This is the time of year when I’m neck-deep in desire. The four weeks of Advent offer us an extended invitation to prepare for the coming King by noticing the stirrings of our hearts. The quieter we allow ourselves to become, the deeper the vein of desire we mine. Flipping the desire coin over, we find expectation embossed on the other side. The truer our desire, the greater our expectation that desire will be met. This is the Great Hope of Advent.
The wonder of Christmas is, of course, Emmanuel, God with us. The twelve days of Christmas offer us space to savor the Lord’s presence with us and his promised guidance in the year ahead. Conveniently (or not!) falling in the midst of those twelve days is New Years, when we set aside time to reflect on our accomplishments of the prior year and our goals and desires for the year to come. I’ve been steeping in desire for close to six weeks now!
With such emphasis on desire built right into the Church calendar, it’s ironic that Christians don’t actually talk much about desire. Perhaps there’s a presumption that our desires are bad and therefore shouldn’t be explored or trusted. But what does God say about our desires?
My Advent readings led me to Psalm 37, where I’ve found myself lingering for the past several weeks. Verse 4 in particular beckoned me to pause.
Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.
I found I couldn’t stop meditating on these words. Despite all my focus on desire since the start of Advent, I realized I’ve come to the end of the year with more unfulfilled desires than evident delight in the Lord. So, I sought to understand the relationship between where I place my delight and where I place my desire.
Plant, not grant
In my training to become a spiritual director, we followed the teachings of Ignatius of Loyola who believed that God’s will can often be discovered in our “great desires.” These are the heart yearnings that lead us to greater faith, hope, and love for God and neighbor. He cautioned that we’re prone to disordering our desires and that we choose to follow our lesser desires. His recommendation is to come to God in prayerful discernment, so we can rediscover our great desires and choose to follow them instead.
How are we to understand both these words of the psalmist and the teaching of Ignatius when taken together? If you’re like me, a quick read of Psalm 37:4 may sound more like this to your eager ears:
Delight yourself in the Lord and he will grant you the desires of your heart.
Almost transactional. As in, you do X and God will do Y. As in, just keep enjoying God’s presence and, like a Big Blue Genie, he will grant you three wishes.
But, what does “he will give you” actually mean? Does it mean he will grant us our desires or give us our desires? To give someone a desire is not so much to grant a desire as it is to plant a desire within them. This verse, like all the others in the Old Testament that use the same Hebrew construction, means he will give, not grant, us the desires of our hearts.
These are the “great desires” of which Ignatius writes.
And this verse tells us the more we delight in God, the more he will plant these great desires in our hearts.
Finding my greatest desires when God is my greatest treasure
Reflecting on this verse in conjunction with my sense of unfulfilled longings, I had to question where I truly placed my delight—in my Lord or in some desire of my own making?
When we delight in him, he’s our “one thing,” he’s the prize. When we chase after him, we can trust the deepest desires of our hearts are the ones he’s planted within us. These are the desires worthy of pursuing with gusto! Often enough, we begin well—by chasing a dream he gave us. But at some point, we start valuing the dream more than we value him. That’s when we can no longer say our delight is in the Lord; it’s in the dream.
If this happens, we have to be aware of the desires lurking in our heart. That good, God-planted desire may have morphed into something not of his making. Our motives have shifted. We no longer define ourselves primarily as a beloved child of God, but rather, as the hero of our own story, the fulfiller of our own dreams.
Could it be that the more I dreamed about the fulfillment of my desires, the less I delighted in the Lord? Was I looking to the dream fulfilled to give me what only God can give me? Even something God has clearly called us to can cease being the desire he first planted within us if we take your eyes off him. The more we keep the focus on ourselves, the less likely we are to find our delight in the Lord.
We believe a lie when we imagine anything other than Jesus will ultimately satisfy us. What does God say about our desires? Keep your eyes on me, remembering I’m the treasure you seek, and I will plant great desires in your heart.