One of Augustine of Hippo’s most stimulating insights concerned that of ‘disordered desires’, often translated as ‘disordered loves’. In life we sometimes battle outright temptations to commit evil deeds, but more commonly our lives consist of trying to getting our desires in the right equilibrium. Sometimes it is quite clear. When the Israelites complained in the wilderness that they would have been better off remaining in Egypt, they were sinning against God (Ex.14:12; Num.14:3-4). The same can be said of Jonah’s expressed wish for death rather than life (Jonah 4:3, 8). We are better off suffering great loss than sinning (Matt.18:8-9). In all these things, the choice in each context is one between good and evil.
At other times we may be landed in situations where competing desires reveal the disorder brought about by the Fall – rather than obvious temptations to indulge in sin. Twice in His ministry Jesus cites Hosea 6:6, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’ (Matt.9:13; 12:7). In each case the temptation is much more subtle, and an indication of our disordered desires and the need to get priorities right. There are genuine issues about associating with sinners (Matt.9) and about keeping the Sabbath (Matt.12). In the hurly burly of life, however, they have to be fitted in with the obligation to bring salvation to sinners and to show mercy seven days a week.
We can pursue something which is lawful, but do it unlawfully, as it were, in a disordered way. Lot’s choice of living in the Jordan Valley in the city of Sodom was clearly selfish, foolish, destructive, and very costly in the end (Gen.13:8-13). Yet, for all his attempts to obscure it, Lot was a saved man, accounted as righteous before the Lord (2 Pet.2:6-10). In itself, living in an attractive place is not wrong; it is just that Lot’s self-centredness kept him from asking the right questions. A good name is better than riches (Prov.22:1) and a good testimony better than green pastures.
It is good to do the necessary household chores; it is better, as the opportunity arises, to hear the word of Christ (Luke 10:38-42). There is an account of the near-conversion of Redbad, the king or duke of Frisia who died in 719. He was almost baptised until he was told that he would not meet any of his pagan ancestors in the life to come. This disturbed him, so changed his mind. Respecting one’s ancestors is good, but preferring them to Christ is idolatry. Life is good, and we ought to take sensible steps to preserve it (e.g. Matt.10:23), but ultimately God’s loving kindness is better than life (Ps.63:3), so we must be prepared to die rather than disobey God (e.g. Dan.3:16-18). This makes sense of martyrdom – and the cross, for that matter.
In 420 Augustine, along with Alypius, talked the general, Boniface, out of leaving public life and becoming a monk. Augustine wrote to Boniface: ‘Do not imagine that no one can please God while he is engaged in military service.’ Rather more compellingly, on 4 December 1785 William Wilberforce asked Newton to meet with him secretly. The newly converted Wilberforce was wondering whether to remain as a Christian in the House of Commons, and Newton advised him to serve the Lord in public office. In each case, the alternative was lawful (if we grant monasticism, for the sake of argument), but there was a better option.
Detained either in prison or under house arrest, the apostle Paul told the Philippians that he could either be executed, and go to be with Christ which is far better than living in the here and now, or he could be released and that would be for the benefit of Christians who would be much blessed by his teaching and his presence (Phil.1:21-26). In this case there is no sense of disordered desires, but another indication that life is not full of simple ‘yes or no’ situations.
The Bible tells us in every situation to escape evil (1 Cor.10:13), but sometimes the disorder of the world plays upon the disorder in our own souls, and we choose what in itself may be without reproach but yet not be as God would have us go. A godly balance is required as we deal with marriage, parenthood and work, to give three obvious examples. Try not to sacrifice the best on the altar of the lawful.
With warmest regards in Christ,