I have had a desire for children for as long as I can remember, hoping that my lot in life would be as a mother. Over the course of the past few years, though, I have come to terms with the fact that it may never happen. One difficult aspect of this situation is that my longing for children does not go away just because it has not been fulfilled. On top of that, discerning how to handle persistent unfulfilled desires can be confusing and complicated. My husband and I have been told that as long as we have the desire for children, we can—we must, even—pursue its satisfaction, and we can rightfully expect God to deliver. Doesn’t Scripture say as much?
“Delight yourself in the Lord,
and He will give you the desires of your heart.”
I have heard this verse bandied about in the church all my life. It is often used to give hope to a Christian struggling with unfulfilled desire, such as for a spouse, child, or healing. We use Psalm 37:4 as motivating proof that God will give good little Christians everything they want.
But common sense and an observing eye reveal a contradictory reality. Holy, servant-hearted men and women who desire a spouse never marry. Devoted, Kingdom-minded couples who desire children are unable to conceive or carry to term. Faithful, God-fearing individuals who desire a healthy body suffer from chronic, debilitating illnesses. These Christians love the Lord as they pursue good, acceptable desires and, yet, those desires remain unfulfilled. Clearly, there is a disconnect between what Scripture says and what we understand it to say.
One issue with this erroneous understanding of Psalm 37:4 is that it focuses on self. We come to it not with an interest in delighting ourselves in the Lord, but in getting what we want. This approach reveals what’s truly going on in our hearts: we seek after our desires more than we seek after God Himself, thinking these desires will give us satisfaction and fulfillment. But are we actually obeying the command to “delight in the Lord” if we are merely using it as a means to obtain our idolatrous desires? We use this verse as an excuse to pursue our selfish desires at all costs.
In Psalm 37, the psalmist is reminding God’s people to remain faithful to what He has commanded even as they see evildoers prosper. The wicked only seem to attain satisfaction with temporal things in this life, but God promises that He will truly and fully satisfy His people.
“Trust in the Lord, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act.”
Delighting in the Lord means setting aside our own interests and pursuing God’s interests first and foremost. Specifically, we do this by trusting and obeying His Word: “do good,” “commit your way to the Lord.” As we pursue God through obedience, we find that He is our delight – we realize the unsurpassed joy of communion with and dependence on our Lord. This causes us to earnestly pursue our relationship with Him through immersing ourselves further in Scripture, prayer, and the life of the church. His desires become our desires, and we begin to hunger after what He loves: holiness, justice, restoration. We become driven by the advancement of His glory, His work, and His Kingdom. These desires become what our lives revolve around, and our other desires become subordinate to our primary pursuit of God Himself.
When I first came across this verse I wanted to believe it was a promise that if I loved God He would give me my greatest desire – at one time that was a husband, another time a better job, and now children. Seeing the error of my understanding, I then started to believe that as my desires were conformed to God’s, He would take away the other unfulfilled desires. This verse promises neither. God calls us to love Him above all else, and as we do so, our driving force in life becomes God-centered instead of self-centered. The promise He gives is that if we are delighting in Him through obedience and faithfulness, our deepest longings will one day be satisfied: we will know Him fully, His glory will be proclaimed by all, His work will be completed, and His Kingdom will be consummated.
Practically, besides showing us how we are to order our lives, a right understanding of Psalm 37 also gives us immense freedom in how we deal with our secondary desires. When those desires no longer control us, we can pursue them rightly without making them idols and compromising our primary pursuit of serving the Lord. We can pray for the fulfillment of these desires while also saying, “Your will be done” because if they are not the reason for which we live, our joy does not hinge upon their fulfillment.
For this reason, we also have the freedom to choose not to pursue them at all, and direct our energies toward other good endeavors. This by no means is an easy decision, as persistent, unfulfilled desires are frustrating and painful, but we can bear that burden because we have the sure hope that one day the deepest longing of our hearts will be satisfied and we will lack nothing.