Does What I Want Matter? On Desire & Dreams (…and 7 Reasons not to Go Overseas)

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It had been one of those days.

I was attempting to stomach a failure of mine in my job, and I sat at the kitchen table with my husband, shaking my head. There may have been some tears involved. I explained that this past year, one of God’s key messages for me seemed this idea of making “no graven image”. I had to be really careful, I told him, not to remake God as “the God of what I want”–that Divine Waiter.

But my husband’s hazel eyes leveled with my blue ones. “I think you also have to be careful not to make an image of Him as the God who represents whatever you don’t want.”


He’s not that far off. After all, he met me back in college. In those days–back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and we were all newly on dial-up internet–I lived by the general rule that if I didn’t want to do something, I should probably do it.

If  I didn’t want to talk with someone, I’d go overboard to build a relationship. If I wanted to chill, I made sure there was nothing else productive or meaningful I could possibly be doing. I exercised; I fasted; I packed my free time with ministry opportunities. I wasn’t even sure if I should marry my husband. I was concerned about being a sellout to what I suspected was my calling overseas. (For the record, it was still wise to pray through all that.)

And there’s some merit to this, right? Galatians 2:20 was my verse. I was all about dying to self. I liked John 3:30, too: He must become greater, I must become less. If I wanted it, it probably needed to be severely curbed. (Is this the point I should mention my abilities in self-denial produced a near eating disorder? …Probably not.)

Of course it got a little hairy that at a Christian college, this people-pleaser found a lot of voices intoning what I should do. (To this day, when I’m stressed, my husband occasionally points out I’m using the word “should” a lot.) But then there was my Comparative Religions class, that pointed out it’s actually Buddhism that sees death to desire as its nirvana.


I’m reminded of God’s words to the Israelites:

He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.

Deuteronomy 8:3

Did you hear it? Did you hear how God created desire in them, just to create space for Him to fill it? God is the creator of passion, of dreams, of hunger, of thirst. Because He’s also the Bread of Life; the Living Water.

I like what blogger Larissa Marks writes in her post, Permission to Want and Desire:

What if God has deposited your deepest desires into you? What if he designed you to know him more intimately in those desires? Consider the reality that Jesus often asked that very questionWhat do you want? What do you want me to do for you?

(See more thoughts on hope and longing in this post.)

Humility is not a fabric softener on our aspirations–smoothing, softening, and tempering our dreams to the point we’re too modest to reach for anything.

This ability to perceive, prize, and pursue is part of our essential humanness, and it’s the essence of ambition…

God has incited your interest because God wants to speak to you.

Dave Harvey, Rescuing Ambition

Which Wolf Will You Feed?

I’m reminded of this constant tension within us between our two natures: Image-bearer of God, and Infected with Sin. I like the (non-biblical) parable form of this:

An old grandfather told his grandson: “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, and resentment. The other is good. It is joy, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and bravery.”

The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?”

The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”

So I believe the challenge with our desire isn’t that it’s categorically bad, but that it’s both. Both wolves are clamoring to be fed. (Paul communicates this beautifully.) The challenge is identifying which wolf is which, right?

We are self-centered, but we always carry with us abundant proof that this is not the whole truth about our nature.

….The image of God–the image of holiness and love–is still there, though defaced.

William Temple, bishop in the Church of England

You could haul your life overseas for all the right reasons…or all the wrong ones. (Paul himself says that we can have faith that moves mountains, give all we have for the poor. But without love, it ultimately means nothing.)

7 Reasons Not to Go Overseas

Subtle, undermining reasons you may want to go overseas:

  • Going overseas makes you feel like a Super-Christian. Your church loves it.
  • God will be proud of you (as opposed to delighting in you, and accepting you apart from all the good stuff you do for Him).
  • You want to be a Christian hero to all those suffering people.
  • You want to obey the Great Commission, so it doesn’t really matter if there’s civil unrest, or what your wife thinks, or whether you have small kids, or whether your marriage is healthy. God will provide.
  • You’ve never had great relationships in your home country anyway.
  • You’re running away from something.
  • The whole idea of living overseas horrifies you, so you should just be “more than a conqueror” and do it.

