Desire, suffering, and eternity: A contrast between Eastern philosophy and the gospel

Luke Wayne

A central concept in Buddhism and many forms of Hinduism is the idea that our desires are the root of all our suffering and are what keep us bound in the cycle of death and rebirth. Humanity's problem is volition, want, desire, will, yearning, craving, or thirst. Everything else comes back to this central human flaw: men desire things. They want to exist, and they want certain objects and experiences in their existence. Nothing can ever truly satisfy even the noblest of these desires, and so suffering extends on from one life to another.

In the Bhagavad Gita, the most popular sacred text in Hinduism, the god Krishna is said to have explained:

"From attachment comes desires, and from desires anger comes. Delusion rises out of anger, loss of mindfulness from delusion; with mindfulness gone, higher mind perishes, and the man is lost." (Bhagavad Gita, 2:62-63).1

He goes on to explain:

"The man who has abandoned all desire moves, free from longing, indifferent to 'me' and 'mine,' and without ego, attains peace. This is the divine condition; who, undeluded, comes to this, abiding there till his end-time comes, Arjuna, knows absolute peace,"(Bhagavad Gita, 2:71-72).2

He warns even against seemingly noble, religious longings and heavenly hopes. The one who sets his eyes on heaven is still acting on desire, which will only lead him to rebirth in this suffering world.3 Release is found only in turning from all desires.4 It is not enough to reject the wrong and desire only to do the right, for:

“One disciplined by higher mind here casts off good and bad actions,” (Bhagavad Gita, 2:50).5

Likewise, the ancient Buddhist text known as the "Sumyutta-Nikaya" describes Buddha explaining:

"Now this, O monks, is the noble truth of the cause of pain: craving, which leads to rebirth, combined with pleasure and lust, finding pleasure here and there, the craving for passion, the craving for existence, the craving for non-existence."6

In the same document, Buddha further explains "nirvana," (or the final freedom from suffering) as, "extinction of thirst, detachment, cessation."7 He further elaborates:

"O Bhikkhus, what is the Absolute? It is, O Bhikkhus, the extinction of desire, the extinction of hatred, the extinction of illusion. This, O Bhikkhus, is called the Absolute."8

So, for the Buddhist or Hindu, a man needs to eliminate all desire and every yearning if he is to be free from suffering and transcend into eternity.

A Biblical Response

The Bible also has strong words about the central role our desires play in human sin and suffering. James, for example, wrote:

"But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death," (James 1:14-15).

He explains later in his letter:

"What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel," (James 4:1-2).

At first glance, these things don't sound so different from Krishna or Buddha. However, James follows up each of these statements, respectively, by saying:

"Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow," (James 1:17).

"You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures," (James 4:2-3).

Selfish desires and carnal lusts are factories for iniquity. They will keep producing sin after sin on into eternity. There are, however, things that we should want, and there is also a manner in which we should want them. The Bible doesn't tell us to stop wanting anything. Rather, it instructs us to abandon selfish ambition and conform our desires to the will of God, the only one who can truly and lastingly fulfill them anyway. We are to desire the right things, and for the right reasons. Our Lord pronounced:

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied," (Matthew 5:6).

This small beatitude conflicts with Buddhist and Hindu teaching in at least two fundamental ways. The first is to suggest that there is something for which we ought to yearn, or to "hunger and thirst." The second is that such a longing could ever be satisfied. Indeed, the second of the "four noble truths" that form the core of Buddhist teaching is that Tanha (desire, or literally "thirst") is the cause of all human suffering because no desire can ever be fulfilled. No thirst can ever be satisfied. God, however, promises that He will bless those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Their blessing is that they will be satisfied! Scripture elsewhere says:

"Therefore, putting aside all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord," (1 Peter 2:1-2).

Again, we are to lay aside sinful motivations like envy, but we are not to lay aside desire altogether. The word of God, the kindness of the Lord, the wellspring of our salvation is something for which we are to yearn the way a newborn baby yearns for milk! Again, it is good to thirst, so long as we are thirsting after that which can satisfy. Notice that, in both of these passages, we are not called to merit our own righteousness and thus satisfy ourselves. It is God who will grant us righteousness. He will satisfy our desire. We have only to repent and believe. Indeed our greatest desire, the object of our faith, is Jesus Himself. We not only trust in His finished work on Calvary to atone for all of our sins, but we also long for His return which will bring with it the full satisfaction of all other righteous desires:

"For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds," (Titus 2:11-14).

Again, we are to lay aside worldly desires, but not all desires. There is something we are to be looking for, longing after, and eagerly anticipating. The coming of Jesus Christ to deliver us once and for all from sin and death. We trust in the grace of God, which alone brings salvation. We believe in God's gracious gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. We submit to the instruction in this grace to repent, to turn from sin and instead to seek righteousness, to "deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age." In all of this, we long for Christ to come and set the world right.

Notice that all of this focuses on God in Christ. His Grace. His work of Salvation. His coming. His setting things right in the world and purifying us as a people for His possession. There is no room in this for pride, greed, selfishness, and petty, personal ambition. If you still have your eyes set on yourself, you have missed the point entirely. We are to turn away from all selfish desires, but we're still to have desires.

"The desire of the righteous is only good, But the expectation of the wicked is wrath," (Proverbs 13:2).

"What the wicked fears will come upon him, But the desire of the righteous will be granted," (Proverbs 10:24).

To purge ourselves of all desire, even the desire to do good, would itself be evil. If we see a hungry child and have no desire to feed her, we are wicked. If we see a man in rags, shivering in the cold of winter, and we have no desire to provide him warmth and proper clothes, it is a testimony of our depravity, not our enlightenment. So it is wrong to rid ourselves of all desire. Rather, we are to lay aside evil and selfish lusts and instead cultivate righteous and good desires. We cannot do this on our own. Indeed, to set out to remake ourselves on our own merits for our own reasons would only cultivate arrogance and fuel our selfish desires. No, we must confess our sinfulness, our guilt, our utter inadequacy, and we must turn to God, the giver of all that is good and the satisfier of every righteous desire. Trusting fully that God, in Jesus Christ, has paid the price for our sins and promised us eternal life in His presence, purified of all our iniquities, we then live in light of that truth and set aside fleeting, worldly things in eager anticipation of that blessed hope. All of this is for the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, not for our own personal greatness. Yet in this, our own faith and righteous desires are fulfilled.

"To this end also we pray for you always, that our God will count you worthy of your calling, and fulfill every desire for goodness and the work of faith with power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ," (2 Thessalonians:1:11-12).

  • 1. Gavin Flood and Charles Martin, The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation (W.W. Norton and Company, 2012) 22
  • 2. Gavin Flood and Charles Martin, The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation (W.W. Norton and Company, 2012) 24
  • 3. Bhagavad Gita, 2:43
  • 4. Bhagavad Gita, 2:55
  • 5. Gavin Flood and Charles Martin, The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation (W.W. Norton and Company, 2012) 20
  • 6. Keith Yandell and Harold Netland, "Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal" (IVP Academic, 2009) 15-16
  • 7. Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 4, Location 876
  • 8. Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 4, Location 877-880