Discipleship of Desire

Jesus’ first words to two would-be disciples are fascinating. They were both disciples of John the Baptist. Hearing the incredible way that John described Jesus, they followed him. “Turning round, Jesus saw them following and asked, ‘What do you want?’” (John 1:38)

In his book You Are What You Love, [1] Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith says ‘What do you want?’ is the most important question of Christian discipleship. Why? Because, says Smith, as human beings we are what we want. We are, at bottom, desiring creatures. We are led by our hearts. Tim Keller says it aptly: “What the heart most wants the mind finds reasonable, the emotions find valuable, and the will finds doable.” [2] This is because if a person’s heart is captured and inspired, their feelings and actions will follow as a matter of course.

I know a university student who wanted to play rugby professionally. That desire shaped his life. His weekly schedule, diet and exercise, and financial decision-making was aligned with this deep desire. I knew other students who hoped to study medicine. This desire determined and controlled their study habits, time management, minimising other commitments, and their thought life.

We are desiring creatures. The heart determines the course of a person’s life.

Biblically, this resonates well. The heart is the centre of the human personality, where will and thought originate.[3] The heart feels (Deuteronomy 28:47; 1 Samuel 1:8; 2 Kings 6:11; John 14:1; 1 Peter 1:22), thinks (Proverbs 23:7; Daniel 2:30; Acts 8:22), makes decisions and plans (Proverbs 16:1, 16:9), and determines our speech (Matthew 12:33-34; Romans 10:9). Thus, it makes sense that the Great Commandment begins with loving God with all of our heart (Matt. 22:37 and parallels). The injunction in Proverbs 4:23 logically follows: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverbs 4:23 NIV)

Desire is core to the human person. To a large extent, we are what we want. What does all of this have to do with discipleship?

If Descartes was right when he said, “I think therefore I am”, then human beings are primarily thinking creatures. Thoughts and concepts are primary. Consequently, discipleship would start and end with teaching. But Descartes was wrong.

Now, Jesus was a teacher, and central to his disciple-making command (Matthew 28:19) is teaching. We need a discipleship of information. This was central to the apostle Paul’s writings.[4] But, we are not only thinking creatures. To put it charitably, Descartes’ anthropology was radically incomplete. An information-based discipleship alone risks missing the core of a person. We are thinking creatures and we are desiring creatures.

Discipleship is about hungering and thirsting as well as knowing and believing.

Curt Thompson says, “It is primal to our nature to yearn.” He quotes Augustine, “The whole life of the good Christian is a holy longing … That is our life, to be trained by longing.” [5]

Discipleship is about hungering and thirsting as well as knowing and believing. Therefore, the Christian is called to align their desires and yearnings with the Lord’s. Smith explains, “Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves. He isn’t content to simply deposit new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wants, your loves, your longings.” [6] When Jesus captures a person’s loves and longings, that is, their heart, the rest of their life will follow.

If we love the right things, then our hearts will propel us in the right direction. Our thoughts and attitudes, actions and habits will follow. To love Jesus and love His Kingdom will utterly shape the course of a person’s life. Let me explain.

The Kingdom of God is human society as it should be, as God intends it to be, and as God will bring about. Therefore, to love Jesus and his Kingdom is to seek after: feeding the poor, including the outsider, justice in society, equality of men and women, teaching the truth, healing the sick, delivering the oppressed, and revealing the Father. Desiring Jesus and his Kingdom means marshaling one’s resources – thoughts, decisions, actions, priorities, and long-term commitments – to this end. Teaching is still crucial – we need to know the truths of the kingdom, truths that set free. But teaching alone is not enough.

As well as a discipleship of information, we also need a discipleship of desire.

Herman Paul warns that you can teach someone the truth to the point where they understand it and it make no difference whatsoever. Why? “Against deep desire, argument, reason and even will are relatively impotent.” [7]

God designed us so our desiring and our rationality work in harmony. “If I cannot reason about the order of actions needed to change a flat tire on my car, it doesn’t matter how much I desire for it to change.” Thompson continues, “However, it is my desire to drive the car on four air-filled tires so that I can meet my wife at the airport that engages my “thinking” brain to change the tire in the first place.” [8]

After being a preacher for many years, it came as a real epiphany when I heard someone say that the preacher’s job is not only to explain the Bible and inspire people to read the Bible, but also to impart a love for the Bible. Preaching for desire as well as for instruction, conviction, and sanctification.

