What does God mean by this promise?

Years ago, when I first became a Christian, there was a young couple at our church who took me under their wing. I was grateful for their friendship, encouragement and efforts to answer my many questions.

One day, the topic of unfulfilled hopes and dreams came up, to which the wife responded by quoting Psalm 37:4, “He will give you the desires of your heart.” The strong implication was that as a Christian, I could expect God to give me anything I wanted, if I would only ask.

At this point, most of the Scriptures were still terra incognita to me. But I did recall a verse, 1 John 5:14 as it turned out, which qualified that promise by insisting we ask according to God’s will. To my surprise, my friend waved this off by stating that most of the time, we don’t know God’s will, anyway.

Both of us would have greatly benefitted, I think, if we’d known the first rule for reading the Bible (or any text, for that matter): Context is king.

The promise in context

Sometimes it’s as simple as reading the complete sentence, rather than cherry-picking a single phrase for a theological sound bite. In its entirety, Psalm 37:4 reads, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

Taken as a whole, the meaning of the verse comes into sharper focus. It’s not a carte blanche, whereby God binds himself to provide whatever pops into the reader’s imagination: more money, better job, nicer home, exciting vacations. This isn’t the gospel according to Janis Joplin, who sang back in 1970, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz? My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.”

Nor is it the philosophy enshrined in Disney movies, which says, “Follow your heart. It will never lead you wrong.” In point of fact, Jeremiah 17:9 paints a starkly different picture: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

Delight yourself in the Lord

The key to Psalm 37:4 is found in the opening phrase: Delight yourself in the Lord. In essence, God is promising that for those who make him the object of their desire, he will fulfill that desire.

That’s not a tautology or an empty truism. It’s one of the most vital truths of Scripture, reflected in the broader context of the book of Psalms and beyond.

Psalm 16, in particular, addresses the theme of delighting in God more fully. Like Psalm 37, it too contains a verse that often gets yanked from its setting and made to stand on its own: “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.” The phrase is typically used as an expression of gratitude for temporal blessings from God. And while that’s certainly an admirable sentiment, it’s not the primary focus of the passage at hand.

In this case, to do justice to the parallel structure of Hebrew poetry, it’s necessary to treat Psalm 16:5-6 as a unit: “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.”

As before, the meaning becomes clear when the verse is read in its wider setting. King David finds his lot in life to be pleasant and beautiful, not because of material blessings he’s enjoyed (which were considerable) but because God himself is David’s lot in life.

And David goes further still: “I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.’ . . . You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:2,11)

The delight that David feels toward God is all-encompassing. It supersedes every other desire and stretches beyond the limits of this life into eternity.

This theme of desire for God reverberates beyond the book of Psalms, into the pages of the New Testament. Jesus describes the Kingdom of Heaven as a treasure for which a person will give everything in order to possess it (Matthew 13:44-46). Paul speaks of his own experience, counting all he had as worthless compared to the supreme value of knowing Jesus (Philippians 3:7-11). Indeed, the Apostle urges believers to rejoice in the Lord always, because that is the will of God in Christ for his people (Philippians 4:4; cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

So while we may not know God’s will in a specific situation, we can always be certain of this. If we ask God to spark our affections and make our hearts delight in him, then we’re asking according to his will and he will honour that request. If we set our deepest desire on the Lord, he will fulfill that desire.

No true happiness apart from God

There’s a clear and present danger, especially in affluent cultures, of making idols out of God’s good gifts, of worshipping the creation instead of the Creator. The ancients did this with images of people and animals and heavenly bodies. We moderns are more likely to do it with wealth and ambition, comfort and leisure. Consequently, we view God as a means to an end, rather than an end in himself. We want God’s stuff, rather than God himself.

But it won’t work. As C.S. Lewis observed, “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”

God designed humans to find our pleasure and fulfillment in him. All other pleasures have their proper place only in relation to this overarching delight in the Lord. As Paul wrote, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)

Although this design has been subverted by the fall of humanity, it has been restored through the Cross of Christ. More than just forgiveness of sins and deliverance from hell, the Cross has secured eternal life, which Jesus defined as knowing the one true God and his Son whom he has sent (John 17:3).

Or in the words of the Psalmist, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:25-26)

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2016 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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