind of love that we were taught is really just lust. The kind of love that leads us astray. A love that is not spiritual, but carnal, and therefore, not to be desired. So she quickly came back with a clarifying question. “Agape love?” she asked, assuming I would recognize that the distinction was important.
I knew exactly what she meant because, apparently, we had gone to the same church. There, agape love was used to describe the love that only God has for us—a love of which humans are not truly capable. Sister Girl wanted to clarify that my heart desired that which was pure and spiritual—the love of God, not the love of a human being. As she asked the question the kangse` bell rang calling us out of our conversation, and we both seemed satisfied to leave her question unanswered. But in the days that followed I wished I had just taken a moment to say, “No Sis, I want a man!” I already have the love of God, and I cherish it. What I still desire is a human companion, a partner and lover. And I can say that without apology because I think God wants that for me.
It’s been said that we can be so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good. I think we do ourselves a great disservice by creating so much distance between heaven and earth. When we place God in this distant realm, being spiritual means we have to act like nothing on this earth has any real value. It means accepting that only the things that are beyond our physical reach can satisfy. But I can’t accept that because one of the most peaceful, joyful and satisfying places I’ve ever been is wrapped in the embrace of a man who loves me. And you know what I’ve discovered? God is there too! I found myself talking to God in those moments–giving thanks for love and joy, and praying for guidance about the future of that relationship. Initially, I questioned whether God could really be present in an encounter that seemed so “carnal”. Could God gaze with approval on something that made me so…happy? But didn’t the God who created me also create my desire? And if this God loves me so much, wouldn’t God want this desire to be fulfilled?
For me, the answer is yes! I have learned to honor the deepest desires of my heart by feeling free to vocalize and pursue them. In doing so, I have found God in the most unexpected places, and I have found that among many other things, God also wants me to be happy.