The Argument From Desire (Matt Jordan)

On Wednesday at Gateway, Dr. Matt Jordan, philosophy professor at Auburn University – Montgomery and part of the fellowship at Gateway Baptist, will be teaching on a concept popularized by C.S. Lewis called The Argument from Desire. He sent me his notes today and I wanted to reproduce them here. I think that the intuitive argument for God and us being made for God here is very convincing, at least for me.

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God and Desire (Matt Jordan)

1. Desiring the right things

People sometimes think that Christian faith is inherently opposed to desire. After all, Christians are called to be temperate and self-controlled, to restrain their appetites, to resist temptation, and so on. Indeed, James tells us that “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (1:14-15). But it’s a mistake to think that desire itself is the problem here. The Christian view has always been that desire is evil only when it is aimed at the wrong things, or at the right things in the wrong ways. Consider this excerpt from James 4:

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions…
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

More simply, there’s Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with desire. What we need to learn is to desire the right things in the right ways; to desire God above all else, and to receive his gifts as he would have us receive them. To be conformed to the image of Christ is, in large measure, to love the things that God loves. This is a big part of living in God’s “upside-down kingdom.” Compare the words of Jesus in Matthew 13:44-45 and Paul’s statements in Philippians 3:8-21 with the passage below from C. S. Lewis’s “The Weight of Glory”:

if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea. We are far too easily pleased.

2. Desire as evidence for God

In the spirit of 1 Peter 3:15, we should note that some of our desires—deep-seated longings for meaning, goodness, and “something more”—are evidence for the existence of God. Philosophers sometimes call this the argument from desire. Peter Kreeft of Boston College is one of its best-known proponents; here is how he explains the argument:[1]

 Claim #1: Every natural desire within us corresponds to some real object that can satisfy the desire.

  • It’s important to notice the difference between natural desires (e.g., the desire for food or sex) and artificial desires (e.g., the desire for Cleveland to win a championship or to serve as captain of the starship Enterprise).
  • Claim #1 does not say that every natural desire will be satisfied, but that natural desires demonstrate the existence of something that could satisfy them.
  • Kreeft argues that Claim #1 is something we can know through pure reason (i.e., just through thinking about it) and through experience; for every uncontroversially natural desire, there is, in fact, something in reality which can satisfy it. 

Claim #2: There is a natural desire within human beings that cannot be satisfied by any finite thing.

  • C. S. Lewis used the German word ‘sensucht’ to describe this feeling; there’s no good English equivalent. It’s a longing for goodness and beauty… A kind of ache which is itself better than most of the pleasures we can experience. The idea runs throughout Lewis’s writings; some of the imagery in the Narnia books seems intended to evoke this sense in the reader. Lewis himself defined sensucht this way: “That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the opening lines of ‘Kubla Khan’, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”[2]
  • Kreeft seems pretty confident that every human being has this experience; I think it’s worth noting that the argument still works even if only some people have a natural experience of sensucht.
  • Evidence of such a desire can be found throughout the ages:

÷  Solomon (Israel, 10th century BC): “God has set eternity in our hearts.”

÷  Augustine of Hippo (Algeria, 4th century AD): “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”

÷  Pascal (France, 17th century AD): “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.”

÷  Aldous Huxley (England, 20th century AD): “There comes a time when one asks even of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven, is this all?”

÷  Tom Brady (U.S.A., 21st century AD):  “Why do I have three Superbowl rings, and still think there’s something greater out there for me?  I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, ‘Hey man, this is what it is.  I’ve reached my goal, my dream…  My life is…’  Me, I think, ‘God…  There’s got to be more than this.  I mean, this isn’t, this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be.”

Claim #3: Therefore, there is some real object that can satisfy these deepest longings.

  • This is the only completely uncontroversial part of the argument; it’s just a logical inference from Claim #1 and Claim #2. If the first two claims are true, then Claim #3 must be true as well.

Claim #4: That object is what we call “God” and “life with God forever.”

  • Someone seeking to criticize this argument should point out that Claim #4 does not logically follow from the first three claims. This is true, but it should be of small comfort to the committed atheist. If we accept Claim #3, then we need to think seriously about what the “real object” to which it refers might be. It’s difficult to think of any plausible candidates other than God. 

3. Questions for discussion

  • What are some examples (from your own life, in our culture, or elsewhere) of desiring “the right things in the wrong ways”?
  • Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God as a pearl of great price. What kinds of things might we need to “sell” in order to acquire it? Do you find it difficult to trust Jesus that this would be a wise investment? Why or why not?
  • What might it look like to actually apply Paul’s words in Philippians 3 (or, for that matter, Lewis’s words in “The Weight of Glory”) to real life in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2011?
  • Does the “argument from desire” seem like the kind of thing Peter had in mind when he told us to be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is within us? Are there other kinds of considerations you might point to if a skeptic asked?
  • Does Lewis’s idea of “sensucht” resonate with you? What kinds of things have caused you to experience sensucht?
  • What keeps us from longing for God? What can do to cultivate this desire?


[1] Paraphrased from <http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/desire.htm>.

[2] This is from the afterword to the third edition of The Pilgrim’s Regress, but I poached it from <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sehnsucht>. In case you’re wondering, “Kubla Khan” is a 1797 poem by Samuel Coleridge. Its opening lines are “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree:/Where Alph, the sacred river, ran/Through caverns measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea.” I got that from Wikipedia too.

2 Responses to The Argument From Desire (Matt Jordan)

  1. Alan,
    Glad you posted these notes. A group from our church is reading through Mere Christianity on Thursday mornings. I will pass these notes to them.