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Ever since reading John Steinbeck's The Pearl in high school, I've been haunted by a reflection of Juana early in the novel. After her husband, Kino, hauls a basket into their boat containing a bloated oyster with a mammoth pearl, Juana senses his excitement. Yet she pretends to look away. "It is not good to want a thing too much," she muses. "It sometimes drives the luck away. You must want it just enough, and you must be very tactful with God or the gods."*
In the story that follows, Juana's reflection becomes prophetic, as Kino's burning desire to turn the giant pearl into fortune destroys the simple but peaceful life they had enjoyed. The story's moral is blatant and chilling: it's dangerous to desire something too much, and often self-defeating.
Beyond her superstition about multiple gods, did Juana have a handle on a principle of life that profoundly determines our own success or failure? Does wanting a benefit of life too greatly hinder our chance of obtaining it? Does God work against us when our desires grow too strong?
My study of Scripture has actually done more to convince me of the importance of desire than anything. Typically, far more is taught in Christian circles about the dangers of desire than about its benefits. Yet Scripture has much to say about the positive--even essential--role of desire in human life, both as a motivator and as an indicator of God's guidance. When Paul declares in Philippians 2:13 that God works in us, the Greek verb literally translates "energizing." Paul is saying that God is stimulating us to do certain things with our life, through giving us certain desires that reflect his will.
Over a lifetime, most of us discover that we are most productive, and best influence others for Christ, when we're doing work that we enjoy.
Granted, certain desires are dangerous to us, even in small doses. The urge to experience a drug-induced high, or to pursue an affair with a married individual, will only lead to heartache if we give in to it.
But what about the desire for otherwise wholesome benefits of life? Can the longing to develop a certain talent, to succeed in a particular career, to provide for my family, to be married or to marry a certain person, grow so strong that it contributes more to my failing than succeeding?
Let's set aside for a moment the question of whether God himself works against us in such cases, and look first at the human side. There is little question that we often shoot ourselves in the foot when desire grows too strong. One common reason is that because we are so eager to gain a certain benefit, we may be too willing to make compromises or sacrifices that aren't truly necessary to our success. We may be too ready to sell ourselves short.
When desire is exorbitant, we are also more prone to nervous or impulsive reactions that hurt our chances of succeeding. Our neediness works against us. When Kino realized he had found an extraordinary pearl, "he put back his head and howled. His eyes rolled up and he screamed and his body was rigid."* His exclamation caught the attention of other divers in the area, who quickly rowed to his canoe. News of his discovery soon spread like burning underbrush; pearl buyers schemed to defraud him, and robbers plotted to steal his prize. If Kino had merely kept his discovery to himself for a while, he would have avoided endless problems, and might have had time to come up with a reasonable strategy for selling the pearl. One impulsive reaction forever destroyed his bargaining edge.
In You Can Negotiate Anything, master negotiator Herb Cohen observes that in situations in life requiring negotiation, we are usually at a disadvantage if we desire a result too greatly. It is important to care about the outcome, Cohen insists, but "not to care too much." When our heart is too fully in a matter, we often do better to let someone else handle the negotiating for us.*
Where Jacob Failed
We find an enlightening biblical example of Cohen's cardinal principle in the odyssey Jacob went through to win Rachel's hand in marriage (Gen 29:18-30). Jacob agreed to serve Rachel's father, Laban, as a field laborer for seven years, in return for permission to marry Rachel afterward. Yet once Jacob had completed his service, Laban changed the terms. He gave Jacob his other daughter, Leah, to be his wife, then offered to provide Rachel also if he would serve Laban another seven years.
What is stunning is that Jacob agreed to all of these terms, and as far as we know, never challenged any of them. We might assume such arrangements were simply traditional at that time. Yet when Abraham's servant had come to Laban's family previously, to seek a wife for Jacob's father, Isaac, Laban and his father agreed to let Laban's sister, Rebecca, return with the servant to marry Isaac the following day (Gen 24:50-51, 55-60). Abraham's servant secured a wife for Isaac from Laban's family without having to provide any labor in return. Nor was any service required from Isaac, Abraham or anyone for the prize of Rebecca.
Laban's family agreed so readily to let Rebecca go because they strongly desired for their members to marry within their extended blood family, and options were few and far between. This incentive was so high, in fact, that Jacob almost certainly could have negotiated much better terms for his own marriage to Rachel if he had tried.
Yet Jacob served Laban for fourteen years for Rachel, while no one served a single day for Rebecca. Why such an outlandish difference in terms?
