The human heart is a desire factory.
I see this reality so clearly in my 5-year-old son, Henry. It’s breathtaking how quickly the thrill of getting something he wants for Christmas, for instance, can be displaced by the idea that the next present he opens might be even better. Lest I sound like I’m picking on my son, however, I don’t have to look too deeply into my own heart to realize that I’m no different. On any given day, in any given season of my life, a vortex of different desires swirls inside me. If I, if we, are to mature as Christians, we must grow in understanding how to entrust our desires to God.
When it comes to our hearts’ longings, Scripture both affirms our desires and cautions us against being swept away by them. In the oft-quoted Psalm 37:4, for example, we find these familiar words: “Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.” And in Psalm 20:4, we read, “May he give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed.” In the New Testament, however, Jesus warned that “the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” And in Ephesians, Paul reminds believers that every person was once shackled to desires run amok: “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.” Obviously, we’re not to live that way any longer.
What then do we need to know about talking to God about our desires?
First, and this almost goes without saying, I’m convinced God wants us to bring everything in our hearts before Him — the good, the bad, the ugly. If we’re not talking to God about the things we long for most deeply, it shuts Him out of the process of shaping those desires. And that leaves us vulnerable — vulnerable to denying what’s going on inside because it’s too painful to admit, and vulnerable to capitulating to those desires because they’re so strong. When that happens, idolatry and addiction may not be far off.
In contrast, when we talk honestly to God about what we want, a twin process of trust and transformation can begin. That’s because when I’m confessing what’s going on inside, I neither have to deny what I want nor let it rule over me. Instead, I can submit my heart to God and ask Him to help me yield my longings to Him.
We see this pattern with David. The daily submission of his desires was a regular part of his prayer life. “Give ear to my words, oh LORD, consider my sighing,” we hear him pray in Psalm 5:1. “In the morning, O LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation” (v. 3).
Two things begin to happen when we regularly place our longings in God’s hands.
First, in struggles with excessive or off-limits appetites for food, sex or material things, we’re in a better position to resist temptation. When we cry out, “Lord, my heart longs for ______, but I know that desire is out of bounds, please help me,” I believe God will honor that prayer. It doesn’t guarantee we’ll win every battle with temptation, of course. But it puts us in a place of honest dependence upon God that, over time, equips and conditions us to resist sinful desires instead of either denying or indulging them.
Second, when it comes to the good “desires of our heart,” talking to God about them is the only way to surrender them to Him. By surrender, I don’t mean talking ourselves out of them in the name of being spiritual. I mean relinquishing them, letting go and giving God space to fulfill those desires in His time even as He shapes us into the people He wants us to be in the process.
I prayed for years and years for a wife, for example. And even though those prayers went unanswered for at least a decade longer than I wanted, God did a transforming work in my heart in the process. He relaxed my grip on my vision of life. He curbed my demanding spirit. He taught me to empathize with others’ hurts. He taught me about His own character and sufficiency in moments I thought my heart couldn’t take any more disappointment. In short, yielding my heart’s desires to him over and over again in prayer gave Him space to make me a bit more like Him.
At times our desires can almost seem like a curse, especially when it seems they’ll never be met or when we’re tempted to believe that God doesn’t care. In the crucible of our relinquished desires, however, the Lord can accomplish a remarkable metamorphosis in us.
But we’ve got to tell Him the truth about what’s going on in our hearts first if we hope for that to happen.