The Root of Our Desires

By Brian Lowther

Today, I finish my series exploring six common human desires and why God instilled them into us. You can read the first four installments here: The Desire for Survival and Pleasure, The Desire for Power, The Desire for Creativity, and The Desire for Love. As I noted in those four posts, I’m writing from the assumption that our desires at their roots are good and programmed into us by God for a good reason. Specifically, I think his reason is to help us participate with him in bringing his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, which is essentially a battle against darkness and evil. 

I’ve hinted in my three previous entries about the deeper motivations behind the desires for power, creativity and love. Namely:  


“If I am powerful, people will respect me. If they respect me, I can respect myself. That’s at the root of the desire for power. The deeper motivation is self-respect.


“If I create or achieve something worthwhile, people will ascribe worth to me. If others ascribe worth to me, then I can ascribe worth to myself.” That’s at the root of the desire for creativity. The deeper motivation is self-worth. 


“If others love me, that means I am lovable. If I am lovable, then I can love myself.” That’s at the root of the desire for love. The deeper motivation is self-love.


Self-respect, self-worth and self-love can be summed up nicely with the word dignity. To me, the desire for dignity is at the root of these three desires. In fact, I think dignity is perhaps the most crucial of all our God-given desires. Two reasons for this come to mind. 

First, people voluntarily choose to live without all of the desires I’ve explored and can still lead very meaningful, happy lives.

  1. Survival: people lay down their lives for the love of country or family. The sense of honor and sacrifice they experience gives theirs lives and deaths great purpose.
  2. Pleasure: People forego worldly pleasures, and accept ascetic conditions in view of a worthwhile goal or belief.
  3. Power: Many ministry workers choose a life that has no hope of power, wealth, or status.
  4. Creativity: People take meaningless, non-creative jobs if they feel they are contributing to a cause they believe in.
  5. Love: Monks and nuns go without the love of a spouse, virtuosos and world-class athletes have few true friends [1], and scientists leave family to travel to the Arctic Circle or outer space for the sake of new discoveries.

People can live happily for long durations, even entire lifetimes with one or more of these desires going unfulfilled. However, people can’t live happily without dignity. You may have heard the World War II story of prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp who were forced to move rubble from a bombed-out factory to a nearby field. The next day, they were forced to move the same rubble back to the factory. The next day, back to the field, day after day until they had no dignity left. They lost their will to live and began to provoke the guards to shoot them. [2]

Second, dignity may be the only desire we can pursue without fear of pursuing it too far. All of the other desires come with a dark side.

  1. Survival: Pursued too far, this desire can lead to a kill-or-be-killed attitude.
  2. Pleasure: Pursued too far, and one becomes a thrill seeker, living a life of debauchery and immoral self-indulgence.
  3. Power: Pursued too far and this desire can lead to tyrannical, power-hungry, greedy behavior or anxiety and insecurity because power, wealth and influence can be lost or taken away, and wisdom can be discredited.
  4. Creativity: Pursued too far, and this desire leads to work-a-holism or a reclusive life, holed up in some attic finishing your masterpiece.
  5. Love: Pursued too far and this desire leads to neediness, which can lead to loneliness and despair, a “nobody loves me” attitude. “A tyrannous and gluttonous demand for affection can be a horrible thing,” [3] just watch almost any current reality TV show.

However, my hunch is that dignity has no dark side. One cannot pursue dignity too far because dignity is simply seeing ourselves the way God sees us. No delusions of grandeur, no competitiveness, no self-loathing, just humble, realistic self-acceptance. I’m struck by the verse, “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) He loves us, respects us, and ascribes infinite worth to us just as we are, despite all of our sniffles and hang-ups and pettiness.

This hints at what it means to glorify God: to display his love by receiving it, reflecting it back to him, and refracting it like prisms to ourselves, to our neighbors (Mark 12:31), and to all creation.

Why Did God Give Us this Desire for Dignity?

This concept comes close to the ancient Greeks’ fourth term for love: agape. 

Agape (divine love - the love of God for man and of man for God)

C. S. Lewis used agape to describe what he believed was the highest level of love known to humanity. [4] The term agape has always been used by Christians to refer to the self-sacrificing love of God for humanity. When 1 John 4:8 says "God is love," the Greek word is agape. 

In the cosmic war motif, agape is many things.

  1. Agape is how we can hear and understand the voice of the general.
  2. Agape is the antidote to the poison of the enemy, which is lies about the character of God.
  3. Agape is different than philia; it is beyond philia. Philia is giving your life for your friends. Agape is giving your life for your enemies. This is how Jesus fought and overcame Satan. By loving his enemies, doing good to those who hated him, blessing those who cursed him, praying for those who mistreated him. (Luke 6:27-28). This is what defeats the enemy. The idea of love as a weapon, self-sacrifice as a weapon is counterintuitive, isn’t it? Martin Luther King understood this principle well, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” [5]

The marvelous thing about agape and dignity is that they won’t allow us to live meaningless lives. They won’t allow us to tolerate disease, torture, rape, social exclusion, slavery, humiliation, objectification, or dehumanization. These things aren’t from God. We’re supposed to rail against them. Even people who don’t know God seem to know this instinctively. God wants us to rebel against the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4). We were made for proactive resistance against systemic evil. We were made, in short, for freedom.

Former slave, Elizabeth Freeman once wrote, “Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it—just to stand one minute on God’s airth [sic] a free woman—I would.” [6] 

Brian Lowther is the Director of the Roberta Winter Institute