Those of us who frequent Christian circles are well versed in trendy go-to coffee cup verses. Psalm 37:4 is one of the trendiest: “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” However; like many of our favorite coffee cup verses, this one can be taken out of context to justify a myriad of idols in our lives. We tend to be bent toward lacking a gospel-minded approach as we absorb verses and apply them abstractly. In response to this particular verse, the following logic often carries out:
“I deeply desire _______, so then God must have put that desire in my heart, right? And if God put that desire in my heart, it must not be wrong to desire it, right? It must happen eventually, right?”
Conventional wisdom would respond to this question with an emphatic, “yes, of course!” But Christians need to apply a gospel lens to verses and questions like these. And by gospel lens, I mean we need to approach the situation through the story of the gospel—we need to see the reality of our desires and our state apart from Christ, next to the holiness and grace of God. Though often more difficult to digest, gospel lenses lead us to gospel answers which are so much better than conventional, cultural Christian advice and stories. So just a warning, this might sting a little before you see the good news, but I promise it will make the good news all the more sweeter.
The Desires of Our Hearts
The desires of our hearts can be good, but they can also be evil. In fact, on their own, our hearts are evil, and evil hearts desire evil things (Mark 7:21-23). This reality is paramount. Jeremiah 17:9 puts it this way: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Paul really hits the nail on the head in Romans 7 when he stated, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” Scripture is full of texts that reiterate this theme of our complete depravity. In our fallen state, the desires of our hearts do not come from and cannot please God. As believers in Christ, we cannot automatically assume that our heart’s desires are from God. Instead, we ought to assume they are from our fleshly, fallen hearts. This is much more likely, and much more biblically accurate. Ask yourself if you believe your heart and flesh are sick as a result of the fall. Ask yourself if you believe you are incapable of doing good on your own.
No Man is Good but God Alone
Although we are capable of sin and sin alone, the story—thankfully—does not end there. God has made a way. The sweet words “but God” interrupt our sinful desires. Mark 10:18 says: “No man is good but God alone.” Not only is God good, but God showed His love for us by sending Jesus to the cross to die for our sin, and furthermore, God sent His Spirit to dwell within those who are in Christ. So when we are in Christ the Spirit of God is also in us. Therefore, we know that it is the Spirit of God alone who does good through us, and we also know the Spirit can and does plant good desires in our hearts. The only good desires in us are the ones that He planted there. So how do we know if a desire is of the flesh or of the Spirit? The answer is (kind of) simple. The Spirit in us—and Spirit-planted desires— cannot exist without certain fruit; the fruit of the Spirit. Galatians 5:22-23 defines the fruit of the Spirit as the following: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” In addressing the early question in this blog, we arrive at the following answer:
If ______ is a desire of my heart that God has put there, then God will also grant me love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control when I ask for it. If there is no fruit, then it is an idol and I need to work on tearing that idol down.
What is an Idol?
In the Old Testament we are introduced to the idea of idols often as small or large statues made of gold meant to represent a god-like figure. There’s the infamous golden calf in Exodus, the small teraphim Rachel stole from her father… and these are just a couple of the idols that God’s chosen people built and worshipped. But in the New Testament, idolatry is more often addressed as an activity of the human heart, an idea, or an identity that someone elevates above God. Paul defines idolatry for the church in Colossae in Colossians 3:5-6 like this: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.” So what idolatry looks like today is the activity of the human heart, not a deed of the body. Deeds and actions are the fruit of idolatry. Deeds are the symptoms of the disease, not the disease itself. If our sinful actions were THE idols themselves, then all we would need to do in order to become more righteous—more like Christ— is behavior modification. But that is not the case. The sinful actions we engage in can always be traced back to a root idol: the thing or the person loved more than God, wanted more than God, desired more than God, treasured more than God, or enjoyed more than God in our lives. Idols are incredibly dangerous because “the wrath of God is coming” on account of them.
What is your idol?
So ask yourself this very important question. What is your idol? What is the thing or person your heart loves more than God? Wants more than God? Desires more than God? Treasures more than God? Enjoys more than God? If we cannot first be honest with ourselves about our idolatrous hearts, then we cannot take the next steps to put sin to death.
For the sake of walking through this diagnostic process, let’s use marriage as the possible idol in question. If the desire for marriage is completely irrelevant in your heart, you’re in luck because this process can be applied to all of the heart’s desires. Feel free to fill in the blank.
If marriage is a desire of your heart that God has put there, then God will also grant you the fruit of the Spirit when you ask for it. If there is no fruit, then it is an idol and you need to work on tearing that idol down.
The question is this: Is the desire to be married a desire of the flesh which leads to death or a God-given desire which leads to life? Consider the following diagnostic questions.
- Love: Has God given you love for Him and others by enabling you to pour yourself out? Or is your singleness keeping you so preoccupied with yourself that you are neglecting the needs of others?
- Joy: Has God given you joy in your season of singleness? Or are you depressed every time you see another engagement announcement, or receive another wedding invitation in the mail?
- Peace: Has God given you peace in your desire to be married? Or are you in a state of constant worry about your biological clock running out?
