. Dear Timothy,
The emotions of man have always been hard to understand. This is not because we are not familiar with them for we experience our own emotions every moment of our life. But (and this is true of all those things which are most familiar to us), although we know them so well from personal experience, when we try to describe what they are and understand them somewhat, then we run into all kinds of trouble.
We tried to understand some of these emotions last time and discussed, among other things, our desires. I want to say a bit more about these desires because they constitute such an important part of our life.
From a purely formal point of view, all our desires must and can be controlled by our wills. This is not only true of the child of God; it is true of every man. And it is precisely this need for a man to control his desires by an act of his will which creates in man a conflict and a struggle. This must not be confused with the struggle which ‘Scripture describes between the “old man of sin” and the “new man in Christ.” This is a struggle which every man experiences.
In fact, this struggle is especially to be found in wicked men because their desires always far exceed their actual possessions. They “want” many more things than they actually have. In fact, as a general rule, they always want more than they have no matter how much they possess. Though they become extremely wealthy, rarely are they content with their accumulated wealth; they still want more. And if they have every thing which money can buy, then their desires turn to lust, or power, or pleasure, or fame. The point is that it is not usually to be found in the world that a man desires nothing. It is exactly this that creates the struggle. The simple fact of the matter is that he has got to control his desires in some measure; or, not controlling his desires but letting them run wild, he has got to control himself so that he does not, outside the law, seek to gain for himself what he does not possess.
It is not, of course, wrong merely to desire. But those desires can be and are wrong when one or more of three things are true. They are wrong, first of all, when they are directed towards things which God has forbidden in His law. When a man desires something which belongs to his neighbor, he sins. When a man desires gluttony or drunkenness, he sins. When a man desires to desecrate the Sabbath he sins. The object of his desire is wrong. In the second place, desire is wrong when certain things are desired in the wrong order or in the wrong measure. It is not wrong to desire our daily bread. But we desire our daily bread wrongly and in the wrong measure when we want butter on our bread too. We desire things in the wrong measure when we desire more than God has been pleased to give us. And we desire things wrongly when we desire them in the wrong order. This is very common. We are not wrong in desiring the forgiveness of sin; and we are not wrong in desiring the shelter and clothing we need for our pilgrimage for the next day. But when we put these things in the wrong order, then our desires become wrong. When our desire for our daily bread is greater than our desire for the forgiveness of sins, then we do wrong. And finally, our desires are wrong when we desire to obtain something in a way God has forbidden. The desire itself is not so much wrong; but our desire is so strong that we attempt to acquire what we desire in a way God disapproves of.
Now the desires of the wicked are always wrong because one or more of the three things above characterizes their desires always. But the Christian faces also this same struggle. A wicked man curbs his desires and holds them in check oftentimes. If he badly wants his neighbor’s car, he is not likely to walk over to his neighbor’s house and drive it away. Every time he comes home from work he may see his neighbor’s car in the driveway’ and sense a mighty longing to have that automobile. He may even gnash his teeth in frustration that he cannot have it and that it is not his. But he will probably not go over and take it. He will curb his desire by an act of his will and refrain from satisfying his desire. It doesn’t take grace to do that—not even common grace. All it takes is a certain fear that he will be discoverer and not only wind up in jail for all his troubles, but lose the car besides. There is no grace involved. So it is in the life of the wicked man in everything which he does. He has countless desires of one sort or another. Basically and fundamentally every single one of them is wrong because he does not desire God and he divorces every one of his desires from God. But these desires are also wrong for the reasons mentioned above. Yet he restrains himself oftentimes—most of the time—because he knows that the consequences would often be worse than doing without what he desires. But if he sees any hope at all, in one way or another, to gain the object of his desire, he will, of course, do it.
Now the believer faces a deeper struggle than this. He too is a creature, with desires. Apart from grace and the work of regeneration he is no different from the ungodly person. But the work of regeneration and salvation by grace does make him different. It makes him different in this respect: he has been given a new heart and the power of sanctification so that also all his desires are put under the influence and direction of grace. Yet the difficulty is that this is true of him only in principle so that he still carries about with him a nature which is wicked in its desires.
Centrally and basically his one desire is God. This is the fruit of regeneration. His heart pants for God like a hart panting for water brooks. His soul longs and faints for the courts of the Lord. He desires God’s honor and glory above all else. He desires God’s will to be done on earth as it is done in heaven. He desires God’s kingdom and the final victory of Jesus Christ. And he desires all this for God’s sake. His desire is directed so completely towards God that what happens to him is secondary. He submerges himself in his desires for God and the glory of His name. All his personal desires are subordinate and secondary to these. Whatever he desires for himself is ultimately also for God’s sake. He desires his soul’s salvation; but he desires this even because in the way of salvation God is glorified. He desires his daily bread; but this too he wants because it is by means of receiving his daily bread that he can continue his pilgrimage in the world so that God’s purpose in his life is realized to God’s glory.
But you readily understand that this is true only in very small principle. He also has a very wicked flesh which he still carries with him wherever he goes and in whatever he does. And that nature is as wicked as that of anybody in the world. Thus his struggle is much deeper and more profound than the struggle of the wicked. The wicked struggles on a natural level and his struggle is always within the context of sin. Although it is better that he does not steal his neighbor’s car (if he does, he will have a deeper place in hell), ultimately whether he does steal it or does not steal it affects in no way his salvation or his standing with God. In both respects he sins. But the believer has a deep struggle. His desires must be directed by his will too; but his desires must be under the control of a will which is, in turn, under the control of grace. And for that to happen he must wage relentless warfare against all the wicked desires of his flesh. It may be that he too covets his neighbor’s automobile. But should he restrain himself from going over there to steal it, he has not, by that restraint, started on the path of sanctification. The wicked do those too, and he can take no satisfaction from resisting that urge. Much, much more is required of him. It is required of him that he get down on his knees and confess his sin of covetousness. It is required of him that he get his priorities in line with Scripture. For he would not covet his neighbor’s car if he did not set earthly things above the spiritual treasures of heaven. His treasures are on earth because the Lord says, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” And his heart is upon earthly things. He will have to learn the meaning of contentment—a great lesson concerning which even the great apostle Paul writes that he had to learn to be content. And he finally learned it in a cold, damp, dank, dark prison cell in Rome where he stood in imminent peril of having his head chopped off (Phil. 4:11). And then, having learned all this, he will have to learn to desire God. He will have to learn to desire what is holy and right and good. And he will have to learn also (and this may be the hardest lesson of all) that he cannot do all this of himself, but that he must learn to rely on Christ, receive all things out of Christ, and walk in the strength which Christ alone can provide. But this will take all his life long, and indeed, when he stands at the end of the journey and waits only for the door of his home to open that he may enter there, he will still say: “I have but a small beginning of the new obedience.”
It is important that we learn these things. Many of our troubles which we have in life arise out of our inability to keep our priorities straight. Especially in this day of great affluence and huge material possessions, our lives are centered in and directed towards the things of this world. Our desires are focused upon these things. It is impossible, but it would be interesting, if it were possible, to determine how much of our energy and how many of our desires, during the course of one day, are directed towards the things of God and of His Word—even when we are in Church on Sunday or when we are busy with prayer and Scripture reading. It is safe to say that whole days go by when not one desire is found in us for anything other than the things of this present world.
If we are the people of God this is bound to lead to great trouble. For God will not let us alone. And the conflict becomes very bitter and fierce within our own flesh. Out of this arise many of our troubles. The healing comes through the power of the cross and grace.
Fraternally in Christ,