The change began with discovering God was far more ambitious
than I ever gave Him credit for, that
He wasn’t in the business of gussying up, but making new. That is to
say that God is committed to the
believer’s total rehabilitation – of
behaviour, of belief, of desire.
Moreover, as Philippians 1: 6
promised, He would be overseeing
that work when I could not or
would not. In other words, my
self-mistrust was not the noble attempt at holiness I had once believed it to be. It was a spectacular
failure to apprehend the most fundamental truths of the gospel – that
it is by grace we are being saved.
St. Augustine, the 4th-century
bishop and church father, had a
prodigal story familiar to many
moderns. Though he had been
raised by a Christian mother, in his
adolescence and early adulthood
Augustine dabbled in mystical
philosophies, pursued crass professional ambition and indulged sexual lust. He fathered a child out of
wedlock, and when the longstanding relationship with the child’s
mother eventually ended (class difference would prevent the two
from ever marrying), he pursued
other illicit sexual relationships.
After a period of intellectual
questioning and spiritual searching, Augustine resolved that the
Christian gospel was true. But he
was prevented from following
Christ, admitting his lusts held him
back. “I had discovered the good
pearl,” he writes in The Confessions.
“To buy it, I had to sell all that I had;
and I hesitated.
“My old loves held me back,”
Augustine describes. “They tugged
at the garment of my flesh and whis-
pered, ‘Are you getting rid of us?’”
Despite wanting to surrender
himself to Christ, for a period of
time Augustine despaired of his
own conversion, necessarily predi-
cated, he thought, on his own
ability to turn from his disordered
desires. But God sent him a vision
of Lady Continence, a woman sur-
rounded by throngs of Christians,
young and old.
In the vision she stretched out
THE TASK OF DISCIPLESHIP
her hands to Augustine and asked
him, “Are you incapable of doing
what these men and women have
done? . . . Cast yourself upon [Christ],
do not be afraid. He will not with-
draw Himself so that you fall. Make
the leap without anxiety; He will
catch you and heal you.”
Then, in the more well-known
part of his story, Augustine wan-
dered into a garden and heard a
voice imploring him to pick up and
read, pick up and read. Happening
upon a copy of the Scriptures, and
at seeming random, he opened to
the book of Romans, his eye falling
upon 13:14: “But put on the Lord
Jesus Christ, and make no provision
for the flesh to gratify its desires.”
He discovered that caught in the
arms of Christ, no one falls.
In his important book Desiring the
Kingdom (Baker, 2011) and its lay-men’s companion You Are What You
Love (Baker, 2016), James K. A.
Smith, professor of philosophy at
Calvin College, argues we have
been duped by Enlightenment
thinkers like Descartes.
Smith says such thinkers have
wrongly taught us that human be-
ings are primarily thinking crea-
tures governed by their rationality.
As anyone knows who has recently
visited the dentist and been lec-
tured on the benefits of flossing, we
can understand what’s right and
still fail to do it.
As Smith argues we aren’t pushed
by belief so much as pulled by our
loves – lured and seduced more
than informed and persuaded. In
other words, it is not thinking that
steers the man, but desiring.
Desire, as an integral dimension
of what it means to be human (and
made in the image of a desiring
God), can’t be abandoned, even
though we sense its cunning and
near reflexive corruption. It must be
tamed and trained, which makes the
task of discipleship not so much the
job of helping people believe differ-
ently so much as want differently.
The formation of holy desire must
be the impulse of our individual and
corporate spiritual practices.
Smith’s book helped me interrogate some of my mistaken assumptions about desire, even holiness.
Was desire always wrong? Would
obedience always lead counter to
desire? Or could human desire,
rescued and reformed by the indwelling Spirit of Christ, be a
wellspring of good?
In other words, was the measure
of holiness its inherent friction –
doing what we least wanted? Or
was the truest test of holiness the
degree to which our will was conformed to God – that we learned to
want as He did?
THE CALL OF DESIRE
Perhaps it will seem like my journey toward better understanding
desire was a purely theoretical
exercise, informed by books like
The Confessions and Desiring the
Kingdom. This would be false. I
stopped championing the abandonment of desire because eventually it proved unworkable.
COULD HUMAN DESIRE,
RESCUED AND REFORMED BY
THE INDWELLING SPIRIT OF
CHRIST, BE A WELLSPRING