Human beings are made to partake of glory. We were made to seek glory and to reflect glory. In his book We Become What We Worship, theologian Greg Beale argues that Scripture presents us with a big, thick, dynamic vision of God’s glory. The glory of God refers not merely to God himself, but to the expression of God’s perfections in his mighty works and to the reflection of God’s perfections in the character of his people. Being, expression, reflection — we need all three facets to truly understand God’s glory.
This means that the glory of God is enveloping, the sort of thing that swallows you up, that emanates out and remanates back. Glory is something that is sharable, something that we can participate in and partake of.
Jesus himself seems to understand glory in this way. He prays, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5). Glory is shared and reflected among the persons of the Trinity. Later, he invites us into this divine life, saying to his Father, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one” (verses 22–23).
He also prays that we would be with him where he is and see the glory that the Father has given him because he loved him (John 17:24). So glory, at least in John 17, is given from Father to Son, and shared between Father and Son, and then given to us so that we have the same type of loving union with Father and Son that they have together. Indeed, Jesus prays that the very love of the Father for the Son would be in us (John 17:26), and that Jesus’s own joy would be fulfilled in us (John 17:13).
Now hold that massive thought in your mind for a minute, while we take what may at first seem like a detour.
What Is Mimetic Desire?
In the History of Ideas program at Bethlehem College and Seminary, we’ve been discussing the concept of mimetic desire in several novels and plays we’ve been reading. Mimetic desire is a fancy way of talking about a phenomenon that all of us witness and experience. The word mimetic comes from the Greek word mimesis, which means “imitation.” Mimetic desire, then, means wanting something because someone else wants it first. Our desire is initiated and/or increased by its reflection in another person’s desire.
Mimetic desire is often called triangular desire because there are three parties involved: the subject, the object, and the model who makes the object valuable to the subject. Or again, there’s the person desiring, the thing desired, and the model who makes the thing more desirable by desiring it. When the object that we both desire can be shared between us, mimetic desire produces friendship and camaraderie. Friends love and enjoy the same things, and their joy is increased in the sharing. When only one of us can possess the object, mimetic desire inevitably produces envy, rivalry, and conflict.
Imagine a room full of toy animals and a small child — let’s call him Abel — in the middle happily playing with a black horse. A second child — we’ll call him Cain — walks into the room. Which toy does Cain want? Right, the black one. Why is that? Why is he unimpressed by the other toy animals (even the other black horse just a few feet away)? Abel is happily playing with it. It’s the model’s desire that makes the toy valuable.
“We very often only want something because someone else wanted it first. We feed on each other’s cravings.”
But this isn’t the end of the story. Mimetic desire is a two-way street. Before Cain came in, Abel could have happily put the black horse down in order to play with the brown cow. But now, he won’t. He clings to the black horse like his life depended on it. Why? Because Cain’s desire for the black horse has confirmed and reinforced his own desire. Cain has become the model for Abel’s desire, just like Abel was for his. The boys take their cues from each other. They feed on each other’s cravings. Desire flies back and forth across the room like a professional ping-pong match, and the value of the black horse shoots through the roof.
Why We Fight Like Kids
This basic framework for mimetic desire is a skeleton key that unlocks a number of seemingly diverse situations. It explains sibling rivalry (above), and shows why the object of desire is largely irrelevant. Black horses, brown cows, new bikes, sitting in the front seat, and (most often) the approval of parents — all of these take their turn in the mimetic ping-pong match.
Widen out and we see that many of our conflicts with close friends are just variations on this theme. All rivalry is sibling rivalry. Best friends competing for the attention of the same girl, business partners falling out over a large client, teammates coming to blows after a big game — the intensity of our desires is rooted in the reflection of it we see in others.
But it doesn’t stop with overt situations of envy, rivalry, and competition. Advertisers know that you’re more likely to buy X if you believe that fill-in-the-celebrity likes X. “Former Athlete Sporty McAwesome drives a Subaru? Then maybe it’s time to give Subaru a second look.” The very phenomenon of celebrity itself is mimetically driven.
