We can’t aimlessly wander and arrive at a desired destination. Achieving intentions requires correct actions accomplished through planning, sacrifice and discipline. Our visions of the future are not the solitary guides of our lives. Other biological systems also motivate or suppress action. Philosophers and psychologist have repeatedly spoke about the hedonic principle and it’s impact on behavior. We know this as our impulses to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Often we must contend with impulsive tugs—sinful desires—that are incompatible with our dreams. Sometimes we succeed and dousing the flames of desire; other times we fail and must face painful consequences.
What are Desires?
Religion and moral law have stigmatized desire as the dangerous appetite of the flesh. Ecclesiastic leaders and parents have pounded the dogma of sinfulness of desires into young children’s minds for thousands of years. No wonder so many of naturally feel experience tremendous internal guilt over routine feeling affects that all of us experience.
Desire is a strong feeling that impels action to obtain the object of desire. We can desire an object, person, or possession. Or we can desire some ideal state of being that is only imagined. Many desires are woven into our genes. Robert L. Trivers, Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University, wrote, “genes may have laid down an early structure to our desires and impulses, a structure that is difficult to modify” (2011, Kindle location 5,275).
Basically, we innately seek survival oriented goals. These impulses are built in desires that largely are responsible for early human survival. Consciousness has added new dimensions and complexity to simple drives of pleasure and pain. We have widened our view. We see beyond the moment, adopting episodic foresight, imagining what a series of actions may do to obtain a desirable ending in the future.
Desires and Goals
Our object of desires have also expanded. We conceptualize a vast array of events, people and things that will stimulate pleasure or prevent pain. We all create individualized maps of priorities that influence desires. Some people are promotion focused (seeking possessions and titles); others our prevention focused (seeking security).
Western Philosophers “have generally viewed desire as fundamental to human life. To be human is to desire what we do not have” (Guengerich, 2015). Desires are basic fact of human existence. Desires may be for growth, knowledge, companionship or sexual satisfaction. Each desire has its own constellation of benefits and dangers, depending on how we act on the desire.
The attractive advice to “do what you feel” seems woefully off. Feelings don’t always offer divine guidance. Feelings often can be categorized as sinful desires, the longings of the flesh to serve selfish momentary pleasures. Our personal goals and living in a society of others often demand deferring submission to sinful desires.
Sin is defined as an offense against religious or moral law. A Sinful action is highly reprehensible to those upholding the law.
Behaviors labeled as sin differ between groups, cultures and families. Many smugly believed that their definition of sin should be universally enforced on the whole of humanity. Perhaps, the world would be better under some moral laws; but we will never achieve a universal agreement about what those moral laws should be.
Feelings are Essential
Feelings are an intricate part of identity, teaching preferences, and reminding of our humanity. Sometimes, impulses are the bubbling of wisdom, surfacing from implicit memories, subtly pushing us away from harm. The impulses, however, don’t always bring wisdom. Desires are not all good nor all bad—they’re just impulses, flowing from the complexity of a living system.
Pleasure and displeasure originate from a complex mixture of cultural concepts, biological givens, and personal experiences. Our response to desires can be an intelligent use of feelings or a helpless resignation. Healthy integration of feelings into action displays emotional maturity.
Sometimes, impulses if the bubbling of wisdom, surfacing from implicit memories, subtly pushing us away from harm.~T. Franklin Murphy
Desires: An Imperfect Guide
We want a concrete guidance system. It would certainly make life easier. We could shut off our cognitive thoughts, be impulsive, and succeed. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Our feelings, whether pleasant or unpleasant, are ignited from incomplete and misinterpreted information, making errant predictions of meaning. So, we yell at a partner we fear will leave. We quit the security of a job for a ‘promising’ position at a failing start-up, and we eat a quart of ice cream to soothe our anxiety.
See Emotional Guidance System for more on this topic
Self Deception and Justification
Some desires are undeniably sinful—not just misguided. Our minds masterfully justify these as well. No easy feat to destroy our lives and find a justifying explanation; but our minds are up for the task, and routinely succeed.
See Self Deception for more on this topic
It’s not that intellectual cognitions are the golden ticket. The musings of thought are highly susceptible to feeling—the underlying pushes we just discredited. Our words, thoughts and arguments often blindly jump on the train of deception, decrying any opposing facts that suggest deeper investigation. We excuse decrepit lies from the political candidate we support but gasp in horror when an opposing candidate commits a comparable sin.
Pause when Feeling Sinful Desires
Wisdom flows from a slight pause. A pause long enough to skeptically evaluate internal and external reasons behind the desire, giving meaning to sinful desire rather than an unbreakable command to be followed. Desires, especially the sinful type, commandeer our attention. A pause allows time to refocus. By re-attuning to long-term intentions, and considering consequences of chasing sinful desires, we can make constructive choices—most of the time.
See A Buffer for Wise Decision Making for more on this topic
Go ahead and Indulge, Sometimes.
We can consider sinful desires for their impact without immediate dismissal. A bowl of ice cream, for example, will impact but not destroy a diet. But unchecked and unmediated, a nightly bowl of chocolate cookie dough crunch ice cream will destroy our weight loss plans.
When satisfying sinful desires is automatic and without thought, we sacrifice critical self-determined action necessary for goal attainment. We must routinely delay gratification for success. Many sinful desires proceed pivotal decisions. Our adaptive response to indulge will hinder greater life achievements. We need the self integrity to know when satisfying a desire conflicts with our values. We can then employ strategies to divert attention away from harmful desires.
See Delay of Gratification for more on this topic
Sinful Desires Are Not Sins
Let me repeat that. “Sinful desires are not sins.” Gasp. Desires arise in all of us. An environmental cue, a random thought, a happenstantial encounter will trigger biological movements inside. These are not sins. They don’t impact goals. They don’t violate religious or marital commitments.
Perhaps, our harsh judgement of the desire as sinful creates many of the associated problems:
- If we attempt to suppress the thought, we often combat the white elephant syndrome. By trying to not think of something, we inadvertently keep thinking of the thing we are trying to suppress.
- If we feel overly guilty about our desire, we may defensively justify the desire and pave the way to submitting to the feeling.
Stop Harsh Judgement of Sinful Desire
Accept the sinful desire for what it is—an impulse. Instead of judging the desire as bad or good, focus on an appropriate response. Impulses unmitigated create chaos. Our lives rock back and forth without direction, burning energy chasing unsupportable dreams and destroying promising futures. After weighing consequences, some satisfying of desire adds richness to our bland lives. In many cases, we can indulge without destroying. Satisfying some sinful desires is pleasurable. With careful assessment, we can avoid the sinful desires that destroy. A few moments of mindful attention, a slight pause, checking consequences of action against long-term goals, may save a lifetime of regret.
Guengerich, Galen (2015). The Four Stages of Desire: From Everything to One Thing. Psychology Today. Published 10-16-2015. Accessed 5-2-2023.
Trivers, Robert (2011). The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. Basic Books; 1st edition