On Saturday I began the “Scripture challenge” that’s going around Facebook right now. You post one passage a day for five days, and you tag two new people each day to do the same. Truthfully, I find things like that to be hokey, but there was some conviction for me: What could I possibly post that’s more important than the Word of God? I’m not trying to pull a Jesus juke here, but seriously. Sometimes passages are what others need to hear because they’ve lost a lot of hope. Sometimes they cut us where we need to be cut, but there is always the promise of being renewed, rebuilt, and restored. In an effort to not “Jesus juke” the challenge and make it sound like life is peachy and perfect, or that God is a wealth, health & prosperity God, and being a Christian means happy trails all day long, I’m instead posting a passage each day that I hear quoted rather often and with good intentions, but generally the understanding is lacking or the verse is taken out of context. So if you missed them, check out Day 1 and Day 2.
Day 3 – Psalm 37:4
“Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
Disclaimer: I LOVE this verse and I’ve learned a lot about it over the past few years as it has continually resurfaced in my life in a number of circumstances. Although I’m looking at how we take this verse out of context, I’m saying all of this as someone who definitely got it wrong for a longer amount of time than I’ve properly understood it. I also loathe this verse in a way (not overall – but… well, you’ll see), but I’ll get there.
If you were to look only at this verse and only at the translation to English, what does it look like this verse says? Well, basically, if you delight yourself in God’s ways and if you follow the rules, it will end well for you. You’ll get what your heart truly desires. This verse is alluring…almost tempting, is it not? It’s like we’re given the secret to winning the spiritual lottery. If I delight myself in God, he’ll give me everything I want.
When I first sought to gain a better understanding of this verse (as I assumed it was the equation to winning that spiritual lottery I talked about), the first question I asked myself was in comparison with the entirety of Scripture, is my understanding reinforced elsewhere in the bible, or do I perhaps have a famished understanding of this verse?
If we’re honest, the view that following rules equates to abundant blessing is not backed. The Pharisees followed the rules. Need I say more?
The second question I had to hound after was what do key words in this verse actually mean in the original Hebrew? All too often our English version just doesn’t do the Hebrew language justice. That’s not to say that we haven’t come as close as possible. Translations continue to be written that help give better insight to what the original language and message said. However, there are words in Hebrew that are too rich to put to English words – we don’t even have words that accurately describe some Hebraic text. Our language pales in comparison (which I find to be stellar)! So let’s break it down into two parts:
1. “Delight yourself in the Lord…”
“Delight” (עָנַג, pronounced aw-nag) literally means to be delicate or feminine (Strong’s, עָנַג.) It carries the idea of being pliable or sensitive. In this particular context, it means to be dependent upon God and to derive one’s pleasure from Him.
Following the rules while trying to make ourselves ‘happy’ about it and being pliable in God’s hands are two vastly different concepts. One requires a pulse and some will power. The other requires a relationship. Instead of trying to force ourselves to be happy or ‘delight’ in following what many see as a rule book, perhaps we should spend time getting to know the One who inspired the whole shebang while we read into his Word (which starts to look a lot less like a rule book the more we’re in relationship with God). True delight in God – a true desire to be pliable in his hands – requires that we seek him. It requires that we be as intentional with him as he has been with us. Half-hearted obedience is just as bad as full-throttle rebellion.
A few verses…
Psalm 63:1 – You, God, are my god, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.
1 Chronicles 16:9 – For the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.
Jeremiah 29:13 – You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.
Psalm 27:4 – One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.
Philippians 3:8 – What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.
Please catch this: When we seek God whole-heartedly, sometimes it costs us everything. Delighting oneself in God is not a matter of emotion: It’s a matter of commitment. Is Psalm 37:4 an invitation to a moment in time or is it a command with a promised blessing behind it?
2. “…and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
The term translated “desires” (מִשְׁאָלָה, pronounced mish-aw-law) refers to petitions or requests (TWOT, מִשְׁאָלָה.) Do a Google search and you’ll quickly discover that in ancient Jewish culture, the heart was the very core of who someone was. We closely link our emotions with our hearts and thoughts with our minds. Not so for the Hebraic culture. Everything was an overflow of the heart. Both emotions and thoughts flowed from the heart. What we know, feel, and will we ascribe to the mind. They would have ascribed it to the heart. It is considered the very seat of emotional and intellectual activity. Proverbs 4:23 suddenly has renewed meaning: Guarding the heart insured it being physically, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually guarded, not just emotionally or mentally.
All right so let me throw some of my own thoughts in here. So what about ‘desires?’ I’ve wrestled with this verse recently due to the way God is currently shaking up my life. He knows that I think it’s a desire of my heart that I be married one day, but he’s getting ready to place me in a situation where that isn’t going to be much of an option. I’ve come back to this verse time and time again and told myself, “Just follow him. Trust him. Have faith in him. He’ll work this whole thing out.” Honestly, I think I’m lying to myself because I don’t think I’ve had a full understanding of this verse. Go with me here for a second. The psalmist tells us that God will honor our delighting in Him by graciously giving us what we are asking of Him from the very depths of our being. But here’s the issue: What we think are our deepest desires may not be so. I guarantee you that someone who considers their deepest desire to be an amazing career is not at the root desire. I guarantee you that someone who longs for marriage is not at their deepest desire. I guarantee you that someone who wants their shot at center stage is not recognizing their deepest-seeded desire. These are ways that those desires manifest themselves, but they’re not the root, because we all know there’s more to life than a great career, a marriage that will eventually end (because death will do you part), and fifteen minutes of fame.
So what if this verse speaks to a command to embark on an incredible journey? Not that any of those things are bad – please don’t get me wrong – but what if it shouldn’t stop there? I think this is where we have to recognize that we are not our own. Sometimes we don’t even fully recognize what our deepest desires are. For me, I think my deepest desire is marriage because I’ve convinced myself that that’s the only way I’ll ever truly understand intimacy (something I tend to cringe at, regardless of still desiring it). But if my deepest desire is truly intimacy, and I’m continuing to delight in God by allowing him to mold me, and mold my desires to what his desires are, then maybe the best way for me to understand intimacy isn’t through marriage. Does that make sense? As I allow myself to be clay in the Potter’s hands (as opposed to the clumpy dirt balls I often try to be…), he’ll likely continue to mold me in a way I didn’t anticipate. The clay never has a say in what it becomes. That’s the potter’s job.
If we’re truly allowing him to mold us, he becomes our desire. It’s really that simple. When we delight ourselves in him, he gives us what our hearts desire most, and that’s him. Whether or not we’re in a place where we are willing to recognize that, it’s true. We’ve just tried to shove a lot of things into a God-shaped whole in our hearts. If we rely on him and derive our primary worth, pleasure, and joy from him, then he’s the desire. The promise is not that we’ll receive whatever we think we want. The promise is that we’ll receive what we truly, deeply want…and coincidentally, need.
Just some thoughts. I’ll leave it there.
Pray. Seek. Do.
Soli Deo Gloria.