by Zixin Jiang
Of all the songs we sing at Oriel Chapel, nothing makes me feel like a hypocrite quite like this line does: ‘Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God.’
‘Lord, have mercy’? I can sing that. ‘It is right to give Him thanks and praise’? No problem. But the language of ‘desiring’ troubles me, because even as I sing it, my head tells me that it’s patently untrue. My desire for God is weak, nothing like the hart’s desire for the waterbrook. More often than I’d like to admit, my desire is simply to make good music more than for God.
A similar point was made by Dr Bill Wood in his excellent sermon on Sunday of 4th Week (a shortened version of which can be found in that week’s issue of the Chapel Times), in which he considered how the Bible uses sexual desire as a metaphor for loving God. The metaphor of sexual desire, he observed, is ‘scary and uncomfortable’, and it makes us wonder whether any of us really wants to love God like that.
At one of the talks organised by the Christian Union that same week, someone in the audience asked whether a non-Christian can love God. The speaker gave an answer that was something like: ‘Yes, but it’s much harder than for a Christian.’ He was making a nuanced point, but in that moment I couldn’t help but wonder, if Dr Wood had been there, whether he would have answered: ‘No, but nor do Christians, really.’
In those talks, the CU was asking the question: ‘what does it mean to be human?’ To me, it seems that part of being human is to find ourselves woefully short of love – desire – for God, whether or not we are Christians. ‘We are far too easily pleased’, as C.S. Lewis put it, ‘like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea’.
I wonder sometimes whether what I and others do at church or chapel, our songs and prayers, half-felt and half-understood, and spoken with mixed motives, are testimony to our failure to love God as much as he deserves? After all, the Christian faith is exactly that: it’s not that we loved God, but that He loved us first.
At the same time, I think we can say a bit more than that. The metaphor of the hart desiring the waterbrook (from Psalm 42) is helpful because it emphasises not merely the intensity with which we should desire God, but also the intensity of our need for God. ‘My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh also longeth after thee: in a barren and dry land where no water is.’ If we can recognise thirst, then perhaps we will learn to desire the God who can quench it. To borrow words from a previous article in this publication, we might learn to ‘want to want to, because we recognise that God is something we don’t yet understand but which is worth worshipping’ – and, we might add, worth desiring.
We seldom speak of God’s own desires. The language of ‘desire’ normally connotes need, and God has no needs. There is one instance of the word ‘desire’ in Chapel, however, that stands out to me: God ‘desireth not the death of a sinner, but that he may turn from his wickedness and live’. If right desire for God ought to be as powerful as sexual desire, then God’s desires are surely all the more so. For those of us who feel our inadequacy in loving God, it is good news that He is better at loving us than we are at loving Him.