The itch is the most innate experience of human desire. It is so well understood that to say you want to “scratch an itch” is synonymous with fulfilling one’s desires exclusively for its gratification; despite the well-known consequences. “Don’t scratch!”, we warn our children – and sometimes ourselves – for we know that scratching accomplishes no long term benefit. At the same time, scratching an itch will not only fail to relieve the desire, but make the desire to scratch more intense.
Those of us that live in the 21st century post-Christian era need a reminder of the effects of “scratching an itch”.
Morality from Desire
Andrea Long Chu is a writer who specializes in gender theory. While born a male, he is transgender and considers himself a female. Last year, he wrote an article for the New York Times reflecting on his decision to have gender reassignment surgery, titled “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy“. His opening paragraph summarizes his opinion of his desire to remove his penis and manufacture a vagina:
Next Thursday, I will get a vagina. The procedure will last around six hours, and I will be in recovery for at least three months. Until the day I die, my body will regard the vagina as a wound; as a result, it will require regular, painful attention to maintain. This is what I want, but there is no guarantee it will make me happier. In fact, I don’t expect it to. That shouldn’t disqualify me from getting it.
The article argues that both conservative and liberal opinions on these medical treatments are erroneous. Conservatives say these surgeries shouldn’t happen because they feed a delusion and don’t heal the patient. Liberals say the surgeries should happen because affirming an individual’s convictions about their sexual identity is humane and leads to psychological healing. In Chu’s view, both approach a trans individual’s request as “little kings” over their bodies. So, Chu argues, both are wrong because they deny the individual the right to do what they want with their body.
In other words, a parent’s warning to their child, “don’t scratch that itch because it will damage your skin and make it itch more” is just as bad as encouraging “scratch the itch as much as you can, as often as you can, as hard as you can. You’ll feel better!” That’s because both deny the child the right to experience the itch in the way he or she chooses to experience it.
Chu’s argument is imbued with the spirit of our age. That is, the discussion about how an individual understands and lives with their desires no longer rests upon identifying and pursuing what is “good”; for both conservatives and liberals believe they are doing so. Chu argues that both are mistaken because their understanding of “good” does not include “desire” as a factor; to which Chu factors “desire” almost exclusively as that which is “good”
Although this argument is not mainstream, it has appeared on mainstream media and is being praised by the academics that maintain the ever evolving gender studies in modern academia.
More importantly, this view is born from a culture that has no connection to religion, which has historically been the institution that guides us toward the “good”, so it would be understandable that our culture as a whole will come to the same conclusion: what is Good is what I Desire.
Desire as Master
The 21st century Christian is at a major impasse. On the one hand, Jesus proclaims that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed”1. And St. Paul tells us that “all things are lawful”2. So, many Christians embrace the ability to live out the Faith attempting to balance their own desires with Christian discipline. This leads the Christian to simply refrain from the list of sins spelled out in the Bible and believe they have won the battle over sin. For if the Bible has no prohibitions on specific activities, leisure, or lifestyles, aren’t we allowed to embrace them as God’s good gifts? Why would God frown upon us if we enjoy playing basketball, or watching movies, or eating the foods we like, or drinking alcohol, or intimacy with our spouse?
What is often lost in our understanding of our desires is their unquenchable nature. Our “freedom” that Christ provides is from the “slavery of sin”3. Sin is not merely doing a prohibited activity, nor is it fulfilling a desire “too much”. Sin is being mastered by any activity, no matter how much it is done or not done. Jesus described this in the Sermon on the Mount4 where the spiritual trajectory (anger, lust, etc.) is the same as the temporal activity (murder, fornication, etc.).
This shows that any of our desires can easily become masters over us. It is for this reason that Jesus explains that “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”5. He warns us that “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other.”6
Our battle with our desires is not a battle of moderation; it is a battle of mastery.
Desire in the 21st Century
This problem has only accelerated in the 21st century. If our generation can be defined by any one thing, it may very well be defined by its overabundance. We literally have the world at our fingertips. We can obtain any commodity at any time. We can purchase any experience we can think of. On top of that, the Christian who has an obvious obtained abundance is thought to have divine favor, or simply be #Blessed (this can also be applied to our country).
Shouldn’t we at some point recognize the abundance as a curse? When years ago, most people accepted that not everyone will drive a sports car, or own their dream home, or have the perfect body, or experience the world, wasn’t it a bit easier to escape the “mad masters” of our desires?
Today we are told that “you can drive away in a new Lexus”, or you can turn your dream home into a reality, or you can have that body you always wanted, or that buying a ticket to this event will “change your life”. Does this not set our hearts up to be mastered?
