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On Desiderata

Jan 22, 2011

A commentator recently said he found the “poem Desiderata to be very beautiful. Its advice is not incompatible with the teachings of Christ, in my opinion.” Instead of posting a quick reply to that comment, I thought it worthwhile to discuss it in some detail. But my short answer is this: no it is not compatible.

The poem itself was actually written by American writer Max Ehrmann in 1927. The word is a Latin term meaning “things desired”. It went largely unnoticed during his lifetime but later gained widespread popularity. Plenty of Christians are happy to run with it as well, but I must strongly disagree.

So let’s go back to the comment in question. Compatibility has to do with being able to harmoniously coexist. That this poem can be described as being compatible with the teachings of Christ can only be maintained if one is not in fact aware of the actual teachings of Jesus.

Indeed, anyone even remotely familiar with what Jesus said and did will see how very incompatible his teachings are with the contents of this poem. The poem, which runs to 46 lines, will not be reprinted here (but see the link below). However most people are at least vaguely familiar with it, so let me point to some of the many obvious differences.

The truth is, the poem is a sentimental, mushy and rather vague statement of humanistic principles: be nice, be good, treat people well, and so on. Nothing wrong with that, and in one sense Jesus said similar things. But when one considers the totality of Jesus’ mission, one sees just how far removed this poem is from the teachings of biblical Christianity.

Let me begin with a famous line near the end of the poem:
“Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be.”

This should send alarm bells ringing to anyone with a smidgeon of biblical discernment. God can be anything you want him to be! If you are a Hindu there may be millions of gods. If you are a Buddhist you may not even have to believe in God.

If you are a New Ager, then God already exists within, so you are simply being asked to be at peace with yourself in this poem! The truth is, if our understanding of God is wrong, our understanding of everything else will be wrong as well.

Not every conception of God is true or accurate. There are plenty of false gods and false beliefs about God. So getting an accurate – and biblical – understanding of just who God is, is the very first thing we must seek to do. A.W. Tozer in his book, The Knowledge of the Holy, has said some vital things about this issue. A few quotes are in order:

“That our idea of God corresponds as nearly as possible to the true being of God is of immense importance to us.”

“Wrong ideas about God are not only the fountain from which the polluted waters of idolatry flow; they are themselves idolatrous. The idolater simply imagines things about God and acts as if they were true.”

“A right conception of God is basic not only to systematic theology but to practical Christian living as well. It is to worship what the foundation is to the temple; where it is inadequate or out of plumb the whole structure must sooner or later collapse. I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.”

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God. Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God.”

As mentioned, this poem expresses nice sentiments and platitudes, but ones which any humanist could affirm. Indeed, any theological liberal would be perfectly happy with this poem as well. Theological liberals have long sought to divorce the ethics of Jesus from the teachings of Jesus. But this cannot be done.

The ethical dimension of the words of Jesus flows from, and only makes sense in regards to, his actual teachings. His encouragements to love one another follow from his command to first love and obey God fully. His insistence on moral behaviour is premised upon being in right relationship with a holy and just God.

But none of this is expressed in this poem. There is nothing about us being sinners in need of salvation. There is nothing about us being in a perilous state of enmity against God. The closing lines of the poem read as follows:
“Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.”

Again, this is great pagan pop psychology and sentimental moral sap. But it has nothing to do with the clear teachings of Jesus. We are nowhere commanded in Scripture to simply be happy. But we are everywhere commanded to be holy, to renounce self, and to be conformed to the image of God’s perfect Son.

Again, that can only occur when we confess our sin, seek God’s forgiveness, and live a transformed life by the power of God’s Spirit. There is nothing in the New Testament about picking ourselves up by our own bootstraps or about just trying to be ‘nice’ or ‘happy’. There is nothing about feel-good moralism in the teachings of Jesus.

Those who seek to make Jesus out to be merely a moral teacher or someone telling us to discover our own inner light have not in fact read the New Testament carefully. Jesus was, and said, nothing of the sort. He came not to reform us or to challenge us. He came to die so that we might be reborn.

