“Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4)
Psalm 37:4 is a well known verse of scripture. In this verse the desires of the heart are positive, God-honouring desires. These desires flow out of delighting yourself in the LORD. However, there are two kinds of desires mentioned in the Bible: the desires which flow from walking in the Spirit and desires which flow from walking in the flesh (e.g. Gal 5:16). My concern in writing this piece is motivated by something which the Bible Society reports:
Bible Society research conducted around Australia uncovered worrying statistics: a. Less than 2 of every 10 Christians are engaging with the word of God on a daily basis. b. There is a prevailing perception that the Bible is not important to everyday life.
These statistics demonstrate that the desires of Australian Christians are not in line with the desires of the God and Father and of our Lord Jesus Christ. This fact should be a major concern to all those who love Jesus.
Let me begin by exploring briefly the two kinds of desires. Blessed is the person whose delight is in God’s Law; the godly one meditates on that Law day and night (Psalm 1:2). Those who desire to do the will of God store up the Word of God in their hearts (Psalm 40:8). Those who love the works of God ponder them and delight in them (Psalm 111:2). The one who loves the commands of God is blessed (Psalm 112:1). There is a strong connection between the desire to know God, the desire to obey God, and the desire to hear and read and remember the Word of God. A lack of desire for the Word of God, as evidenced in a lack of Bible reading, would suggest a lack of interest in the works of God and a lack of interest in doing the will of God. Yet this lack of desire for the Word of God is more appropriate for the wicked.
It is the ungodly who say to God “Leave us alone. We have no desire to know your ways” (Job 21:14). Fools take delight in their own foolishness, rather than in the wisdom which comes from God (Prov 18:2). There are those among the people of God (Israel) who falsely claim to be eager to hear what God says, get their lives deny their words (Isa 58:2-3, 13). The prophet Jeremiah (Jer 6:10) asked, “To whom can I speak and give warning? Who will listen to me? Their ears are closed so they cannot hear. The Word of the LORD is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it.” To whom did Jeremiah did proclaim the word of God? Was it not to the people of God? And yet the people of God did not delight in the Word of God. It is not only the godless who do not desire the Word of God, but apparently, according the Bible Society, and according to the Word of God itself, the people of God seem to have no desire to hear the Word of God and to know his ways. As much as some say that they are eager to hear God, their actions in not reading what God has said, speak volumes.
This is disturbing, but what can be done about this? Surely it is only ever the work of Jesus which can deliver us from our own sin and from the lack of desire for God’s Word, which is currently being demonstrated by the Australian church. To understand what Jesus has done, we must look at the way in which God grants the desires of the heart, not just for the righteous who desire godliness and the will of God, but also for the ungodly who desire their own ways not God’s ways, their own foolish opinion rather than God’s wisdom, their own will not the will of God, and for whom the Word of God is an offence.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities– his eternal power and divine nature– have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator– who is forever praised. Amen. 26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. 28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. (Rom 1:18-28)
Humanity is aware of the fact that God exists and is powerful, yet human beings desire their own ways. They do not give thanks to the God who has given them life. They no longer think in sensible ways, that is, with reference to the Word of God. No, rather than desiring the life-giving Word of God, they became fools and worshipped idols. But, in verse 24 Paul says something surprising. Instead of the wrath of God opposing the sinful desires (lusts) of wicked, godless humanity, he gives them over (paradidōmi) to those desires. The expression “God gave them over” occurs three times in this passage. God gave sinful humanity over to sexual impurity, God gave them over to shameful lusts, and God gave them over to a depraved mind.
This passage is the polar opposite of Psalm 37:4: “Delight in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.” The desires of godless humanity are not related to a delight in the LORD. Instead, the desires of the godless are related to their rebellion against the LORD. But God grants the desires of the godless. He gives them over to doing what is not the will of God, because they desire to do the opposite of the will of God. Surprisingly, God grants the desires of the heart for the godless just as he grants the desires of the heart for the righteous. What we desire is what we must therefore live with.
But we must not forget that the granting of the desires of the heart for the wicked is an expression of the wrath of God as Paul says in verse 18: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” Humanity may desire to be untroubled by God’s Word and by God’s will, and they are granted this. Yet being given this desire is what the wrath of God looks like. This is wrath because the plight of humanity without God is dire. There is no other source of life and purpose and telos (fulfillment and goal) than the true and living God. No idol can provide life, purpose and telos, although human beings continually look to idols for these things.
But this is not the end of the story. God does not want to leave humanity in bondage to their own desires. He enters into the world in the person of the Son. Even though humanity had no desire for God, no desire for his Word or his will, God actively provided deliverance from their bondage to their destructive desires. He did this by giving over his own Son to death. “He [Jesus] was delivered over (paradidōmi) to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25). Just as God gave the godless over to their own desires, he gave over his own Son. That which human beings desired, and the consequences of those desires that they should rightly have to live with, is put upon the Son of God. Jesus bore the consequences of all the wicked human desires when he bore the sins of humanity upon the cross. He was given over to the sinful desires of humanity, to bear the lack of desire for the will of God, and to bear the lack of desire for the Word of God. All of those evil desires for our own way and for thinking our own foolish, depraved thoughts were nailed to the cross when Jesus died. All our laziness and indifference to the Word of God was taken upon Jesus as he was given over to our sin and to our death. All the offence which people take at the Word of God was borne by Jesus, as people took offence at him, who is the living Word of God.