Today, we can have anything we want, and its killing us. The ease of porn and divorce is ruining our marriages and families. The availability of loans and careers is making us less satisfied with what we have. Social Media is making us long for someone else’s life. The availability of food is making us sick. The availability of information is making us dumb.
Removing Ourselves from Vanity Fair
Today’s Christian has a difficult time seeing their desires as all that harmful. First, as Screwtape reminds Wormwood, “In modern Christianity…I see few of the old warnings about Worldly Vanities, the Choice of Friends, and the Value of Time.”7 Second, modern Christianity often fails to see that we live in Vanity Fair; the town in John Bunyan’s allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress. The town is described as
“a Fair wherein should be sold all sorts of Vanity, and that it should last all the year long: therefore at this Fair are all such Merchandize sold, as Houses, Lands, Trades, Places, Honours, Preferments, Titles, Countries, Kingdoms, Lusts, Pleasures, and Delights of all sorts, as Whores, Bawds, Wives, Husbands, Children, Masters, Servants, Lives, Blood, Bodies, Souls, Silver, Gold, Pearls, Precious Stones, and what not?”8
Have we realized that we reside in a place and time that offers all manners of indulging our desires with the least amount of resistance? Or are we still operating under the assumption that the glories of American capitalism are God’s gift to humanity? Its time we see that the way our culture has ceased the economic potential is for the worse. The Open Market has opened the potential to fulfil each and every desire at a moment’s notice; a market of Masters.
Is it also possible that we have not yet realized when we have become mastered?
Let’s go back to the itch. When we indulge the desire to scratch an itch, relief comes but only temporarily. Our desire to scratch increases; perhaps also our disappointment in being unable to refrain ourselves from scratching. We don’t want to scratch again because we know the desire won’t be satisfied, but we can’t stop thinking about it. At what point do we say to ourselves, “the itch has become my master”.
In a personal example, it took me about a full year before I realized I was mastered by my desire for a Starbucks coffee. There is obviously nothing sinful about a cup of coffee, but at one point I realized that every morning I would think about that sweet Caramel Macchiato and be unable to stop thinking about it until I had one. Nevermind that the cup of coffee is expensive and way to sugary to be considered healthy, the more important fact is its affect on my mind and spirit. Its my understanding that my allegiance to Christ is under attack by this desire for a cup of coffee, for I can only have one master.
What I ask of you, dear brother or sister in Christ, is to reflect on all the ways in which you are mastered. I gave a simple example, but I assure you I am mastered by much more powerful and noxious desires than a cup of coffee. Its only when we realize we are mastered that we can allow Christ to remove the fetters.
Ruled By Christ
My example gets replicated in all other areas of desire. We are mastered by our desires for food and sex, buying stuff and having experiences, gaining attention and procuring status. We can be mastered by our family, our work, our hobbies, and our good intentions.
Our desires generally come from a longing for what is good, which is to say, a longing for the things of God. But our sinful nature desires the gifts rather than the gift giver and so we let the gifts have mastery over us. In order for us to overcome the lords of desire, we must realize that only Christ offers satisfaction to the desires of life.
I asked my children once, “would it be good if God changed us to never need to drink water again.” They looked puzzled, so I asked again, “if God could change our bodies to continue being healthy without ever needing to drink a drop of water, would that be good?”. Their answer was something like “no, we need water!!”
To me this demonstrates that our human nature has conditioned us to see need and desire as necessary and good. But we know that to need water is a crutch; just ask anyone who has been dehydrated. And water is not really all that great a solution to the problem of thirst, because every time we drink water, we know we will need another drink sometime soon.
For this reason, Jesus said:
“Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.”9
We must realize that being ruled by Christ is the only solution to our desires; our itches. For as Augustin said:
“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you”10
He points not only to Christ as a solution to our desires, but as the very purpose for our existence. Fulfillment and contentment are the natural biproducts of being ruled by Christ. They are indications that we are living the way God intended, not the goal in life.
I pray that we can truly see how dangerously our desires affect our faithfulness, and that we can be ruled by Christ, and Christ alone.
In a recent interview with Andrea Long Chu, she talks about her transition surgery:
Nearly a year after the surgery, she says she’s feeling more miserable than she’d expected. “It’s perversely vindicating,” she adds with a wry smile. Dressed in a jumpsuit patterned with blue-and-white flowers, she brushes a curtain of curls away from her face with a flip of her wrist, revealing a tattoo of a geometric vulva on the underside of her forearm. “It’s very dangerous to get what you want.”
Very dangerous, indeed.