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:
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.