- Patience: Has God given you patience in your longing to find a spouse? Or are you anxious that by the time you get married all the good ones will be taken?
- Kindness: Are you demonstrating kindness, a gracious disposition in character and attitude toward others at all times, even when nobody is watching? Or do you simply turn on your inner kindness when someone worth impressing is around?
- Goodness: Are you filling your time, day and night, with goodness by ministering love and kindness to others? Or are you sitting at home wallowing in self-pity treating singleness like some disease that needs to be self-medicated by excessive Netflix binging, wine consumption, or video games?
- Faithfulness: Are you exhibiting faithfulness through your season of singleness? Or are you stalling kingdom work, believing that your life’s full devotion to God will start once you have found a spouse?
- Gentleness: Has God given you gentleness regarding your response to people’s questions and comments about your single state? Or do you harbor bitterness and a snarky attitude toward those questions that inevitably come up?
- Self-Control: Has God given you the ability to have self-control? Or are you acting on impulse because of the “freedom” you think you have in singleness?
Taking Sanctification Seriously: Nailing Sin to the Cross
If marriage is an idol, how do you crush it? The truth is that as long as we live, we will wrestle with sin. That is the “already-but-not-yet” tension we find ourselves in. The gospel enters that space. But how?
When Jesus died, He died with the sin of the world—past, present, and future— on His shoulders. He died and took those sins to the grave. That means He took your idol, the one you’re struggling with right now, to the grave with Him. That is how you were justified at the moment you met Christ and that is how you are still “being saved” (1 Cor. 15:2)—being made more like Christ through sanctification. So whatever idol you are struggling with, ask Jesus to take it with Him, to kill it and to bury it in the grave.
Thankfully, Jesus didn’t stay in the grave. He rose, glorified, on the third day. And He came back and promised to leave believers with “an advocate [the Holy Spirit] who will never leave you” (John 14:16). So we not only acknowledge and crush our disoriented desires that dwell in us apart from the Spirit, but we replace them with more of the Holy Spirit. I would be remiss if I didn’t say this once more: Jesus didn’t stay in the grave. He actually conquered death! How much more can He conquer that sin that is eating away at your life? You don’t have to live the rest of your life enslaved to that sin because Jesus did not stay in the grave!
Remember; an idol is not something that can be killed through behavior modification because the idol is the disease while our behaviors are merely the symptoms. To kill sin we must target the root (the disease). I think this part is what gets lost on a lot of believers because it is something we cannot physically fight or change. Instead, it is an Ephesians 6:12 battle; a battle that can only be fought supernaturally. And the supernatural remedy is Jesus.
Walking it all Out: Life through the Spirit
Throughout the first half of Romans 8, Paul shows a concise depiction of how the gospel is lived out in the present-tense when he beautifully juxtaposes the flesh which leads to death, and the Spirit which leads to life. Later, in Romans 8:3, we are specifically told that Jesus condemned sin in the flesh so that we may now walk according to the Spirit and bear the fruit of the Spirit. With this in mind, how do we walk in the Spirit and actively seek to crush the root idols in our hearts?
Put to death fleshly desires by the Spirit. Paul instructs believers to put to death the deeds of the body, and in doing so you will live. Note that the one piece of armor in Ephesians 6 that is used for killing is the sword, which is the Word of God (Eph. 6:17). This is an offensive weapon unlike all the others listed in Ephesians 6. Use it.
Fix our mind on the things of the Spirit with the Word. Romans 8:6: “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” We need to look up, get our eyes off ourselves and our own ability, and seek to have an eternal mindset. Once again, we cannot set our mind on the Spirit without looking to God’s Word.
Abide in Jesus. John 15:4-5 says this: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Abiding in Christ means allowing His Word to fill our minds, direct our wills, and transform our affections.
Hear me on this: you cannot crush idols without abiding in Jesus. It isn’t going to happen on it’s own. Idols aren’t just going to die as time passes. Instead they will grow deeper roots over time if we aren’t combatting them with the Word of God. On the contrary, as we abide, God increasingly becomes the predominant affection of our hearts and the other things our hearts give affection and attention to are uprooted and replaced. Treasuring Christ, looking to Him, and depending on Him brings life and peace and freedom! We have a fruitful vine by which we might flourish and not wither because of the gospel. These are only some of the many reasons why the gospel, and the gospel alone, is the greatest story ever told and the lens through which we should approach every trial, temptation, and idolatry of our hearts.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
The next time you find yourself struggling with questions like the one presented in this post, go back to the greatest story ever told, where Jesus gave Himself up as a ransom for many. This story wins every single time. This story is one everyone can relate to because Christ gave Himself for all. This story transcends space and time. This story changes us at our core! Because of this story, our desires and affections are now able to be stirred for God himself. Because of this story, we can truly be at peace and experience the freedom for which we were set free. We were made to find our greatest joy in this story. This gospel is our only hope, our treasure, and our light in the dark places. It is the sweet story of redemption.
A great theologian named Augustine famously penned this line which we believe sums up the essence of this post: “How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose . . . ! You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure..”
For His name,
Kenzie and Leah