"The gift of desire", what St Anselm saw

How much do we see our attempts to reach God as coming from our own resources? I wonder if for many Christians the thought is that God has saved us, but now it is up to us to do the right things in complete gratitude. Don’t mishear me, gratitude is important. But, as John Piper notes, nowhere in Scripture are we urged to live out the Christian life of obedience to God out of gratitude. Rather we obey in reliance on grace, and future grace at that.[1]

I discovered only recently that St Anselm[2], who was Archbishop of Canterbury under William II and Henry I, understood this very well. Here are some lines from a prayer he penned. It is addressed to Jesus (the one whom Anselm refers to as “My life.”).

“My life, the end to which I strive, although I have not yet attained to love you as I ought, still let my desire for you be as great as my love ought to be.”[3]

There is so much theology packed into these short lines.[4] He first recognises that Jesus is not just the source of his life, though he is that[5], but his very life itself.[6] And this Jesus is “the end” for which Anselm says he strives. This is a profoundly important insight. Jesus is both our life, the sap from which we are sustained, and he is the end for which we were created, the goal of our life being to reach maturity in Christ. We have union with Christ or else he could not be our life. Yet we are also growing into the full enjoyment of that union.

Next, Anselm recognises the enormity of the love he ought to have for God. Scripture says that we should love him with every part of us, fully, wholly, unreservedly, and all the time. We are far from this and that is why Anselm says he has, “not yet attained to love” Jesus as he ought. But get this! His prayer is for his desire for Christ “to be as great as” his love ought to be. Not as his love currently is. Not even as his love might be with some improvement. What Anselm wants is that to the degree that he ought to love God in Christ Jesus, to that very degree he will desire Christ. That is a stupendous prayer! It is breathless in scope. He wants to desire God with all his mind, body, soul and strength, perfectly and all of the time, without reserve and with no sinful motives to spoil it. You cannot say that Anselm’s ambition was too small. Ours maybe, but not his!

Now here is the point I have been leading up to. Anselm wants to desire God in Christ Jesus. But instead of trying to whip up that love in his own strength, he knows he can never have it unless God graciously gives it to him. Yes, even the desire for God has to come from God. That is how Anselm sees it, and that is entirely in keeping with the witness of Scripture. King David knew that if he wanted a clean and pure heart, God had to be the one to give it to him (Psalm 51:10) and that if he was to be able to praise God, God himself had to first open his lips (Psalm 51:15).

Anselm goes on to ascribe what desire he does have to the grace of God: “I praise and thank you for the desire that you have inspired.”[7] I wonder if you have ever sought to give thanks to God for the very desires for him that he has given to you. We rightly thank him for our forgiveness and salvation in Christ, we sometimes thank him for our faith, but rarely, I suspect, do we do as Anselm does here, and recognise that we must thank God for even the very desire to obey him, never mind for the strength to do so.

Earlier Anselm says that that his wish to love Christ is a God given desire, and therefore good, and so he asks, “give me what you have made me want: grant that I may attain to love you as much as you command.”[8] For Anselm, and again this fits with the witness of Scripture, there can be no independent and unaided movement of the will towards God.[9] Nor ought there to be given that independence from God is the essence of sin and a sinful act can never bring us close to God.

And because what Anselm asks for is good, in that it conforms to the will and purposes of God, he can confidently pray for it. Do you see how he reasons with God? He says that because what Gods inspires is good, it is right to ask God to come good on the ability to do what he has inspired. All that we do that is in any way good, is from God, through God and returns to God. What Anselm is doing is asking God for future grace, for the ability to grow in Christ likeness and love to Christ. He knows that any steps he takes or will take can only happen if God gives grace for it. Recognising that, is what then spurs him to pray.

So why not take the time out to thank God for the extent of the desire for him that he has given you and then, in confidence that you are acting on a God given desire, ask him to satisfy that desire.

[1] This comes from his DVD “Future Grace” which is produced by Zondervan.

[2] Saint Anselm (1033-1109). I am happy to use the word “saint” not in the sense of some special category of super perfect Christians, but in the sense that the Apostle Paul used it; that is to say it applies to all Christians.

[3] Saint Anselm, The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion (London: Penguin Classics, 1973), 93.

[4] Theology is literally the word about God. Everyone has a theology in that everyone has a view about God, even atheists (in that they deny him). The question, therefore, is never, “Am I the kind of person to do theology?” but, “Is my theology a good one?”

[5] See Colossians 1:16.

[6] Colossians 3:4.

[7] Anselm, The Prayers, 94.

[8] Anselm, The Prayers, 93.

[9] For an evidence of this see Philippians 2:12-13 where we are commanded to work out our own salvation precisely because the desire to do it (to will) and the power (to do) come from God. He first causes us to will to do what he wants and then supplies the power so that we then do it.


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