Jesus came to die on a cross for the sins of a rebellious and sinful people. He everywhere taught that we are rebels who are alienated from God, and unless we repent and turn from our sins, we will face the eternal judgment of a holy God.

None of these core Christian truths are anywhere to be found in this poem. Thus it has nothing to do with the gospel of Christ. But liberal theology has long lost the plot in this regard. And biblical Christians have long pointed this out. C.S. Lewis for example said a number of memorable things about this issue. Consider this classic line from Mere Christianity:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of thing Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Or consider this from the same book: “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” The moral mush offered in this poem is all about self-improvement and feel-good self-therapy. It is not at all reflective of the message of Christ which states that we are sinners headed for a lost eternity, and unless we agree with God about our desperate condition, we will perish.

The gospel-less liberal theology of this poem is nicely summarised in a line by H. Richard Niebuhr: “The liberal gospel consists of a God without wrath bringing people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.”

The only problem is this poem does not even mention Christ! How such a poem can be compatible with the teachings of Jesus when he does not even get a mention is hard to fathom. As I say, there is nothing wrong with urging people to be kind and nice, etc. But such moral motions are the result of conversion, and are basically unobtainable without it.

Until we are born again and transformed by the power of God, all mere moral advice will remain so much sentimentality. The gospel of Christ was far harder and sterner than that. And it was far more realistic. That is the message that all people desperately need to hear, not the fluff stuff of this humanist poem.

www.desiderata.com/

[1524 words]

26 Responses to On Desiderata

  • “Strive to be happy.” … “We are nowhere commanded in Scripture to simply be happy. But we are everywhere commanded to be holy, to renounce self, and to be conformed to the image of God’s perfect Son.

    Could you clarify the difference between “be happy” and “be joyful always” (1 Thess 5v16)?

    Alison keen

  • Sounds like that other dastardly saying:

    “God helps those who help themselves.”

    Straight from the pit of Hell, that one, but a foundation stone of the Protestant work ethic/ethos on the breast of which so many of us were nursed.

    I’m sure a great many still believe it’s scripture 🙁

    Alister Cameron, Melbourne

  • Thanks Alison

    The short answer is joy is a byproduct. We do not seek it as an end in itself – we seek God. But when we find God, we get joy thrown in as well. C.S. Lewis wrote a whole book about this: his autobiography, Surprised By Joy. In it he describes how as a non-Christian he spent his whole life looking for joy, only to find it always to be elusive. But then he became a Christian, and discovered that Christ was really what he was looking for – but he got joy thrown in as well.

    And of course joy is a fruit of the Spirit, so one must have the Spirit (which means being in right relationship with God in the first place) before such fruit can be obtained. The NT often tells us that those things which are a gift of God are also things we believers should strive for – love, peace, joy, etc. It is the indicative/imperative challenge found throughout the NT. This means we are to seek for what we already have as a gift!: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2008/06/27/on-emergents-and-false-dilemmas/

    However, happiness – rightly and biblically considered – is a major theme in the works of John Piper, following on from Jonathon Edwards. Thus he speaks of “Christian hedonism,” but it is a far cry from what is found in this poem.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Alister

    Yes there are all sorts of things which Christians have latched on to which are neither biblical nor even found in the Bible. Biblical illiteracy unfortunately is often as high amongst Christians as non-Christians.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Bill. Surprised by Joy was on my list of books to find, it just got bumped up in priority!

    Oh, forgot to say, i did enjoy this article. It’s a good read. 🙂

    Alison Keen

  • Bill,

    Loved your response.

    I remember seeing Desiderata floating around our church youth group when I was in my teens. I questioned its Christianity, but some of the senior “intellectuals” in the youth group castigated me for not appreciating its “Christian” message.

    My major objection was the one you first raised “Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,” feeling in my early teens that there was only one true “conception” of God.

    My other objection then, was one I could not then put into words, but which was eloquently stated by the wife of an evanglical Anglican minister whom I was privileged to know. Speaking of a particular “church”, she said “it’s not so much what they say, it’s what they leave out.”

