One of the better- known verses in the Bible is Psalm 37:4 which says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (ESV). This seems straight forward to most people. Basically, if you put God first, you’ll get what you want in life. Maybe you desire a better relationship with your spouse. If you are single, you just want to be married. Perhaps you desire a better job or more income. It could even be ministry aspirations if you are a pastor or ministry leader. Whatever those desires are, it seems that they are accepted carte blanche as long as they aren’t overtly sinful. For example, we can all identify “bad” desires like lust or greed. However, if we peer deeper into the desire for a better relationship with someone, it might reveal a more hidden motivational desire such as acceptance. Is it ok to desire acceptance? If you delight in God, will he automatically give this to you? For some of you, God has been like a divine genie who grants your wishes— as long as you play by his rules. But God is after your heart, and he intends to change you.
The Nature of Desires
Biblical counselor, David Powlison, used to say that we can often miss the “rather than God” element common to many desires. In others words, you can desire something rather than God, as if God and the focus of your desire are separate things. Scripture calls this kind of desire a fleshly desire (Gal. 5:16). However, there are also Spirit desires which are oriented toward God alone and are put in us by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:17). This means that good and bad desires may not be as easy to detect as once thought. In fact, you may be deceived by your own desires and even your own heart (James 1:14; Jer. 17:9-10). So, how do we know when a desire is good or bad?
If we look back at Psalm 34:7, we see that it has an order to it. It starts with delight in God. The opposite of a fleshly desire is a desire that is from and to God. If God is at the center, then it redefines the nature of our desires. This is where things often get confusing for us. How do we know when a desire is from and to God? One way to find out is to look at your responses when you do not get what you want. If you have ever been around little kids before, you probably know what I am talking about. Everything is going so well until you take away the prized possession (and you thought they just liked your company!). We are willing to put up with a lot as long as we get what we want in the end. With God, we are never disappointed. There is nothing he lacks, and he offers it all to us in various forms. If we know this, we will be satisfied even though external circumstances do not seem to be in our favor. However, if our desires are based in something other than God, they are sure to be disappointed. When this disappointment comes, how do you respond? Do you throw a fit? Slander the people who let you down? Scream at your kids for not being thankful enough? Shame your congregation for not giving enough to the church fund? The list goes on for how we respond when fleshly desires are not met. James sums this up so well when he says, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:1-2).
Transforming Our Desires from Tangible to Transcendent
Since everyone is guilty of having fleshly desires, how can we change to have Spirit desires? This is the point at which God must constantly transform our desires from being focused on the tangible (flesh) and reorient them to the transcendent (Spirit). The actual nature of the desire must change. This means that we cannot simply change the object of our desire (spouse, ministry, sex, success, money, etc.), rather the entire desire itself must change. You might be asking how this relates to a deeper desire like acceptance. Acceptance is not, in and of itself, a bad thing to desire. However, it can become a bad thing when it is desired rather than God. Perhaps C.S. Lewis explains this best when he says, “No natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods” (from his book The Great Divorce).
Where and How this Transformation Takes Place
This transformation is a change of heart. Desires do not truly change if the heart is not involved. The changed heart is God-oriented instead of self-oriented. It is inclined toward righteousness instead of unrighteousness. This is sanctification, and it is located in the heart since the heart relates to the moral aspect of being human. This brings us back to Psalm 34:7. If we start with delighting in God, it reshapes the whole context of our desires. Does God simply meet any desire you may have, or does God change your desire as you delight in him? The best news we have in the Gospel is not that God gives us everything we’ve ever wanted; rather, it is that he transforms our lowly desires into something we never could have imagined.
Do you desire this?