If you get gut-level honest and find yourself in one of these seven, we’re not saying don’t go. But do get honest with God about what’s driving you, and what you need him to purify. Do be relentless with your sin.

God gives us creative choices; works through our desires (otherwise, we’d never eat, never get married, never shower)–as well as freeing us from their chains. Yes, God utilizes our wonderlust, our desire to change the world, even our discontent. Yet our appetites and lusts are maniacally clever, with Satan himself actually portraying himself as an angel of light. We know Paul’s words: My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent (1 Cor. 4:4).

Truth: If we don’t acknowledge what we truly want, even wrongly want, we allow those desires power to subtly manipulate us. We must count the cost before going overseas–not pretend it doesn’t exist or that it won’t affect us or those we love. We can even “Christianize” our lusts. As Donald Whitney writes, One way to clarify your spirituality is to clarify your ambition.

Desire, Pixelated

To use a separate analogy, imagine looking through a magnifying glass at a black-and-white magazine photo. What looks like a “black” portion may actually be full of pixels black, gray, and white. We have to look more closely to scrupulously sort the black from the gray and the white.

Jesus’ gut-level prayer in Gethsemane reveals that not even He could tell the difference from His position on earth.  So He simply presented His desire, and asked God to do what He wanted more than what Jesus wanted:  “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” It’s the model to plaster before our eyes, right? Here’s what I want. But my hands are open. I can’t see like You can. Your will is the one that needs to happen here. That’s what I want most.

God’s plan works through our choices, not around or despite them. Our choices have consequences, and we are never forced by God to do anything–we always do what we most what to do. God works out his will perfectly through our willing actions.

Timothy Keller* (emphasis added)

*Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York: Penguin Books (2013). Kindle edition.

9 thoughts on “Does What I Want Matter? On Desire & Dreams (…and 7 Reasons not to Go Overseas)

  1. Chelsea Charles says:

    I like what your husband said, “I think you also have to be careful not to make an image of Him as the God who represents whatever you don’t want.”

    All too often, I see myself as the “good Christian” who has to completely deny my wants and desires in order to do God’s will. While self-denial is a part of being a Christ follower (take up your cross and follow Me), the reasons I lay down my will are actually more self-serving than if I pursued my desires. I want to please those around me, to please a God who is never satisfied with me because I just can’t stop sinning (Rom. 7:15 comes to mind here), etc, etc.

    God is so good, that He continues to pursue with His loving-kindness to reveal to us His pleasure in us through Christ’s sacrifice, not my works. He shows me time after time that I will fail, I will do things with wrong motives, but He will love me and build His Kingdom through me in this broken world using such a broken vessel as I.

    • Janel says:

      Chelsea, thanks so much for this. I especially appreciate your thought that “the reasons I lay down my will are actually more self-serving than if I pursued my desires.” So well-spoken! Self-denial isn’t the end, but the means. Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Abigail Dus says:

    Wow Janel, I can’t thank you (and God) enough.
    This post is exactly what I needed. A this particular moment in my life, I’m getting ready to leave for college in another state.
    I’m scared I’m doing everything wrong, as the devil constantly tells me, and that I will come home in debt and a failure to my family and God. I want to be a missionary pilot, but I cannot serve in debt.

    Even with God’s confirmations He’s sent and told me and shown me, I always have the same feeling as you: “oh, if I don;t enjoy this, it must mean I HAVE to do it.” I feel like it’s a sin to enjoy what aviation, to enjoy mission life, to enjoy these things I find so much God and contentment in. It’s a battle for sure, but I’m so overjoyed I’m not alone, here your post proves it!

    Thank you so incredibly much for uploading this, God bless you.

    • Janel says:

      Abigail, I understand so well your sentiments. I still struggle so much with this, and forget how much God longs for His kids to be the ones who most “get” delighting in Him! Praying right now that God will continue to show Himself as our Good Shepherd who wants us to follow His desires…even more than we do :). Grace and peace.

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