The reason is that Abraham's servant--to use Herb Cohen's expression--cared, but did not care too much. He clearly wanted to succeed and please his master, yet neither his happiness nor his standing with Abraham depended upon his succeeding (Gen 24:7-8). Jacob, on the other hand, was crazed with desire for Rachel. He simply was not in a good state of mind to negotiate fairly for himself, and was far too ready to accept the first arrangement offered him.
Jacob's fatal flaw was that he did care too much. His love for Rachel was nothing short of an obsession. After she died, he developed a similar fixation on her first-born son, Joseph. Yet his exorbitant love for these two individuals set him up for extraordinary heartbreak when these relationships vanished from his life.
From all the evidence we have, Jacob was not a truly happy person, particularly in his later years. Rachel's death, and Joseph's disappearance, left him chronically grief-stricken. Years later, when he was reunited with Joseph in Egypt, Jacob confessed to the Pharaoh that he had been depressed for much of his life (Gen 47:9).
Expecting the Best from God
Appreciating how Jacob's fixations rendered his life miserable allows us to address more meaningfully the question of whether God works against our reaching a goal when our desire becomes excessive. God is, emphatically, not against our succeeding. Nor is he against our happiness. The God of Scripture is not the capricious, prickly god of so much mythology, who must be appeased and petitioned tactfully if we are to gain what we want. God loves us infinitely more than we love ourselves! He desires the very best for us.
Which is just the point. Because God loves us and wants the best for us, he may refrain from granting a desire, if he knows that doing so would actually diminish our joy over the long term. Or he may wait beyond what we feel is a reasonable period to grant it, to allow us the opportunity to grow to the point that we are better able to handle the benefits and responsibilities that the dream entails.
God's concern is that, through it all, we develop character and understanding that help us realize his best for our life. The good news is that our desires play a critical role in helping us recognize his will. Long-term desires--especially those that have stood the test of time--often give us a vital window into what God wants us to do. God uses our desires to motivate us to take important steps with our life as well. Our most worthwhile accomplishments are usually stimulated by significant desire.
Helping Our Desires to Work for Us
Yet our desires, even for legitimate benefits of life, can become obsessive, as they did in Kino's case with the pearl, and Jacob's with Rachel and Joseph. How can we guard against this happening? How can we harvest desires that provide us healthy motivation? And how can we make wise decisions based upon the desires we experience? Here are some steps that can help.
Broaden your interests, diversify your affection. Jacob wasn't wrong to love Rachel and Joseph, nor to love them deeply. Where he went wrong was in not diversifying his affection more. It appears that for a long time Rachel wasn't merely an important part of his life but his entire reason for living. It doesn't seem he had any vocational interests that strongly motivated him nor other significant friendships. I have to wonder if there was a treasure in Leah that Jacob never discovered, because her physical features weren't as appealing to him as Rachel's.
Most tragic was Jacob's fixation on Joseph. Jacob had many other children and, eventually, grandchildren. With the exception of Benjamin, though, there is no evidence that he ever developed the bond with any of them that he enjoyed with Joseph. The results were tragic for both Jacob and his children.
One of the best steps we can take as a hedge against any one desire's becoming an unhealthy obsession is to have a variety of friendships and interests. As simple as the point sounds, it is easy to get stuck in the inertia of life and not broaden our contacts and interests as fully as we can. Each friendship we have enriches our life in unique ways, and most of us do well to have a number of them.
It helps us, too, to understand how resilient God has made us as humans. If one friendship or relationship fails, we can find another that provides as great support to us as the one we've lost.
Each of us also has considerable potential for experiencing joy through being creative and productive. Here again, though, it's important to have more than one area of talent that we nurture.
I'll never forget an experience in 1972, when I was visiting Sterling Sound in New York City to master a Sons of Thunder record. Following the session I was standing on the sidewalk in front of the studio chatting with a recording engineer who had helped us. A disheveled beggar walked up to us. I was stunned when the engineer embraced this man, greeted him warmly, and asked him about his family. He then stuffed a $20.00 bill in the beggar's shirt pocket as he turned to walk away--an exceptional handout in those days.
My engineer friend then explained to me that this ragged man who had just approached us was once one of New York's most respected recording engineers. Yet a fall damaged his hearing, and he was no longer able to produce high-end recordings. Convinced he had no other meaningful options, he resorted to begging.
This was one of the most tragic examples I've seen of someone's staking his identity too greatly on one talent.
At the other, more positive, extreme, a friend recently told me how he had helped an unemployed musician he knows obtain a job as a technical writer. The musician initially resisted the idea, complaining he was only qualified to perform music. He knew nothing about the technical field in question. Yet my friend insisted he could do it. You don't have to be an expert in a field to write about it, he explained, but merely be able to express information interestingly that others present to you. The musician agreed to try. He applied for the position and was hired. Now he's doing well in the job and supporting himself comfortably.
