Many contemporary critics of Christianity label it joyless or a party-killer. To the contemporary pursuit of defining our own goals, morals and pleasures, the gospel is taken to be a conformist model that one must become dispassionate, stoic and disinterested in the pursuit of pleasure. Some churches have responded, of course, by repackaging the gospel to suit consumer desires. Jesus wants you to be happy, healthy and well-off. Live in the power and blessing of the Lord, which, ironically, looks a lot like the lifestyles of the rich and famous. This prosperity gospel has little to do with Jesus, of course, but it has plenty to do with responding affirmatively to people’s itching ears and consumerist desires.
It is right and good for Christians to speak out against this malformation of biblical teaching and to renounce its promises. But doing so leaves us with some big questions. Does denying the approach of the prosperity gospel mean rejecting any and all concern for human desires and our longing for satisfaction, pleasure, and joy? Is Christianity simply a path of renunciation and stoic, dispassionate service? I want to reflect briefly on these questions and suggest, to the contrary, that the gospel is genuinely about human satisfaction and human desire being met in the most basic and beautiful ways.
First, we listen to the apostle Paul; “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2 NIV).
Paul wishes to call the Roman Christians to moral transformation (“do not conform”) and intellectual change (“the renewing of your mind”), and it is true that real discipline and effort will be involved in this process. Yet it is crucial to see the goal or end in mind: “you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is.” Paul wants their intuitions and desires to be recalibrated by truth from God. He is not stymieing their senses; he is redirecting them to “what is good, pleasing and perfect.” And he is noting that our initial taste buds need fine tuning; our desires need to be reformed. We need to be given a sense for what is truly to be desired.
Second, we consider the testimony of an ancient convert. A powerful example can be found in perhaps the most famous autobiography of all time, the Confessions of Augustine of Hippo. “He is your best servant who looks not so much to hear what he desires from you, as to desire that which he hears from you” (10.26). Augustine describes humans as desiring creatures: some turn to God for what they already desire, but better are those who learn their desires anew from God’s own teaching. At the beginning of the Confessions, Augustine tells of how he sought desire into all corners of life: sexual urges met, intellectual curiosity piqued, social aspirations pursued, even moral rigor exercised. These various programs all disappointed, however, leaving this young, remarkably-talented man at the end of his rope. Then God came in to his life in a fresh way. And the final chapters of the Confessions tell a tale of a life turned upside down by new desire and longing. As the Lord’s servant he began “to desire that which he [heard] from you.” Augustine continued to live passionately, but his desires were recast in a more beautiful, true and good direction by God.
Third, we turn to a text that Paul and Augustine both spent a good deal of time considering, the Psalms of the Israelites. In particular, we consider the pledge that “You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psalm 16:11 NIV). King David seeks joy and pleasure of the most profound (“fullness”) and persistent (“eternal”) sort. And he locates them both “in your presence” and “at your right hand,” reminding us that the “path of life” is all about the one with whom one walks. David not only identifies his goal—satisfaction with God—but he observes that he does need this instruction (“make known to me the path of life”) to get there: he needs words from God to help him know how to pursue this deep and profound rest and joy in God and God’s ways. What we see in the gospel is that God, by his presence to us in his Word, actually recasts our desires. He does not call us away from a life of desire, but he calls us beyond sinful, meager desire. He does this because this is what he made us for. Augustine confessed, “You have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you” (1.1).
In conclusion, then, what we see in the gospel is that the God who recasts our desires also brings rest to those desires, not by renouncing them but by fulfilling them. Far from undercutting passion, joy and pleasure, the gospel of Jesus points us toward and powerfully provides the satisfaction of those true, good and beautiful desires. Michael Allen is Kennedy Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Dean of the Faculty at Knox Theological Seminary (knoxseminary.edu). He is the author of numerous books including, most recently, Justification and the Gospel.