Evidence of spiritual maturity is human desires in alignment with the Lord’s.

How is desire important to making disciples? With the space left I offer three thoughts.

First, a negative. It is essential to train Christ-followers to be sensitised to the spiritually deformative manipulation of desire by principalities and powers. I think of the addictiveness of mobile phones and social media. This is Hollywood and Netflix’s core business. When human desire is successfully captured by a company, human thoughts and actions – including spending money – will follow as night follows day. In You Are What You Love, Smith helpfully analyses and critiques this spiritual deformation. He constructively suggests alternative habits that will instead form us into the image of Christ. A rule of thumb is sanctifying human desire should precede satisfying it.

Second, the Bible sometimes likens disciple-making to parenting (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 2). Good parenting helps validate a child’s desires while also setting appropriate limits. So too, disciple-making must include assisting Jesus-followers to evaluate their desires in the light of the Bible and the Spirit’s sanctifying work. Jesus’ question ‘What do you want?’ is a central discipleship question. Evidence of spiritual maturity is human desires in alignment with the Lord’s.

Third, disciple-making is about seeing people become more like Jesus, about actual life transformation toward Jesus. As a pastor-friend puts it, making Jesus’ ways our ways. Desire, as recalibrated by the Holy Spirit, is the engine that will drive this process. “God does not destroy desire”, Thompson explains, “rather, he resurrects and renews it while using it to renew everything else, beginning with us.” [9]

Desires can only be defeated by other desires.

The difficulty is human desire for the wrong things, whether illicit or unhelpful. This malfunctioning of desire cannot be defeated by suppression. The Reformer Philip Melanchthon (d. 1560) coined a useful Latin tag: affectus affectu vincitur. It means desires can only be defeated by other desires.

For a time, I practiced intermittent fasting for health reasons. Since a love of food is my spiritual gift – I research recipes in my spare time – I found this incredibly hard. My limited success came not by focusing on the intermittent fasting. Instead, I focused on the goal, the telos: improved health. My desire for breakfast was only overcome by a greater desire. Nonetheless, thank the Lord eternal life is depicted as a feast.

Making disciples involves cultivating in Christ-followers desire for goodness, truth, beauty, justice, and joy. Desire for Jesus and his kingdom. How?

Sung worship is central to cultivating godly desire. The arts have an important role to play. So too does relational discipleship, since desire is typically caught more than taught.

We are a people of desire because we are created “in the image of the triune Desirer.” [10] That means as we make disciples of Jesus, rational appeal needs to be combined with intentionally cultivating and sanctifying longing. Antoine de Saint-Expéry suggests “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” [11]

Lord Jesus, make us a people who desire you and your kingdom above all, and who disciple others to do the same. Sanctify our desires in order that you made satisfy them.

Dr Adam Dodds is Theology Lecturer at Alphacrucis University College, Brisbane. He is also Teaching Pastor at Nexus Church, Brisbane. Find out more about him here.

[1] Brazos Press, 2016.
[2] Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (John Murray Press, 2015), 159.
[3] Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1–15 (Word Books, 1987), 144.
[4] See my colleague Adam White’s excellent article “Knowledge and Transformation: towards a ‘Pentecostal Paideia’”, Australasian Pentecostal Studies 14 (2012: 111-120).
[5] Curt Thompson, The Soul of Desire (IVP, 2021), Kindle location 163.
[6] Smith, You Are What You Love, 2.
[7] Herman Paul, “The Secularization of Desire: Is Discipleship a Remedy?” In Andrew Hayes and Stephen Cherry, eds. The Meanings of Discipleship: Being Disciples Then and Now, 137–46 (Wipf & Stock, 2022), 143.
[8] Thompson, The Soul of Desire, Kindle location 190.
[9] Thompson, The Soul of Desire, Kindle location 421.
[10] Thompson, The Soul of Desire, Kindle location 277.
[11] Cited Smith, You Are What You Love, 11.