Jesus desires. He insists on himself. At least, this is the Jesus we find in our gospel reading this week. This Jesus knows what he wants, and he pleads for it, our mother hen longing to gather us in, for her beloved to be with her where she is. Jesus yearning for the pleasures of companionship.
You could say there is here a liberation of desire in Jesus, drawing us into his desiring body — love like a sea that flows through us, through our speaking, our touch, our presence. Giving and receiving love, giving and receiving God, the one whose taste is like wine.
“I desire,” says the Lord. This is what I want.
If you are like me, you may wonder how this desiring Jesus fits with the self-sacrificial image more dominant in the Christian imagination — the image of a selfless, self-emptying Jesus who offers himself, gives himself, lays down his life for others, the Jesus who empties himself of his own desires? The “not my will, but yours be done” Jesus.
It is strange, somehow, to imagine Jesus inspired by his own desires, however ordinary and beautiful his desires may be.
A significant part of us, I imagine, is drawn to the image of a selfless, self-emptying Jesus, and though it needs to be said carefully, it’s an image of Jesus not without its beauty. But the dominance of the image in our imagination may say more about us than anything else; in fact, it may not say much about Jesus at all. It may be the case that we need a Jesus emptied of desire, need this self-emptying to be our picture of faithfulness, because we distrust our own desires.
The Benedictine monk and theologian Sebastian Moore put it this way: Our distrust of what we truly want, begets an idea of “unselfishness,” of a hollowed-out love that has nothing to do with that deep desire within us.
We have to wonder, then, on Moore’s terms, what we mean when we say God is love, if we’ve fashioned a God after a distrust of our own loves. We may wonder where this self-distrust, this self-criticism, comes from — who or what this voice is that tells us we should be weary of our desires, uneasy with ourselves.
In fact, we may wonder if we know what our deep desires are in the first place? Do we really know ourselves that well? What might our lives might be like, if, instead of being something to control, our desires were something to befriend? If we allow our lives to be drawn into the body of a desiring Jesus?
Many of these are the questions Adam Phillips takes up in his new book, Unforbidden Pleasures, a lovely collection of essays I’ve been engrossed in this past week, reveling in the sentences — enjoying their precision and clarity, their beauty.
Unforbidden Pleasures could also have been given the title Against Intimidation. In each essay, Phillips wonders how an intimidating morality built on what we should not do at all costs — our attempt to keep some imagined chaos at bay — shapes the way we imagine what we enjoy, or keeps us from imagining much at all. He wonders if this self-regulating fixates our attention on the forbidden, hiding from view the many ordinary desires we spend the bulk of our days engaging in — the pleasures of a conversation or sharing a meal, a morning cup of coffee.
He wonders if this distrust of what people may enjoy gets our desires wrong: The most tyrannical thing is not that this intimidating morality forbids, he suggests, but that it tells us what we want before we’ve had a chance to decide, before we’ve had a conversation.
Phillips wants to bring ordinary pleasures back into view, wants us to have a less-defined image of what we should not do, suspecting what might emerge in its place would be perfectly ordinary appetites, a whole constellation of ordinary things we may desire more than we often recognize — which is a way of saying that, in a way, we may actually be more boring than we thought, and this might be a wonderful discovery.
He thinks relocating our attention to the ordinary may soften whatever that critical voice is that tells us to be weary of ourselves, weary of our desire. It might soften that voice that diminishes us. In my favorite essay, “Against Self-Criticism,” Phillips identifies, describes and re-describes this intimidating voice, this unrelenting internal critic.
“Self-criticism,” he writes, “when it isn’t self-corrective…is self-hypnosis. It is judgment as spell, or curse, not as conversation; it is an order, not a negotiation.” The self-critical voice is interested in a strict definition of us, shutting down conversation, refusing to take the risk of letting the world speak to us. The bully, so to speak, captures us in a fantasy to his own advantage, refusing to risk an actual encounter with us, with each other.
“The lie that self-criticism can so easily be,” what Phillips calls “the relentless misnaming of the self — seems to require endless reiteration, like the propaganda that it is.” In fact, so unrelenting is this internal violence that we have little idea what we are like without it. We judge ourselves before we know ourselves.
“When we feel not good enough,” he continues, “we’ve already consented to the standard we’re being judged by.” We may take for granted that every day we will fail to be as good as we should be, without wondering who is setting the pace, or where these punishing standards come from? And how can we even figure out what we think of all this when the self-critical voice won’t let us go?
And yet, at the same time, a life without criticism seems helplessly naïve. Which is one reason, Phillips suggest, we find great pleasure in criticizing ourselves. We believe it to be telling us the truth about our lives. It presents itself to us as sovereign. As absolute, steadfast truth. To be self-critical, we imagine, is to have the courage to look ourselves square in the face.
But what if we didn’t consent, didn’t comply with the bully? What if our personal history was a history of our disobedience to this internal intimidator, which is to say, in a Mennonite key, disobedience to our internal orders of violence?
