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Wanting A Good Thing Too Much

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by Eunia Lee, LCPC

The other night, I mistakenly started a difficult topic of conversation with my husband just before bedtime (common wisdom would say to avoid this).  Except I did not realize that it was a difficult topic until I saw my husband’s reaction.  So, sensing my own reaction to his reaction, and not being quite sure of my ability to stay cool, I calmly told him that I needed to leave for a bit because I was getting too angry.  I wish I could say that I was able to continue interacting with him in a wise and loving way until we resolved our issues and went to bed at a sane hour.  Sadly, I could not.  While I knew the important guidelines for healthy communication and conflict resolution, I got to a point where I simply did not care.  Instead, I found myself parked outside of our place (where else was I going to go so late at night?), yelling at my husband over the phone and using some choice words that I will not put into print here.

Even though I asked my husband the next morning to forgive me for yelling and cursing, I did not feel all that bad.  Eventually, I saw myself more clearly.  My desire was for something good – healthy communication – and hence, I felt somewhat justified in my unloving display of anger.  Yet, ironically, when my husband did not cooperate in my pursuit of healthy communication, I lost it.  That was the point at which my desire for a good thing became a demand.  I wanted it so much, that it trumped my ability to be constructive or loving toward my husband.

Throughout my days and weeks, my various responses to life are not ruled by love.  For example, I recently found myself feeling agitated as I mulled over a previous interaction with someone who had misunderstood me and therefore reacted negatively toward me.  I felt tired from mulling it over so extensively.  “Why do I care so much about this?” I asked myself.  Then it became apparent – it was my usual battle with wanting approval from certain people. In my tendency to silently demand approval in my interactions with others, I am no longer seeking their best interest, but what they can give me.

We were all born with desires.  Various desires resonate more with some than with others.  Examples include:

–       Approval

–       Admiration (e.g. for our physical appearance or athletic or intellectual abilities)

–       To be understood

–       To be appreciated

–       Intimacy

–       Pleasure

–       Comfort

–       Convenience

–       Absence of conflict

–       Perfection

–       Control

–       Not being controlled

–       Being right

–       Power

–       Respect

–       To be healed (e.g. of depression)

The problem is not that we have desires, but that we can be ruled by them in a way that is ultimately self-seeking – at the expense of loving others.  The goal then, is not to be rid of all desires, but to put desires in their proper place so that our lives are not mainly organized around what we want, need, must have, and demand.

Think about times you have felt agitated, frustrated, annoyed, or thought obsessively about something, threw a fit of rage, gossiped, or withdrew into an icy cold silence.  Can you remember what was going on?  How were you feeling?  What did you want?  Was someone or something getting in the way of what you wanted?  Were you able to respond in a constructive, loving way, or did an otherwise good desire dominate or master you?

This is not to say that the stresses in life, the wrongs of others, and the effects of our biological makeup are to be downplayed.  The suffering we face in life is real and oftentimes heavy. Some of us are also naturally more prone toward anxiety, extreme moods and addictions in a way that others are not.  Yet, we are not helpless, even in the most trying situations.  We can learn to respond to life in a way that is consistent with the people we want to be. We will not be perfect at it, but we can grow toward that end.

Some other examples of how desires for good things can become ruling desires:

–       A father wants his son’s respect, and hits him in anger when the son disrespectfully talks back.  In that moment, the father is no longer seeking his son’s best interest.  He is ruled by his desire for respect.

–       “Codependency” (excessive caretaking, rescuing, inability to say no etc.) has at its heart, a life-dominating desire for acceptance, approval, being needed, being appreciated, and the like.  When I say yes from my need to be seen in a good light, my yes is not from love.  Similarly, codependency is not ultimately an expression of love.  It is a way of trying to get what I think I need from people.

We were meant to love other people as much as we love ourselves; that is, to seek the best interest of others as much as we seek our own best interest.  This is what the Bible teaches (because God first loved us).  If you do not believe in God, these goals are still relevant to you.  So, what do you do when you find that you are, in a particular moment, ruled by an otherwise good desire?

–       Slow down.

–       Identify your feelings.

–       Identify what you want so badly in the moment that it is driving your thoughts, feelings, words, and/or actions.

–       Choose to be constructive and to love others (i.e., seek their best interest) as much as you love yourself.  This could mean saying no or listening more intently.

–       Share these insights about yourself with trusted friends and others who will support your efforts at growth and change.

If you are a Christian, your love for others demonstrates your love for God (1 John 4:7,8,11).  When a desire (even for a good thing) dominates me, I am placing my hope, trust, and security in that desire.  It becomes a source of “life” to me (seen in the subtle attitude of “I must have it and I cannot live without it”).  These are all words describing worship.  The Bible calls this idolatry. The good news is that there is no temptation toward idolatry that has ultimate power over me or you because Christ died and rose again for us.  He provides the way out each time (1 Corinthians 10:13,14).  We live before God at all times and in all things.  As creatures made by God the creator, we are always worshiping and being ruled by something.  Being ruled by God means being ruled by love, and actually leads to joy and freedom (as a teacher of mine, David Powlison, helpfully pointed out).  So, for a Christian, the change process looks something like this:

–       Slowing down to examine yourself when you are responding to life or to others in a destructive or unloving way (Lamentations 3:40)

–       Asking the Lord to help you see him and yourself more clearly (1 Chronicles 28:9)

–       Telling him your feelings (Psalm 102:1-3)

–       Confessing your ruling desire/idol to him (Psalm 32:5)

–       Turning away from the idol and toward God, who helps you love and serve others (Ezekiel 14:6; Acts 3:19,20; Psalm 122:9)

–       Where appropriate, confessing your ruling desires to those whom you may have wronged in the process (Matthew 5:23,24)

–       Talking with people you trust in your community, and asking them to pray for you in your ongoing struggle with your ruling desires (James 5:16)

–       Failing utterly at times, and turning again and again to God.  Let his steadfast love comfort you.  You may forget him, and others may forget you, but he will never forget you.  He has engraved you on the palms of his hands (Psalm 119:76; Isaiah 49:15,16).

Those familiar with the Bible will quickly recognize the concepts in this post.  They are not new.  Yet over the years, various teachers and counselors including Ed Welch, David Powlison, Winston Smith, and Tim Keller, have helped me learn these ideas in a fresh and practical way.  I have no interest in pawning off their hard work as my own!

Change has been slow but certain in me.  This is often how the Lord works.  Therefore, I celebrate little victories along the way, and you should too.  If you at least identify the ruling desire where once you blindly served it, it is progress.  If you turn away from serving your idol(s) partly into the day, where before you took several days, it is progress.

Martin Luther once said:

“This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness…not being but becoming…We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”

There is hope for me yet, and for you as well!