By Mike Michielin

Many today are “perplexed by desire and what it says about who we are as human beings.”[1] Typically, today’s philosophers, psychologists, educators, and the media tell us to look inward and tap into what our desires are telling us about who we are. The basis of our “self-discovery” is whatever we desire to be. Yet, this inward turn is not bringing us the sense of peace, happiness, and rest we had hoped for. “We continue to be “restless” in our endeavor to understand ourselves, our relation to God, and others.”[2] Even when we do discover an identity — whether sexual, political, philosophical, relational, or as a consumer — it quickly shifts like sand from under our feet. Before we know it, we are on the road again in our search for another self. We are ever searching but never finding.

What do we make of this? Does this mean our desires have no say in helping us discover who we are? And what is keeping us from finding a resting place for our identity? But what if we are asking the wrong questions? What if our sense of “restlessness” is actually normal? What if the problem is not that we turn inward to our desires for an answer to who we are, but instead that we do not rightly understand our desires and how they should be related to God and the world?

The solution lies, I believe, in a vision that is severe about the disordered nature of our desires and insistent that our identity depends on God. Once we understand the nature of the self and its contingency on God,  only then can we properly concentrate our desires for understanding who we are. To support my thesis, I will explore St. Augustine’s theology of desire and its relationship to the God, self, and others, and show that our restlessness can be a sign of hope and joy.


To understand Augustine’s vision of desire, we need to turn first to his understanding of creation and the Fall. Augustine had a high regard for the good in creation. Our problem, even after the Fall, is not that any created thing is bad, but rather that our desires have become disordered, and, as a result, we no longer have control over our wills. Second, we need to understand Augustine’s notion of evil. For him, evil is the privation of the good. “Evil has no substance of its own. Still, it acts like a parasite on the good, dragging it into incoherence.”[3] Evil as the absence of the good causes us to misread the world which skews our desires, so we have a disordered vision of ourselves and God. As a result, [4]our desire rests not in God as it should, but in (infinitely) lesser goods, leading to an irrational, and thus frustrated self-determining vision of the self.

Yet, the answer is not to dismiss our desires altogether, but to harness  them in the right way. Although the main theme of Augustine’s Confessions is desire, his first concern is not with what his desires can say about who he is, but with directing them toward seeking, finding, and praising God. Unlike the modern person, whose inward turn tends to be unreflectively  self-involved, Augustine’s inward turn to his desires first seeks God. is. Why? Because he understands his identity is contingent upon who God is. Made in the image of God, we can only find out who we are in him. As Augustine says in his Confessions, I can’t make the links that make sense of my life. Only God can do that for me.[5]  That is why the focus of Augustine’s desires in Confessions is with discovering, understanding, and seeing God in all his glory and beauty. Whereas for the modern person, glory and beauty is found n one’s autonomous creation of the self, albeit influenced by cultural and societal forces, for Augustine, it is found outside the self in God.

It is because our sense of self is completely contingent on God that Augustine warns us against any “premature closure” on who we are. This goes against the modern conception that encourages us to present ourselves as a finished, branded products for consumption, in hopes of affirmation from others.[6] This branded product of the self was once described by as “self-fashioning” by the historian Stephen Greenblatt. It comes in many forms: consumerism, workaholism, addiction, sexual identity, relationships, social media portrayals, sports, politics, and so on. Yet these leave us anxiously grasping for more and more affirmation that supposedly explains what is found to be socially “valuable” in us. We are left ever restless and confused.

But isn’t our desire for the self fully realized in our vision of God in Christ? For Augustine, the answer is, only in part. We can know and experience God in Christ in this life (e.g., in the sacraments, worship, prayer and so on). Yet, we cannot fully know, see, and experience him, at least not yet. We are like Moses who could only see God’s back on the mountain, or the disciples who could not perceive who Jesus really was during his lifetime. God is not an earthly object among other objects competing for our love or attention. He is not another consumer item we can turn to, fully grasp, and handle. Instead, God is uncontrollably another sort of Being altogether different from ours. Therefore, our desire to know, hear, see Christ in his fullness can only in part be realized in our lifetime. And because our desire and longing to know and see God fully cannot be fully realized, neither can the desire to discover who we are be completely realized. As it says in 1 John 3:2, what we will be has not yet been revealed.

“In our age of autonomy and freedom, seeing ourselves as contingent creatures is not an easy sell,”[7] especially if the “restlessness” of our desires to know thyself can never be satisfied. Yet, it brings us a hopeful joy that the modern search for the self cannot offer. How so? If God is our ultimate desire so that our identity is contingent upon him, at least we can rest assured that our “restlessness” is pointing us in the right direction. The need for closure in today’s search for identity can only lead to anxiety. The pressures from our society, family, and friends to fully discover who we are by getting a good education, a career, accumulating wealth, success, social prominence etc. place a heavy burden on many, especially young people. The pressures to discover “who I am,” together with never getting there, have led to increased levels of depression, anxiety, and suicide. But, if our sense of self ultimately lies in the triune God, we can experience restlessness, not as a burden, but instead as a sign of the eternal hope of fully realizing who we are in Christ one day.