Like the musician, we each have areas of talent that are transferable--usually in far more directions than we realize. As we open ourselves to new possibilities, we're often amazed at the doors God opens for us.
Deepen your love for God. The single greatest tragedy in Jacob's life was that he never developed the close companionship with God that his grandfather, Abraham, enjoyed. While Jacob had some special encounters with God during his lifetime, they were very occasional. It doesn't seem he ever walked with God. And the relationship he did have was mainly opportunistic (Gen 28:20-22).
Had Jacob enjoyed a growing friendship with God, he likely would have kept his relationships with Rachel and Joseph in better perspective. Not only would he have had another--and greater--outlet for his affection, but he would have had God's counsel and encouragement to help him better order his life. And undoubtedly he would have drawn on God's strength more readily to move beyond his grief over losing Rachel and Joseph.
I never tire of repeating cardinal advice of C. S. Lewis. Our problem, Lewis, observed, isn't that we love things too much--but that we don't love God enough. If our attraction to some object of life is too strong, we shouldn't try to reduce our affection for it, but strive to increase our love for God.
Everything we do to keep our relationship with Christ strong and growing helps keep our desires in healthy focus. The most encouraging part is that, as we open ourselves to Christ's influence, he works within us to fashion our desires. While some diminish, others grow stronger. The closer our walk with him becomes, the greater can be our confidence that our desires are reflecting his intentions for our life, and motivating us in the best possible way.
Be patient. When a desire takes on too much importance, usually part of the problem is that we feel it must be met too urgently. The more we can learn the art of patience, the better we'll ensure that our dreams won't get out of hand.
The most important secret to patience is learning that our experience of joy can actually increase through delaying gratification. We are happiest when we have something to look forward to--even if it's a dream on the distant horizon. Hope is central to our happiness, as well as to our health and vitality.
Here Jacob has something important to teach us. He did understand the dynamics of patience well. It's hard, in fact, to find a more inspiring example of patience in Scripture than Jacob's. He waited seven years for Rachel's hand, then agreed to work another seven. Waiting to marry her not only meant delaying sexual intimacy, but postponing friendship on other levels too. Yet Jacob wasn't just willing to make this sacrifice of time, but comfortable doing so. He was so gifted at owning his desire as a future hope, that the period of waiting "seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her" (Gen 29:20).
Laban shouldn't have required Jacob to labor so long for Rachel, and Jacob certainly could have negotiated better terms. Yet his patience in waiting for her is impressive in itself. Where he went wrong was in fixating too much on this future hope alone and in not seeking additional outlets for his affection. If we can combine patience with broadening our interests, diversifying our affection and deepening our love for God, this combination will serve us well. It will help us to stay encouraged, while less tempted to devote more affection to any one area of life than it deserves.
Be open to options where your desire is moderate rather than extreme. There is another step that helps us considerably. One of the best-kept secrets of happiness is that our greatest joy is often found in choosing alternatives where our attraction is moderate rather than extreme.
Many find that they are happiest in a marriage where romantic attraction is significant but not volcanic. In this case they're able to enjoy the benefits of the marriage, yet still have a life apart from it. And because their neediness is not as great as it would be if attraction were overwhelming, they're better able to give themselves to their spouse compassionately, and to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of their partner's.
Best of all, their affection has a chance to grow, since it's not already at full throttle. Many discover that over the years their attraction to their partner increases, and they feel more "in love" after ten or twenty years together than when they first married. When romantic love is extreme at the start of a marriage, one is often in for a letdown, as he discovers that the other person cannot possibly live up to his monumental expectations.
I realize that what I'm saying flies in the face of the popular Christian idea that you should "only marry someone whom you can't possibly live without." Ironically, most of us would find that if we did marry such a person, we'd be miserable. Our well being would constantly rise and fall upon how well we felt he or she was meeting our needs. And this person, rather than merely being someone whom we cherish as a gift of God, would become our God.
Many major life choices work best when we base them upon moderate rather than extreme attraction. I'm not suggesting we should sell short important life dreams that we've long held. Nor should we compromise them. Yet sometimes we do need to renegotiate them. This is necessary because our ideals so often have sprung from a mix of healthy and unhealthy influences.
In life's real time it often works like this: God's best options for our life seem good to us, but less than perfect. The most encouraging part is that we don't always have to wait for situations to perfectly match our ideals before taking important steps of faith with our life. Especially when trusted friends with good judgment feel that an alternative is right for us, we may do best to choose it, even though our attraction to it is only moderate. Many find that over time such a step of faith positions them to enjoy blessings that greatly exceed their initial expectations. Not a few find they have stumbled upon a pearl of great price.
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