Which brings me back to our gospel text with another question: How does Jesus go about desiring? At first glance, thinking of a Jesus who desires brings him closer to us. Seeing his desires, we might think, makes him more human, more approachable, in a way.
But something occurred to me while I was reflecting on Kate’s sermon last week on another text from John, which has Jesus asking a man who is sick, “Do you want to be healed?” Kate had a clear-headed response: “What a stupid question.” Of course the man who is sick wants to be healed.
And then, the more I thought about it, the more I imagined myself asking the question. In this new scene, I ask a friend “Do you want to be healed?” and then follow with the self-reproach, “What a stupid question.” It was as if the internal critic recruited the story for its own purposes.
Then something else occurred to me: I can’t really imagine Jesus the same way, can’t imagine him having my self-critical experience. Can’t imagine him asking the man if he wants to be healed, then immediately wondering why he asked such a question.
In fact, I can’t imagine Jesus having a self-critical moment at all, not ever, and I fail to find one moment of self-reproach in the gospels. All of a sudden the desiring Jesus looks strange to me again, distant — Isn’t this the one who became flesh, became human, and dwelt among us?
If Jesus doesn’t live with the intimidating self-critical voice, the relentlessly repetitive internal critic we can hardly imagine our lives without, then what kind of human is he, anyway? Or, to put it another way: What kind of humans are we?
Given that we cannot imagine a self-critical Jesus, the one we believe to be fully human — and given our relentlessly self-critical lives — what kind of people are we becoming? What is this accusatory voice we are living with, one that Jesus’ desire seems liberated from? What might we find out about ourselves, our desires, if we can be present to ourselves without judging ourselves?
If to believe the internal critic, we imagine, is to fight against naiveté, a faux courage to look ourselves square in the face, then a different kind of recognition may bring the bully out of hiding, may allow him to become someone we can have a conversation with.
Instead of imagining self-criticism as our attempt to look truthfully at our lives, we can imagine instead that, really, it’s just the bully staring back, getting in-between you and the mirror. You actually may not see yourself at all.
And with the bully in our sites, Phillips thinks there is good reason why we can be less impressed with this self-critical voice, for at least this striking fact: It is remarkably narrow-minded, unimaginative.
“The self-critical part of ourselves,” he writes, “has an unusually impoverished vocabulary; and it is, like all propagandists, relentlessly repetitive.” It accuses us of the same two or three things, never bringing us any news about ourselves.
And here’s the crucial point: “Were we to meet this figure socially,” Phillips suggests, “this accusatory character, this internal critic, we would think there is something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think something terrible had happened to him. That he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout of some catastrophe. And we would be right.”
Notice the way his description of the internal critic ends in empathy. In tenderness. What terrible things have happened to him? To us? What are his wounds? What has terrified him? There are good reasons for the internal critic. For all of us.
The intimidator, it turns out, is stuck in the aftermath of a catastrophe, intimidated, without any idea how to get unstuck. It may be that the best he can do is use the impoverished vocabulary at his disposal, leveling harsh, loud critiques as a way of kicking our shins, letting us know he’s still there.
It turns out, he isn’t a powerful bully after all, but more like a wounded child, one who needs to be cared for, can be nurtured and loved. Perhaps the relentless repetition is a way for the internal critic to keep saying, I’m here, please don’t leave me alone.
The internal critic, it turns out, may be sorrow that does not know its name. He accuses, diminishes, intimidates, because he does not yet know how to weep.
And though it may take a lifetime, the internal critic, the wounded child, can learn to grieve in the company of friends — friends, unpredictable and wild and lovely, whose lives are the joining of love and sorrow — friends whose voices are a refusal to collude with the tyranny of the internal critic’s stuck record of our lives.
It isn’t until the critic as wounded child is brought into view that we know how to befriend him, tell him a different story about himself. Perhaps it is the same with us. Perhaps it isn’t until we let other voices speak to our lives that our desires can emerge, the desire to become more and more ourselves.
That may be what it is to be drawn into the body of a desiring Jesus, a desiring church — to be drawn into a world where other voices speak, help us forget and remember ourselves, to remain open to the mysteries that we are, open to an unpredictable future, one of pleasure and pain, where we learn to see our lives as occasions for joy. Lives open to the extraordinary pleasure of being in the company of others — where we may find out just how powerful and liberating it is to be in the company of someone who finds genuine pleasure in listening to you.
We’ll continue to bring the internal critic here with us, where we hope to find friends who refuse to collude with him, who insist on telling us a different story about ourselves, where we are drawn into the pleasures of friendship, the company of other people. Where friendship is relearned as dependence able to be enjoyed. Where we soften the voice of each other’s internal critics, where we nurture them, let them relax and watch them grow, where we can see ourselves in the mirror, see each other — no bully in the way — and take delight.