But can we have any rest in who we are now in light of our experience of God? Of course, we can.

That our identity is contingent on God means it is also dependent on others. The God we worship and love is the triune God who is inextricably relational through all eternity. From all eternity the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit orbit, give to, and adore one another. This is who God is. Made in God’s image, he made us to likewise relate to one another in the body of Christ, the Church. Only in this way can our perpetual desire to know who we are be, at least in part, realized.

The Rev. Dr. Mike Michielin is rector of St. John’s Anglican Church, Kingston. Canada

This essay has been revised to include the following citations.

[1] Jonathan Jameson, “Erotic Absence and Sacramental Hope: Rowan Williams on Augustinian Desire,” Anglican Theological Review 102, no. 4 (2020): 575.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 581.

[4] Ibid., 582.

[5] Rowan Williams, On Augustine (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 5. Cited in Jameson, “Erotic Absence,” 584.

[6] Jameson, “Erotic Absence,” 584 (citing, Williams, On Augustine)

[7] Ibid., 587.

2 Responses

  1. Ben Garren

    Desire within The Confessions focuses almost entirely on Augustine seeking fulfillment from a variety of worldly pursuits and how, by the grace of God, he did not find such. “I panted after honours, gains, marriage; and thou deridedst me.” (Book VI) What he discovers within Christian community, before he is even ready to convert, are spaces where people appear fulfilled because they are no longer caught up in seeking worldly power and defining themselves by such criteria. So it is a testament first to not live one’s life chasing after the next sexual conquest, or the next promotion, or the next drug induced high, or the next academic degree, and especially, in regard to the peach story, not living one’s life for the thrill of being in the midst of desire itself. It is a testament, second, to how actual christian space provides individuals the opportunity to understand themselves outside of the standards and expectations of the world and learn to discern how to incorporate their desires for themselves and the world into God’s desires for themselves and the world. A key understanding, in my mind, comes in Book XIII when Augustine goes into what it means to exist “not because I desire a gift, but I desire fruit”. In brief he moves from seeking to derive joy and pleasure from obtaining money, food, drink, clothing, and shelter and begins to realize that it is in being able to provide such to others that brings about sustainable realities of joy and the other fruits of the spirit.

    It is really important to note that what The Confessions represent is Augustine very critically going through the very process that the author dismisses as of no value. Augustine is doing an exceptionally detailed self inventory of his desires and what meaning he does, or does not derive from them; he is allowing himself to fully encounter his restlessness; he is coming to recognize that he is never finding himself only searching for the next one. I am not sure what leads the author to neither value mental health professionals in this regard nor to understand that imitating the saint by doing this ourselves, especially safely under the guidance of trained professionals, is part of the inherent process of sanctification.

    At the end of the text Augustine has discovered a political identity, a philosophical identity, a relational identity, and a consumer identity… his processing these identities and coming to discover which of these identities he needs to acquire is the entire point of the text. Importantly Augustine has not discovered a new sexual identity, his sexual identity is part of his created nature, remains unchanged throughout, and is not something he can altar or acquire in any way. What has occurred is that he now goes about his sexual identity within his newly acquired Christian political, philosophical, relational, and consumer identities.

    The authors false equation of sexual identity with compulsive disorders, addiction, and social affiliations causes two major problems. First sexual Identity, along with racial identity, sex identity, and gender identity, falls into the identities that are part of the created order that God, and Augustine, name good. These identities exist in a distinctly different category, both in terms of medical and mental health science but also human rights legislation, than acquired identities. Failure to acknowledge the importance of these critical identities, and the insinuation that LGBTQ+ persons are not made in the image of God, disconnects this essay from the Biblical witness regarding God’s desire for justice for all persons and an end to oppressive systems, a reality fully present in the confessions. Secondly Augustine is exceptionally clear within The Confessions that problematic and sinful desires are not simply things we would otherwise automatically judge as bad. Augustine’s desire for prestige and status within academic circles, his desire for an advantageous marriage, his desire for socio-economic stability are all brought into question and confessed as sinful. The text is not about learning to desire the right things but about learning to move beyond desire of things.

    Overall this seems much less a reflection on The Confessions and much more a generic dismissal of modern academia, medical and mental health science, and human rights legislation (ab)using the Confessions as a frame to put forward those arguments. It does a grave disservice to the process of sanctification that is described within the work and fails to acknowledge the theological differences between acquired and inherent traits within this type of theological framework, repeated consistently in the western canon. There is an exceptional amount that The Confessions has to say to our current milieu, it speaks out against every basic reality of our capitalist consumer culture and much of what we currently define as good… but this article fails to do such on numerous levels.

  2. Charlie Clauss

    Another chance to bring in C.S. Lewis, who made the point that if we desire something not in this world, then we must be meant for another world.


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