Experts mark the absence of desire as a sign of dis-ease. This lack of desire or enjoyment in what was formerly pleasurable or enjoyable is one of the chief symptoms of depression. For example, distress can be so great for an individual that she cannot eat. The typical desire for preparing and eating food disappears under great duress. During those times, individuals can have an abundance of food, but no desire to eat or feelings of hunger.
Of course, there are other times where out of a matter of principle, for special focus or discipline, one might routinely abstain. Ironically, desire often increases and can feel all-consuming when one willingly chooses to abstain. And perhaps this heightened focus hints at the experience of those who deal with deprivation and near-starvation. Despite not having any means to satisfy real hunger, the gnawing pangs for food grow louder and louder.
The experience of hunger and its absence serves to illustrate the complicated nature of human desire—desire that is often unwieldy and seemingly beyond one’s control. Coping with our innate desires is hard enough, but then there are societal values and pressures that blur the line between genuine need and want. Regardless, desire alerts us to a deep hunger or longing that resides at the core of human beings. These longings often reveal a restlessness even where there is abundance.
Arguments from desire are often invoked as evidence for the existence of God. The argument states that every natural, innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire. But within humans exists a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth, and no creature can satisfy. Therefore, something exists that is more than time, earth, and creatures to satisfy this desire. This “real object” is the being people call “God” or “a life with God forever.” Indeed, Saint Augustine, who was no stranger to unwieldy desire, confessed that “Thou awakest us to delight in Thy praise; Thou has made us for thyself and our heart is restless until it repose in Thee.”(1)
All the more compelling, then, is the assurance from the gospel writers that Jesus blesses those with deep desire. He blesses those who “hunger and thirst” for righteousness, and who long to be filled.(2) How remarkable that the unsatisfied, both with the state of the world around them and with their own selves, are the surprise recipients of blessing! And yet, as author J.R. Miller suggests, the blessing goes beyond desire itself:
“We would probably say, at first thought, that the satisfied are the happy, that those who have no desire unfulfilled are the blessed. We do not think of intense and painful hunger as a desirable state. Yet the Lord pronounces one of his beatitudes upon the unsatisfied, those who hunger and thirst. However, it is not in the condition of hunger, itself, that the blessedness lays, but in that of which hunger is the sign and that to which it leads. It is the token of life and health.”(3)
Like Augustine before him, Miller suggests that hunger and thirst is a sign that indeed points to something larger than desire, even as a state of longing itself can demonstrate a pursuit of what it means to truly live and be well. The hunger and thirst for righteousness cannot be reduced to the desire for individual satiety. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness long for a cosmic reordering; it is the desire for all that is wrong to be set right and for a kind of justice that the world has never known. It is a desire voiced in the prayer on the lips of the hungry and thirsty: Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Hungering and thirsting after righteousness is the stirring for justice and for a world set right. It compels a deeper imagination for what could be, and a will to enact what is imagined. Even as hunger and thirst go unsatisfied in a world where unmet needs and desires are part and parcel of the human condition, the unsatisfied will be filled, according to Jesus. As we hunger and thirst for something more, this unusual promise comes in common human form, tasting thirst himself as he died on the cross, yet offering himself—his life, death, and resurrection—as living water and the bread of heaven. Longing and desire, here, meet both source and satisfaction.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) The Confessions of Saint Augustine, trans. by Edward B. Pusey, (New York: Collier Books, 1961), 11.
(2) Matthew 5:6, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness;” Luke 6:21, “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.”
(3) The Master’s Blesseds (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1899), 83.