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Desires—Cultivating Superior Desires Through Self-Denial

Greg E. Gifford, MA, PhD Student

ggifford@masters.edu

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file6211233874613One of my counselees recently asked me an excellent question: “What do we do when our ‘want to’ is broken?” He was asking this in reference to honoring God but it is a question that is embedded in every one of us. What do we do when we don’t want to do? I appreciate his candor in expressing what most of us have felt. To say it another way, “I don’t want to change the diaper. I don’t want to help them move. I don’t want to be kind when they are snippety.” So what do we do when we don’t want to do what honors God?

To begin, it must be said that our desires, perhaps, are the most understated function of our being. We have a propensity to focus on our behavior (i.e., the do) but often neglect the fact that our behavior is a manifestation of our desires (Prov. 4:23). If we don’t move past behavior to the heart/desire level, we miss the majority of what God sees in our lives. As one author said, “we do what we do because we want what we want.”[1]

How do we want correctly? And what do we do when our wants are off-kilter? This is vital to get right. Paul notes in 2 Corinthians a significant shift with the mindset of the Corinthians regarding giving. He informs us to the nature of how the Corinthians gave, which informs us in regards to desires. Listen to what he says, “And in this matter I give my judgment: this benefits you, who a year ago started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it” (2 Cor. 8:10; italics mine). Did you catch that? They gave but not only did they give—they started desiring to give. This is profound in that Paul commends the Corinthians for both doing what honored God and wanting to do it. Here’s the point: our desires matter. But how much do they matter?

The Bible consistently speaks of desires and passions (cf. James 4:1, 1:13-15; 1 John 2:16; Acts 20:33; Gal. 5:24). Our wants are a common discussion in the New Testament especially. We hear things like 1 Corinthians 10:6, which says that we can learn from Scripture so that “we don’t desire evil as they did.” Galatians 5:17 also says that the Spirit has desires. In fact, before we were in Christ we were characterized as being controlled by our desires (Eph. 2:3).

Romans 6:12 says, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.” Passion is the same word used as “desire, craving, lust, or longing.”[2] In fact, it is the same word that Titus uses to articulate what Christians were freed from when they became believers (Tit. 3:3) and what John says the world is full of, to its own demise (1 John 2:15-16). Every person has desires and those desires are quite important: they are part of the fabric of being human. However at the new birth, our desires shift dramatically.

Our desires must become reformed desires: reformed in that they are no longer evil (Col. 3:5) but rather, they are wanting what God wants. Ephesians 2:3 says, “among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Before Christ we had fleshly passions, but that is no longer true. Galatians says that the “desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” and if we walk in the Spirit, we won’t satisfy the desires of the flesh (5:16).

Moreover, in John 8 we see that the Jews had the same desires as their father, the devil (v. 44). Jesus literally says, your desire is to do the will of your father (v. 44). This is blatantly juxtaposed to Jesus’ desire to do the will of His father (John 4:34). Yet before salvation and after salvation we have operative desires. This too is obvious throughout Scripture. The question comes when those post-salvation desires do not align with God’s desires.

The good news is that Philippians 2:13 says, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Paul says this in light of working out that received salvation as believers. But most importantly, God is reforming our will to conform to His as we “work out our salvation” (2:12). God is changing what we want so that it conforms to His will. Psalm 37 says that He gives us the desires of our heart as we delight ourselves in Him (cf. Ps. 37:4). Do not miss that the process of sanctification happens at the desire level.

But what do we do when our “want to is broken”? How to we redeem our desires? How do we want what God wants? Do we become Stoics? Not totally. However, in ordering desires we must put on superior desires through self-denial. The Bible paints a portrait of cultivating desires through self-denial. Listen to just three examples of this:

  • “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom. 13:14).
  • “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24).
  • “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5).

This is an integral part of cultivating God-honoring desires. Namely, we deny our natural desires—we deny ourselves.

Thomas Chalmers’ work on affections is quite insightful and spot-on. Yet, one thing he misses is that new affections are cultivated through denial of old affections. I wish there were a silver bullet to kill the sinful desires we possess (i.e., the absolute expulsive power) but that is a process of sanctification of our desires. One author said, “Even after the reception of the divine Spirit, ἐπιθυμία [desire] is always a danger against which man must be warned and must fight.”[3]

So what do we do when we don’t want to do what honors God? We deny our desire to do what dishonors Him (Gal. 5:24), pray that He inclines our hearts to His will (Ps. 119:36), and do what He has called us to do by faith—despite what we want (Rom. 13:14). Therefore, our goal is that we too, like the Corinthians, will not only do what honors God but that we will desire to do it (2 Cor. 8:9).

[1] Heath Lambert, “One Sinner to Another: How the Church Must Speak about Homosexuality,” October 5, 2015, presented at the annual ACBC Conference 2015.

[2] BDAG, s.v. “epithumia.”

[3] Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 170–171.

[3] Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 170–171.

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"God may be looked upon in an absolute consideration, as he is in himself the best and most excellent being, wherein we behold the concurrence of all perfections, the most amiable and beauteous excellences, to an intellectual eye, that it can have an apprehension of." --John Howe, On Delighting in God
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