Later in Romans Paul uses this word paradidōmi again: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up (paradidōmi) for us all– how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). This verse shows us the reason why God gave up his own Son to sin and death. The reason is so that he might give us all things. This is not a matter of Jesus dying that we might have health, wealth and comfort. The rest of Romans chapter 8 makes that point evident. [For example, “As it is written ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered’” (v 36).] Rather than materialistic blessing, ‘all things’ refers in the immediate context to adoption, justification and glorification (v 29-30). All things also include the intercession of the Son, who is at the right hand of the Father (v 34). There he intercedes for the church that they might be transformed into his image (v 29). If we are like the Son of God then we will also possess his desires.
Jesus took up the cross willingly, because his desire was always to do the will of God regardless of the cost.
Hebrews 10:5 Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; 6 with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. 7 Then I said, ‘Here I am– it is written about me in the scroll– I have come to do your will, O God.’”
Jesus desired to do the will of God as written in the Word of God. He repeated quoted the Old Testament. In his temptation by the devil in the wilderness, he said ‘It is written’ three times (Matt 4:4, 7, 10). He quoted the scripture in regard to John the Baptist (Matt 11:10). His actions in the Temple were in response to what is written in the Word of God (Matt 21:13). On the night he was betrayed he knew what his disciples would do based on the Word of God (Matt 26:31). Jesus knew that he must suffer and die and be raised to life because this is what the scripture says (Luke 24:46). His desire and his life were in accord with the Word of God.
How does this apply to Bible reading or lack of it?
Humanity does not change its desires by having the Law proclaimed. The Law did not result in obedience. The history of Israel is testimony to the fact that disobedience was the most common outcome of Israel’s possession of the Law. On the contrary the problem is solved by the work of Christ. “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,” (Romans 8:3 NRSV). So, the problem of a lack of desire for the Word of God among the people of God will not be solved by simply telling people that they must read the Bible. It can only be solved by the proclamation of the gospel.
Since Jesus has taken upon himself all the sinful desires of the flesh and borne these in his body on the cross, the people of God can now reap the fruit of his work. He has dealt with our fleshly desires on our behalf. The desires of the Australian church involve comfort and entertainment, rather than the Word of God, as evidenced by the lack of Bible reading and lack of solid Bible teaching in churches. But Jesus has borne the burden of our desires for comfort and entertainment on the cross, where he has desired the will of God over all comfort for our sakes. The result is that those who are joined to him by the Spirit are freed from the desires of the flesh.
However, the epistles make clear that there is an action of human beings which must occur, and that is to walk according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh. This theme recurs throughout the New Testament, but I am sticking here to the book of Romans.
Romans 6:8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13 Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. 14 For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. (NIV)
Because we have been united to Christ in his death, we can enjoy the benefits of his death and his victory over sin. The sinful desires of the flesh have no power of Jesus because he died. Because we are united to him these desires do not need to have control of us either because we have died. The consequence of the gospel is that we should not let sin reign anymore; we should no longer obey the desires of the flesh. The desires for comfort and entertainment which prevail in the church do not have to be obeyed, because those desires have been put to death on the cross. Instead we can choose to obey the righteous desires which are the fruit of the gospel in our lives. Yet, this passage suggests that it is a choice. The wicked do not have a choice because they have not died to sin. But the people of God have died to sin and can choose righteous desires, including a love for the Word of God.
“For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit” (Romans 8:5 NAS). Rom 8:5 is a statement about who Christians are, not a statement about human choices. What we are determines what we set our minds on. We must then be told what we are so that we act accordingly. It is the proclamation of the gospel, that is, what has been done by Jesus Christ, which will set us free from the desire for comfort and entertainment instead of the Word of God. We are the people of God and the people of God set their minds on the things of the Spirit, not the things of the flesh.
Why then does it not actually look this way some of the time? Because it is necessary to put on Christ and to put off the flesh and its desires. “Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14 NRSV). The Holy Spirit is at work in the sons of God, but the flesh is also at work demanding that we gratify its desires. It is possible for us to gratify the desires of the flesh, but possible also to not gratify them. When we put on Christ and deny the desires of the flesh, there will be conflict, but Jesus has won the victory for us.
These extracts from Romans show that there is some human choice involved. Without the work of Jesus in the incarnation and on the cross, there would be no human choice involved at all. The only option would be to think on the things of the flesh and to gratify the desires of the flesh. This is because sinners are in bondage to the flesh, to their evil desires, which are opposed to God. However, Christians have been freed by being crucified with Christ and therefore they have a choice. So we must choose to walk according to the Spirit.
God grants the desires of the heart. The question is not really whether God takes our desires seriously, but what are the desires which fill our hearts. Because sinners do not desire God and his word he has given them over to do what not ought to be done. But the people of God have been freed from the evil desires of the heart. The lack of Bible reading in this country might suggest otherwise. However, the proclamation of the work of Christ upon the cross, which has set us free from our desires for comfort and our laziness, is what we need. Such a proclamation is the only route to a return to a church which hungers for the Word of God. It is not enough to tell Christians that they must read the Bible if the gospel is not also faithfully proclaimed. We are set free by Jesus from our fleshly desires which include wanting to avoid the Word of God. When people believe that the Word of God is some old, boring, and irrelevant book they will not open it up. When people believe that the Bible contains the word of life and liberation from the bondage to sin, then they will desire to feed upon it.