Idolising Desire

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Oprah Winfrey famously stated some years ago that her favourite Bible verse is Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” She went on to offer an interpretation of the verse.

Now what that says to me, “Lord” has a wide range. What is “Lord”? Compassion, love, forgiveness, kindness. So you delight yourself in those virtues. Delight yourself in goodness, delight yourself in love, kindness, and compassion, and you will receive the desires of your heart. It says to me, if you focus on being a force for good, good things will come.

Oprah’s interpretation is flawed on at least two counts.

First, “Lord” does not have a wide range. In fact, “LORD” translates the Hebrew name for Israel’s God: Yahweh. “LORD” is not your favourite virtue but is a very particular person. He is the God of the Bible—the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Second, there is no promise in this verse that “if you focus on being a force for good, good things will come.” The promise is not that being a force for good will guarantee a list of good things. Instead, David is telling us that, as we make Yahweh the object of our greatest affection, he will respond by giving us more of himself—more of our greatest delight.

As wildly inaccurate as Oprah’s interpretation is, it does illustrate the age in which we live, in which we are encouraged to pursue our desires at all costs. Modern advertising plays into this by subtly (and, sometimes, not-so-subtly) promoting things that we desire. We desire happiness, health, and wealth, and modern advertising promises us those things in a variety of ways. Sadly, the way we give into those promises reveals just how deeply we idolise desire.

Advertising not only has power to shape our desires but also power to persuade us that our desires are necessities. It paints our desires so attractively that we come to believe that we cannot possibly live without the object of our desires. Unfortunately, these desires are not always godly desires, even if they are not immediately harmful.

When he was in the wilderness, Satan tempted Jesus in this very way. By suggesting that he turn the stones into bread, he was not saying that Jesus should prove his power by performing that miracle. Instead, he was urging Jesus to give into what he, in that moment, desired and thereby bypass what his Father wanted for him. He was tempting him to idolise his desires. Jesus’ response is famous: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

Like Jesus, we are tempted by our culture all the time to idolise our desires. We are told that our desires define us and our only purpose in life is to ensure that we fulfil our desires. Our desires, in that way, become idols to us.

Here is what we must remember: We will prize those desires most that we feed. If we ignore God’s means of grace, we will find ourselves drawn to worship. So, how do we feed godly desires rather than worldly desires?

One thing you can do is to attach yourself to a local church that prizes the God-honouring desires that we should prize. Allow brothers and sisters in Christ to speak into your life in such a way that your desires are reshaped into desires that honour the Lord. A community of the committed will help in this regard.

Second, meditate on Scriptures that point you to right desires. Perhaps give yourself to reading the Gospels afresh and growing in your appreciation of the person and work of Christ. That will help you to order your desires in a way that honours God.

Third, pray fervently that the Spirit will point you afresh to the Lord Jesus Christ. Pray that he will help you to grow in your love for Christ so that you can pursue him as your ultimate desire.

If we want to avoid the idolatry of desire, we must learn to desire those things that are truly worthy of God-honouring faith. Fellowship, meditate, and pray in such a way that Jesus becomes your primary desire.