Human experience is inexorably tied to desire. To stop desiring at any given moment of one’s conscious life is an absolute impossibility. Our desires may change according to age, stage of life, and circumstances. However, it would be an ontological possibility for someone to cease desiring for even a single second of his or her conscious life. Gaining a proper understanding of desire is vital if men are going to come to Christ and if believers are going to glean maximum spiritual benefit from Christ in our Christian lives.
In his famed sermon, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” Thomas Chalmers approached the subject of desire in the human experience in order to explain that Christ is the superior object that must be set before the eyes of men. As Chalmers noted,
“Under the impulse of desire, man feels himself urged onward in some path or pursuit of activity for its gratification. The faculties of his mind are put into busy exercise. In the steady direction of one great and engrossing interest, his attention is recalled from the many reveries into which it might otherwise have wandered; and the powers of his body are forced away from an indolence in which it else might have languished.”
Chalmers then walked through the stages of desire from boyhood to further evidence this observation about the unconquableness of desire. He observed,
“What can not be thus destroyed, may be dispossest—and one taste may be made to give way to another, and to lose its power entirely as the reigning affection of the mind. It is thus that the boy ceases, at length, to be the slave of his appetite; but it is because a manlier taste has now brought it into subordination, and that the youth ceases to idolize pleasure; but it is because the idol of wealth has become the stronger and gotten the ascendency, and that even the love of money ceases to have the mastery over the heart of many a thriving citizen; but it is because, drawn into the whirl of city politics, another affection has been wrought into his moral system, and he is now lorded over by the love of power.”
Having come to terms with the inevitability of desire, we recognize that prior to the regenerating work of the Spirit of God in the hearts of men, all of our desires are depraved and tainted by sin. One of the ways that the Scriptures speak of this phenomenon is worldliness or love of the world.
Chalmers explained the ramifications of this inexorable aspect of depraved human experience, when he wrote,
“The love of the world can not be expunged by a mere demonstration of the world’s worthlessness. But may it not be supplanted by the love of that which is more worthy than itself? The heart can not be prevailed upon to part with the world, by a simple act of resignation. But may not the heart be prevailed upon to admit into its preference another, who shall subordinate the world, and bring it down from its wonted ascendency?”
For our desires to be freed from their enslavement to selfish motives and selfish goals, we must have an object of a better nature that is more worthy of our desire. Christ and his saving work on the cross is such an object. As the gospel is built upon the free grace of God in Christ it sets free those who have been enslaved to their own worldly desire. As Chalmers explained,
“The best way of casting out an impure affection is to admit a pure one; and by the love of what is good to expel the love of what is evil. Thus it is, that the freer gospel, the more sanctifying is the gospel; and the more it is received as a doctrine of grace, the more will it be felt as a doctrine according to godliness.”
To offer further support to the truth of the freeness of God’s grace in Christ, Chalmers addressed the danger of infecting the gospel with legalism. He wrote,
“Retain a single shred or fragment of legality with the gospel, and you raise a topic of distrust between man and God. You take away from the power of the gospel to melt and to conciliate. For this purpose the freer it is the better it is.”
Recognizing that this would raise further questions, Chalmers turned his attention to those who may have a predisposition to refute anything that sounded remotely like antinomianism. He noted,
“That very peculiarity which so many dread as the germ of Antinomianism, is, in fact, the germ of a new spirit and a new inclination against it. Along with the lights of a free gospel does there enter the love of the gospel, which, in proportion as you impair the freeness, you are sure to chase away. And never does the sinner find within himself so mighty a moral transformation as when, under the belief that he is saved by grace, he feels constrained thereby to offer his heart a devoted thing, and to deny ungodliness.”
Understanding the nature of desire and grasping the greatness of the grace of God in the gospel in our everyday experience is so much a part of use learning to succeed in living the Christian life. There will be many times when we fail to desire what is greatest, and will return to the lesser desires of the things of this world. However, as we keep our eyes fixed on the crucified and risen Christ, our hearts will be drawn off of the lesser things of this life. As the hymn-writer so beautifully put it:
“Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow faintly dim
in the light of his glory and grace.”
*You can download a free pdf of Chalmers’ sermon, “The Expulsive Power of New Affection,” at Monergism.