    Ditto re: Desiderata.

    Graeme Cumming

  • There was a youth musical of the 70s/80s (Bill & Gloria Gaither, I think?) with Pat Boone reciting a collection of Scriptures, of which I can now only recall some snippets:
    “You are the people of God”
    He loves you, and has chosen you for His own”

    Does anyone else recall it? I got the distinct impression that it was a deliberate rebuttal of Desiderata (which had become a “pop hit” as recited by a fellow with a rich but gravelly baritone voice).

    John Angelico

  • Another expression which is clearly not Christian: “You are a child of the universe”.
    John Angelico

  • Coincidentally, I looked up joy in the Concordance this morning after reading and meditating on I John chapters 1 and 2.
    From Deuteronomy 9 through Jude, our Joy is found in obedience and congruency with God. In Psalms, He is our ‘chief joy.’

    “That your joy may be full,” seems to be an aim of God for us. Remember Jesus’ birth announcement to the shepherds said, “Glad tidings of great joy…’

    Rejoicing is re-joy-cing. Joy is healing, according to the latest brain science supported by PET scans. Through these scans, scientists can see the damaging effects of depression, drugs, stress, trauma on the brain as well as the healing effects of prayer, repentance, confession, rejoicing, laughter and worship. The latter are biblical spiritual means of returning to joy and healing when our joy (and peace) is lost through sin, trials, stresses, illness and traumas.

    Joy is an essential spiritual, psychological, physical, relational and even a national/societal nutrient. Remember, God commanded the whole nation of Israel to keep seasons of rejoicing and feasting as well as the seasons of repenting and fasting.

    Sibyl Smith

  • ‘strive to be happy’ reminds me of that other mushy idea ‘the pursuit of happiness’ which is part of the American belief system.
    Michael Webb

  • Thanks Michael

    That phrase may well be mushy and much abused today, but it was understood quite differently when it was originally used by the American Founding Fathers and as it appeared in the US Constitution. The phrase itself probably derives from the English philosopher John Locke, who used it in the sense of cultivating civic virtues and social values. So it has nothing to do with modern Western hedonism and me-first-ism. And elsewhere Locke had used the term “life, liberty, and property.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill,
    Whenever I read or hear something which comes from someone with a German name, such as Ehrmann, I automatically translate their name into English out of curiosity to see if their name and nature correspond. Surprisingly some people sometimes have a name, which coincides exactly with the profession. Such an exercise didn’t tell me anything about Max Ehrmann, whose name means Max “Husband” (well I suppose he’s somebody’s husband). However, his work, which appeared on that link which you supplied, gave me the impression that he is like a silly duffer amateurish psychologist, chasing business from gullible patients. His comment “You are a child of the Universe, no less than the trees and the stars” is unadulterated pantheistic flapdoodle. In the public debate I find the term “your God” used by a number of know nothing commentators somewhat grating and an admission that the person using that term believes God is some fantasy.
    Frank Bellet, Petrie Qld

  • Yes quite right Frank

    And even though it is still early, I may nominate your phrase “unadulterated pantheistic flapdoodle” as line of the year!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill,

    It seems somewhat small-minded to vilify this poem simply because it lacks theological depth. It was never intended to represent theology, liberal or otherwise.

    I think Christians can find relevance in the words
    Therefore be at peace with God,
    whatever you conceive Him to be

    Don’t we all perceive God in our own way, albeit informed by the Bible?

    Only a joyless person could find fault with such a delightful piece of good advice for living.

    Barbara Perry, NSW

  • Thanks Barbara

    But you evidently did not read my article very carefully. It is exactly because Christians have claimed this poem is theologically compatible with Christianity that I wrote it in the first place. And your comment demonstrates exactly what I was referring to

    Also, biblical Christianity has nothing to do with ‘God as we may conceive of him’. God has revealed to us in his word who he is and how he is to be understood. We are not at liberty to simply make God up as we go along, creating him in our own image. If holding to and affirming the biblical picture of God makes one “small-minded” then we obviously need more such small-mindedness, not less.

