Wednesday, September 16, 2020

What Does Your Proof Text Prove? (13)

“Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

The commendably-honest Sarah Frazer acknowledges she once believed this familiar promise in Psalm 37 meant “I can have anything I want.” If so, that would be quite a promise, but it would reduce God to a mere term in a larger equation, where if you treat that term a consistent way, you can always expect a predictable outcome.

Nice deal if you can get it, but quite a comedown for the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe to be reduced to a component of your personal math problem.

Let’s suggest that might not be the verse’s intended meaning!

Two thoughts about this:

1/ You can’t contrive the delight to produce the desired result

When we approach this verse from the back end — as a formula designed to get us the things we want, sort of a God × delight math problem — we wind up with neither delight nor desires. Approached from the front end, however, we may well end up with both.

Commands and Emotions

To “delight yourself” is not about emotions. It cannot be, because it’s a command, and emotions cannot be produced on command. In fact, commanding them often drives away the very feeling you are trying to fan into flame. Moreover, it is impossible for human beings to gin up an emotional response to God within ourselves and expect it to produce positive results. We don’t have that sort of fine control over our feelings. We can manage them to a certain extent, sure, but emotions are things that happen to us, not things we manufacture on cue.

So let’s forget about the promised reward entirely for a moment, and simply figure out what it means to delight ourselves in the Lord. That’s the first step.

Two Principles

“Delighting ourselves” in the Lord may be a concept too big for us to grasp in a single take, so let’s try it with comparable scripture language. Proverbs 5 commends a similar approach to one’s wife:
Rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe ... be intoxicated always in her love.”
Here’s another command to feel emotions: “rejoice”, “be intoxicated”. Now, it is true that emotions cannot be effectively commanded. We feel what we feel. It is also true in our imperfect world that some wives have a more natural level of loveliness and gracefulness than others. Still, it remains possible to cultivate conditions in which the desired emotions are most likely to thrive. Solomon suggests two things that might assist a man in rejoicing in the wife of his youth:
  1. Maintain exclusivity. “Keep your way far from [the forbidden woman] and do not go near the door of her house.” It is a whole lot easier to find joy in what you have when you adamantly refuse to indulge thoughts of what you don’t, and when you avoid places and circumstances that make it easier to think those thoughts. Be like Joseph — when temptation comes, beat feet. Joseph not only left Potiphar’s bedroom, he kept going right out of the house.
  2. Cultivate familiarity. “Drink water from your own cistern.” You can’t rejoice in what you haven’t explored and don’t understand. You can’t be intoxicated by an experience you’re not having. It’s not enough to simply avoid rival romantic entanglements; a husband ought to devote himself to discovering and celebrating his wife’s finer qualities. He must make her the unrelenting focus of his attentions.
So then, Solomon says to his sons, in order to produce the right emotions with respect to your wife, you need to maintain exclusivity and cultivate familiarity. Keep yourself only to her. Do not allow your heart opportunity to stray. Guard yourself.

Making the Right Emotions Easier

We may reasonably apply the same principles to the command to “delight ourselves” in the Lord, although in the Lord’s case, any deficiency of delight in him is the product of our own limited attention span and impoverished faculties of observation, rather than flaws in their Object.

All the same, we cannot find delight in God when we insist on looking elsewhere for delight, and we cannot possibly enjoy him as we should if we have not come to know him, to begin to explore all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge that are found in our Lord. We must maintain our exclusivity, allowing lesser “gods” no place in our hearts before him or beside him. And we must cultivate intimate knowledge of the divine Person, whom to know is life eternal.

2/ The “desires of your heart” may not be what you think they are

When we truly delight in the Lord, he really does give us the desires of our heart. That does not mean he gives us what we think we want, or even what we have asked for. This is for two reasons:

We Don’t Always Know What We Really Desire

Amnon made himself sick with love for his half-sister, then promptly despised her once he had taken her. Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Even the apostle Paul wrote candidly about his inability to assess his motives with unflinching accuracy.

The fact is that desire plays tricks on us all the time. The fickleness of human desire means we need someone orders of magnitude wiser than we are to assess what we are really after when we feel a strong need for this or that. When God promises that if we delight in him, he will give us the desires of our heart, he is not talking about giving us what we are asking for. He is talking about perfectly addressing the real, underlying need that gave rise to the request, whether or not we understand what that need is or can give coherent expression to it.

So then, if we delight ourselves in the Lord, we may not get what we originally thought we wanted. We may get something far better.

Our Desires Change Over Time

If we must insist on treating the verse like a math problem, we should at least concede that the second term of any equation is affected by the changes we make to the first term.

So then, when we go from fake, manufactured pseudo-delight to genuine joyful pleasure in the presence of God, we may be surprised to find the desires of our heart forever changed by the experience. Our increasing knowledge of God and intimacy with him begin to reshape and transform our dreams, goals and purposes. That thing / person / role / experience we once wanted so badly suddenly doesn’t seem so wonderful, but something we never knew we wanted does, something that is far more consonant with the Lord’s character and purposes in our lives.

It is this unexpected, surpassingly wonderful “second thing” which the Lord now gives to us as our reward for delighting in him, and we would have it no other way.

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