In early June, I enjoyed a beach day on Lake Michigan with some friends. As fantastic as the day was, one moment, in particular, stands out in my memory, and probably will for the rest of my life.
If you’ve been to the Lake, you know that the deeper end of the swimming area always produces the most powerful waves, the ones that illicit an exhilarating and somewhat addicting sensation when they crash over you. That day, there was enough wind that we had as many waves as we could want, and we thoroughly enjoyed them. However, it was also a lot of exercise for me. Unlike the two guy-friends I was with at that particular moment—who are both over six feet tall and could effortlessly touch the sand—I am 5’3” and was treading the whole time.
In the stillness between waves, I told them that I was going to swim out a bit further. Still significantly inside the swimming area, I pushed myself under the water to gauge the depth, which was about two feet below the bottoms of my feet. As soon as I felt the sand between my toes, I bobbed up to the surface. Immediately, a wave rolled over me and then I felt a tug—a strong, invisible force that wrapped itself around my middle and drew me deeper into the lake.
It was an undertow. My terror mixed with horror. I was still inside the swimming area! The stronger currents were supposed to be outside of the buoys, not where I was!
“ANGELA!” One of my friends called, his face tense with panic. He was only about 15 feet away and moving toward me.
That broke me out of my own panic enough that I could act. I forgot everything I have ever learned about how to survive an undertow. Instead of swimming parallel to the current, I did the one thing that I shouldn’t have: I swam against it in an attempt to get closer to my friend.
I’ve never had to swim so hard in my life. But then again, I’d never before had to swim like my life depended on it.
Fortunately, I only had to battle the wave for a few seconds before I was close enough to grab his outstretched hand and be pulled the last couple of yards to safety.
As I caught my breath, three thoughts passed through my mind.
First, swimming that close to the buoy and away from my friends was a stupid thing to do. What’s more, I never wanted to experience that again. Ever.
Second, I was grateful that I wasn’t in an ocean. The undertow that I had just swum through was no joke, but ocean undertows are far more powerful. Like, one of those could eat Olympic swimmer/gold-medalist Michael Phelps for lunch and use me as a toothpick.
Third, I was—and still am—incredibly thankful that Matthew was so close and had been watching out for me. Without his help, my battle against the waves could have had a different outcome.
Warning: Dangerous Undertow
Fast forward a few weeks. I was listening to a lecture by biblical counselor Keith Palmer about godly discipline and how the heart must be addressed if lasting, meaningful change is to be achieved. At one point, he referenced James 1:14-15.
“But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.” (James 1:14-15)
A challenging passage, isn’t it? I’ve always thought so.
But then the lecture got personal as Palmer started to unpack what the word desire means here:
“It means a governing desire, a ruling desire… And notice what James says: people are tempted when they get caught up and are enticed by their own lusts… If you’ve ever gone out to the ocean to swim, you recognize that there is a dangerous phenomenon known as rip currents. It’s an undertow. It’s a phenomenon in the ocean where you’re watching the waves, you’re trying to swim, but under the water, there is a movement of water that’s trying to pull you out to the ocean… Well, that’s something of what James has in mind here with the little word carried away. It means to be pulled in the direction opposite of the way you want to go. And that is what our wants do.”
I’m sure you can imagine what I was thinking about.
Now, here’s the thing. Desire, in and of itself, is not evil. God created us to have them. Even in the Garden of Eden, prior to sin entering the world, Adam had desires. One of the strongest that he had (at least that we have record of) was a desire for human companionship. (Genesis 2:18-23) Adam and God had the perfect relationship, unhampered by a sin-cursed world. Some would say that even today, that’s enough. All we truly need in this life is Jesus, right? But if that’s true, then why did God look at Adam and say, “It’s not good for man to be alone”? Not even animal companionship cut it! But then God brought Eve to Adam, and the rest, as they say, is history.
So, if we’re created to have desires, what’s the big deal? Why does James take this stance? Well, if you look closely at the verses above, he’s not saying that desires are wrong or should be avoided. Instead, he’s diagnosing a desire-centric worship disorder.
Desire is beguiling and the more you want it, the more it entices. Kinda like, well… deep water where the waves give you nothing less than exhilaration and seem to promise even more.
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to succumb to that promise, letting a desire—and fulfilling it—become preeminent. It could be anything: control, comfort, respect, recognition, possessions, having your own way, money, success, fun… the list goes on. When something like that becomes your top priority, it displaces God on the throne of your heart and becomes an idol.
Unlike the God of the Bible, an idol is not compassionate to its worshipers. It promises control, comfort, and pleasure, but really, it’s a vicious undercurrent with a penchant for dragging its worshippers out to deep waters where the easiest thing for the person is to give up and drown.
Then what’s a Christian to do? After all, just because you believe in Jesus doesn’t mean that you’re immune to worship disorders.
Let’s go back to what James has to say. Right after talking about desire, he gives this command: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.” (v. 16) In other words, quit letting your desires yank you around by the ear. But that’s only half of the solution. The other half is to put on contentment and to remember that God knows what He’s doing (v. 17-18).
What is contentment?
Have you ever been told that contentment means being happy with what you have and having no strong emotion about what you don’t? Well, I don’t see anything in the Bible that defines contentment that way. I mean, think about Jesus in Gethsemane. He wasn’t exactly thrilled about the possibility of going to the cross for our sins. In fact, his emotions were about as far from happiness as they could humanly get. Does that mean that Jesus was sinfully discontent? Absolutely not.
Here’s my belief: contentment has little to do with desiring what you don’t have. Contentment is all about keeping your desires surrendered to the will and sovereignty of God. So…
… It doesn’t mean you should no longer want a cherry-red Camaro that makes your friends drool. It means that you remember that God has given you what you need and learning to live in gratitude while you save up for your bigger dreams.
… It doesn’t mean that you can’t aspire to move up the corporate ladder. It means that you do your best where you are for the glory of God and try to improve your situation when the opportunity arises.
… It doesn’t mean that you bottle up your yearning to have that special relationship with someone who wraps their arms around you like they’ll always hold you close. It means that you keep that longing surrendered to God’s will, knowing that He already has your timeline figured out and that He’ll bring you blessings—even if they don’t look the way you specifically want them to—when the time is right.
… It doesn’t mean you’re happy to endure a terrible situation. It means that you know God is with you in the fire, feeling every pang more deeply than you do. It means that you cling to Him more than anything as you live out your faith every day.
Contentment looks like a life that is ruled by a beautiful, vivacious holiness first of all. Sure, desire plays a part in that, but it should have no control over the direction or outcome of our decisions. When that becomes our reality, desires become something that play into life’s vibrancy. They remain real, something that we don’t want to live without, yet they stay in their place where they can be enjoyable without being a true danger.
Kind of like spending an incredible afternoon at the beach, enjoying the waves with a group of friends.