    And I fail to see how a person’s joy – or otherwise – has anything to do with what has been said here.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill,

    I think you missed my point. You have a perception of God, as do I. Our respective perceptions may be similar, but they won’t be identical, because we all bring our own subjective opinions, life experience, education and personality to bear on how we think.

    Barbara Perry

  • Thanks Barbara

    But respectfully it may be you who is missing the point. My article was about how some Christians seem to embrace this poem, regardless of the fact that there is nothing Christian about it.

    Your point is that no two Christians who accept the biblical view of God will think exactly the same way. That of course goes without saying, but it has nothing to do with my article.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • In my early life as a child in an unbelieving home I clearly remember this hanging from the back of the toilet door.
    Looking back I can see that it did serve Its purpose.

    Thanks Bill

    Simon Rossic

  • Regarding biblical illiteracy,

    My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge (of God’s word and His laws) Hosea 4:6
    This was a warning to the priests, because they had rejected knowledge, God rejected them as His priests. Let us not suffer the same rejection for the same reason.

    Richard Jardine, Box Hill Vic.

  • Hi Bill (and others)

    This was a good article though I have never heard of the peom (being of the younger generation). I looked it up and read it though.

    I am glad you brought it up since I have had difficulty talking to people in my church who think it is ok when non-Christians think the bible is just about “being good and doing to others as you would have them do to you”. I find it hard to express that while it would be good if people lived like that, it would be in vain without God.

    I also wanted to thank Sybil for their brief look at joy. Pointing out God’s command to the Israelites to celebrate as well as repent was was good. I have been reading through the first books of the bible recently and noticed this “command” to be joyful but the far reaching effects of joy as you pointed out have just sunk in.

    Finally, it is somewhat sad that disasters like the floods in Queensland seem to be the moment that Christians begin to pray that people will look to God in the time of difficulty because it is in those moments when soppy, western-culture-based philosophies like this fall down.

    Regards,
    Phoebe Downes

  • Oh – I forgot to add that some of the sacrifices God required of the Israelites were the sacrifice of praise, thanksgiving and joy!
    Sibyl Smith

  • Reply to John Angelico’s question: Come Together.
    Andrew Snowdon

  • Hi Bill,

    You have reminded me of my days as a new Christian, I recall receiving a birthday card from a girl friend containing the “Desiderata”, it was a beautiful card.
    It was Les Crane who had the soft smooth voice and his one hit wonder in the hippie 70’s. At the time I thought it a bit suspect, now I know it was sus.
    (Sorry Judi I forgive you if you read this Blog)

    Another poem that one often hears at Christian? funerals is “Don’t Weep Over Me” which is also way off the mark.

    Do not stand at my grave and weep,
    I am not there, I do not sleep.

    I am a thousand winds that blow,
    I am the diamond glints on the snow,
    I am the sun on ripened grain,
    I am the gentle autumn rain.

    When you awaken,
    in the morning’s hush,
    I am the soft uplifting rush of
    quiet birds in circled flight,
    I am the soft stars that shine at night.

    Do not stand at my grave and weep,
    I am not there, I did not die.

    Dallas James

  • My mother used to have a Desiderata poster on her kitchen wall years ago. Even as a youngster, the words didn’t set very well with me. The song version used to be on high rotation on 3MP. No wonder I hated that station 🙂
    Ross McPhee

  • Strange how God can use even non theological poems to draw people to Himself. When I read ‘whatever you conceive him to be’, it really made me consider just who God was and should be in my life.
    It may not be theologically correct, but it can still draw people to God. Don’t write it off altogether. Some of our “Christian” songs don’t have much to say about Jesus either.
    Bev Ward

  • Thanks Bev

    Yes plenty of our Christian choruses today are theologically vacuous, and yes God can use all sorts of things to accomplish his purposes. He can even use Balaam’s ass, or Judas, but I don’t think we should be recommending or encouraging this!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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