All of these other people enjoy this TV star or that musician and immediately our desires are engaged as well (unless we’re hipsters or snobs, in which case we take our cues from the desires of a niche and exclusive crew). Gossip magazines (What are People© interested in?), entertainment television (keeping up with those Kardashians), viral videos (Is this cat video objectively better than that cat video, or am I liking it on Facebook because 1.2 million other people have?) — mimetic, mimetic, mimetic (it really is a fun word to say).
If you’re still wondering how pervasive this sort of desire is, just ask yourself how many times this conversation has happened to you while exiting a movie with a friend:
“So what’d you think of it?”
“I thought it was pretty good.”
“Really? I didn’t like it that much.”
“Yeah, me neither.”
Break the Loop with a Better Love
Now, recall what John 17 showed us about God’s shareable glory. Glory includes both the expression of God’s perfections and their reflection in our lives. When Jesus prays that we might see and enjoy his glory, he asks that the love of the Father for the Son would be in us, that our love for Jesus would be a reflection of and participation in God’s own delight.
In other words, because we are made to reflect glory, we will either love what God loves or we will love what other people love. We will take our cues fundamentally from God’s desires, or we will take our cues from the desires of those around us. This means that we must ask ourselves some probing questions. Not just what the fundamental object of our desire is, but who the fundamental model for our desire is. Whose desires are we imitating? Whose desires are we reflecting to others?
The relevance of this for ministry should be clear. Nevertheless, I’ll unpack it a bit more. Let’s start back in the playroom with Cain and Abel. If you’re Adam (or Eve), how should you confront this situation? If you want to raise Cain and save Abel, what should be your fundamental goal? I’d suggest that your goal is to shape, mold, and redirect their desires. Your job is not mainly to find fault (though discipline may be called for). Your job is not mainly to change behavior (though behaviors should be changed). And you certainly shouldn’t be distracted by horses and cows. Instead, your goal should be to break the feedback loop of mimetic rivalry.
“We will either love what God loves or we will love what other people love.”
And this can only be done by entering into the mimetic web yourself. In more concrete terms, you can’t be content to simply correct your kids; you have to play with your kids. You can’t simply bark orders from on high; you must take on flesh and play among them. And you must do so in order that they can see your glory, which is the glory given to you by the Son, shared with the Father.
Put another way, your aim should be to wade into the tangle of mimetic desire and reflect a different kind of light, a different kind of glory. If your kids are sinners (and they are), and if they take their cues from each other (which they do), then your aim should be to give them a different mirror, to provide a different model. The Light shines from beyond the world, envelopes you, and then through you shines on their little desire factories. Rooted in the gospel of God’s grace, join your kids in their joy, and bring the reflected joy of Jesus with you. Enter into their joy so that they might enter into yours.
With your desires anchored by God’s desires (and especially by God’s glad approval of you in Christ), you step into their world, and by your presence and the grace of God seek to reorient their desires. This, of course, includes correction, redirection, and discipline, but all of that flows from the different air that you’re bringing into the room. You’re breathing gospel in and blowing gospel out, in hope that they get drawn into the same glory that has captured you.
Wade Into a World of Broken Desires
Extending this principle out, this is the same thing leaders should aim to do in broken marriages, dysfunctional families, and bitter relationships in their church or small group. A leader’s job is to step into the muck and mire of disordered desire and bring a stability and security to otherwise intractable conflict. Your presence, your way-of-being, is essential in this. You’re entering into the gritty labyrinth of sinful desire, and you’re doing so with the grace of God.
And by that grace your aim is to turn grimy mirrors toward you and the God who dwells within you. You want their desires to be shaped and guided fundamentally by God’s desires mediated through your gracious leadership. You want to provide a different sun for the solar system of their desires, greater ballast for the boat of their affections.
Of course, if this works, none of it will be your own doing. All of it will be grace — from the recognition of the mimetic roots of the problem, to your ability to anchor yourself in God’s glad approval, to your good resolve to enter into the bickering and frustration of your people, to the Spirit-wrought patience that will enable you to untangle rivalry and shepherd them into cheerful obedience, to the noticeable difference in the tenor of the relationship. All of it, from top to bottom and front to back, will be grace. God will shine on you and in you, and you will alter the atmosphere.
Beholding the glory of God in the face of Christ, you will be transformed from one degree of glory to another. And being transformed, you will be able to invite others to join you in that same glory.