The Illusion of Nirvana

Desire fulfilled is sweet to the taste, but fools hate to turn from evil. Proverbs 13:19 HCSB

What the wicked dreads will come to him, but what the righteous desires will be given to him. Proverbs 10:24 HCSB

The desire of the righteous turns out well, but the hope of the wicked leads to wrath. Proverbs 11:23 HCSB

Take delight in Yahweh, and He will give you your heart’s desires. Psalm 37:4 HCSB

One of the primary tenets of Buddhism is the renunciation of all desire. Desire is the root of evil in the world, and therefore, eliminating desire eliminates evil. Nirvana, then, is the completion of this process of renunciation. Ravi Zacharias, in his excellent book The Lotus and the Cross: Jesus Talks with Buddha, has the Buddha describe this “enlightenment” this way:

I saw as I had never seen before. I saw the illusion with which humanity lives. At the same time, something was extinguished as it had never been extinguished before. Every passion, every craving, every desire was gone. I was unmoved by either joy or sorrow. I became unshackled from desire (33).

In contrast to the eradication of desire, the Bible paints a much more realistic (and hopeful) picture of human experience: desires are inescapably bound up in personality, so the issue is the object of the desire and the means of obtaining it, not desire itself. The sinlessly holy, incomparably pure Yahweh is described as desiring things, as is His beloved Son. Desire, therefore, is not evil.

Unfortunately, sin has broken everything, including–if not especially–desire. Temptation itself is an appeal to the desires, as it was for Eve in the Garden. Sin has broken our desire-er, and now both the objects of our desires and the means of obtaining our desires are hopelessly bent toward wickedness. This is where we find fools, those who “hate to turn from evil.”

This is why Christian morality and ethics are so foreign to our culture today, and why a purely rational appeal on their behalf  is insufficient. I can completely understand that what I want is wrong, but still want it anyway. I can agree with every fact and statistic you present to me, and still do the very thing you warn me about. Without being born again, I want you to leave me alone in the dark with my sinful desires (John 3:19-20). Without being made new by God, all “the hope of the wicked leads to wrath.”

We also have desires for things not to happen. We don’t want to get sick or have car wrecks or be brokenhearted or disappointed or cheated on or lied to or hurt or die. For the wicked, what they don’t want–boundaries and accountability and responsibility and judgment–still comes in the end. Everyone who does not trust Jesus Christ for salvation, “what the wicked dreads will come to him.”

But the miracle of the good news of Jesus is this: the Holy Spirit makes us alive in Christ, where we once were dead to God. We who once had desires bent irrevocably toward sin now have desires progressively bent more and more towards righteousness and holiness. Our salvation is not simply Christian nirvana–the removal of sinful desires. That which was broken is taken out, but is replaced with new and better. We’re actually given a desire-er transplant. The sinfulness that still remains in us fights against the new spiritual tissue, and that resistance will continue until we receive new resurrection bodies.

We cannot stop desiring. The internal inconsistency of Buddhism’s pursuit of nirvana is this: if all desires are to be rejected, doesn’t that include the desire for nirvana? Isn’t Buddhism self-defeating?

What Jesus offers is not a path to nothingness, but rather a path to moreness. By the Holy Spirit, He gives us new and better objects of desire, and gives us new and better means of obtaining them. The holiness that He requires to be in His presence is the very gift He and the Father give to all who believe. He gives us a new desire-er and the fuel to make it run.

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