Moral good and desirable good

I want to delve into something today that may at first seem like nit-picky hair-splitting semantics. I think that if you will persevere and read to the end you will find that it is most profound and is deeply foundational to our idea of grace and the real motivation for living the Christian life.

In Genesis 2 and 3, we find these verses:

“And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”” Genesis 2:16, 17, NIV.

“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” Genesis 3:6, NIV.

We have here the first time the idea of ‘good’ was divided. What do I mean by this? If someone says, “I’m being a good girl,” they mean they are not cheating on their diet or overspending or smoking or such. It is a moral good – they are denying themselves something they like in order to do the right thing, and thus they are ‘good’. On the other hand, if they go ahead and have that hot fudge sundae, they aren’t being a ‘good girl’, but they might say, “MMMMM, this sundae sure is GOOD!” That is what I mean by the two meanings of the word ‘good’ – there is a moral idea of the good, and an aesthetic idea of the good.

In the beginning, Adam and Eve were free to eat any from tree. All that was pleasurable was also all that was good. The one forbidden fruit was also the one undesirable fruit. It wasn’t until the serpent started speaking to Eve about it that she first realized that the forbidden could be desirable; before that point all that was permitted was also all that was desirable, and all that was forbidden was undesirable. This is the state God intended us to live in.

Now we live in a world where it is alien to even the most holy person that the moral good could actually be the clearly desirable thing; even in the mind of the righteous person, the moral good is set against the aesthetic good. Pleasure is universally wrapped up and intertwined with the forbidden. From food and eating to addictive behaviors to sexuality, our desires are constantly drawn to the forbidden. I believe that for many, the steam goes out of the marriage relationship because their sexuality was based on the fiery desire of the soul for the forbidden, and once in marriage sex was acceptable or even mandated, it became more of a duty. This is pure speculation and certainly the reality is always more complex, but this identification of the desire with the forbidden is a real factor.

And so we live in a world where we are constantly and always confronted with the call of the forbidden to our desire – it is the voice of the serpent everywhere, calling to our fallen nature, reasoning with us about the desirability of sin. Temptation has its power because it draws on this very truth; Satan is interested much more in our desire, than in our health or our finances.

In the original intent of God, there did not need to be a division between the ‘will’ and the ‘desire’; the will sees what is right and gathers strength to do the right thing even though the desire is set against it. In the garden, prior to the fall, this was not necessary.

Imagine that God intends to restore us, to heal this terrible wound, this gaping division in our inner souls. Imagine that God wants to remove this need for something called the ‘will’, this necessity to constantly go against what we want, to constantly do what we do not want, because it is moral. Imagine that God wants to refashion us somehow so that our real desire does not run against what is right. What, eventually, would this healing look like? What kind of world would that be? What would the kingdom of God look like if it really did come to earth? It would look like GRACE! That’s right, unbelievably, the impossible dream of living an idyllic existence in which the desire and the will are in perfect peace and harmony within us, where the moral good and the aesthetic good are one and same, is the world He wants us to enter RIGHT NOW. The main characteristic of the new person we become in Christ is this, that this rift between moral good and desirable good, is removed. Our true self, the newly born person we are, does not have this division.

It bears saying that this really is what the law is – it presses notions of right and wrong on the unwilling person, set against their desire. It insists on the moral good, even though the inner desire is for the forbidden. This is the exact beating heart of what is variously called ‘legalism’, ‘pharasaism’, etc. Of course no one would ever come right out and say, “Oh, yes, I’m very legalistic, I’m a total pharisee!” I’ve talked to people who are as legalistic as you can get and they don’t think they are legalistic. However, in that they insist on imposing moral codes that are inconsistent with the inward desire, and set the inner man into this division of moral vs. aesthetic good, and think that this division is what true faith really is, they are legalists. This division of moral good from desirable good and the emphasis on morals over desire is what makes religion seem so colorless and lifeless. The aim of Christ is not to emphasize an even more stringent or better moral code, it is to bring the good of morals and the good of desire into a unity within us. He preaches a stringent moral code to fish out that division, to diagnose us as sick, to bring us to a place of healing and transformation.

Someone whose mind is still set in the divided universe, the universe where the good is divided, where moral good is set against desirable good, looks at the offer of grace, and says, “You mean now I can just do ANYTHING? I can just sin and sin and sin that grace might increase?” It must look like this, because what God is really offering is not merely release from guilt, but a healing of this division. This is His ultimate goal, to take us back to the garden, where what is desirable coincides with what is right. The healing He seeks for us, is not just to have the freedom to sin without consequence, but to have the freedom from our true inner desire to actually want what is right. He wants what is morally good to become what is aesthetically good, in our true inner selves.

If you are thinking clearly about this, your mind is fairly screaming an objection. “Hey – are you saying we become sinless? We’re not sinless now! We don’t just become Christians and then lose all desire for sin! What the heck?!” In fact, when you think about things clearly in your normal right mind, and ask these kinds of questions, you end up going through Paul’s reasoning in Romans almost point for point. Romans 7 only makes sense really when you can say, “Hey! I thought i was this new creature, dead to sin! Why do I still sin? What is GOING ON around here?” This is the context of Romans 8, there is therefore now NO CONDEMNATION for those who are IN CHRIST JESUS. Our true self is born of the spirit, but our MIND does not always go along! So, the mind set on the flesh, the mind which reverts back to imposing law on the unwilling human desire, must fail. The mind set on the spirit, the new man, does the things of the law instinctively. This is the short answer.

The parables Jesus taught us about the kindgom of God are all about desire and passion. The man finds the treasure, and FROM JOY over it, sells and makes his sacrifices. Moral good without desire is still desire for evil that is thwarted. In a way sinners who do what they want are much happier than religious moral people who do what is right but never do what they want. Real healing, real grace, real power for living, comes when we change over to the universe of grace. To those on the outside, it looks like the freedom to sin, because their desire is still wrapped up in the forbidden. But to those who enter gr
ace, the hope is that the power of the desirability of the forbidden begins to die off, and we begin to learn to live with a true passion, a true desire, for the living God. Thus the division in us, the two goods, begins to unite, and we start to learn what it is to live with a single mind and a whole heart without shame or remorse.

Posted in Scandalous Grace and tagged , , .


  1. Jim,
    I read all of this. It all makes great sense, and I agree, it is a disarming amount of freedom. It scares most pastor/church leader types to death, because they ‘just know’ their (emphasis on THEIR) people, upon hear it, will go do what the Baptists did when I was growing up. They attended church every Sunday, claiming they were ‘saved’, and lived hypocritical, immoral lives in front of me all week and weekend long. They did a THOROUGH job of keeping me out of church all my teen years.

    I’d like to see you develop the concept of rewards earned by the righteous, post entering the grace walk. That is, however, probably off theme for this blog.


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