Q15: Can you change what you want?

By David Powlison 2007
from Chapter on “I Am Motivated When I Feel Desire” in “Seeing With New Eyes

15. Can you change what you want?
Yes and Amen! This is central to the work of the Holy Spirit. You will always desire, love, trust, believe, fear, obey, long for, value, pursue, hope, and serve something. You are motivated when you feel desire. God does not anesthetize us; he redirects our desire. The Holy Spirit works to change the something, as he leads us with an intimate hand. The desires of the heart are not unchangeable. God never promises to give you what you want, to meet your felt needs and longings. He tells you to be ruled by other, different desires. This is radical. God promises to change what you really want! God insists that he be first, and all lesser loves be radically subordinate.
The best way to understand this is to think about prayer. Prayer means asking, and you ask because you want something. You ask God because you believe he has power to accomplish some desired Good. When Solomon prayer for a wise and discerning heart, God freely gave Solomon what he wanted (1 Kings 3). God was delighted that Solomon did not ask for a long life, riches, and success, the felt needs of most people in power. Solomon had not treated God as a genie in a lamp who exists to grand him three wishes. What we want by nature–the cravings of the flesh–expresses our sin nature. But Solomon had learned to know what he really needed. He had learned to pray according to the will of God, and it pleased God to answer him. The Lord changes what we want, and we learn to pray for what delights God, to want what he wants.
God challenges the things that everybody everywhere eagerly pursues (Matt. 6:32). What desires of body and mind (Eph. 2:3) do people naturally follow? Consider our characteristic passions: desires of the body include life itself, air, health, water, food, clothing, shelter, sexual pleasure, rest, and exercise. Desires of the mind include happiness, being loved, meaning, money and possessions, respect, status, accomplishment, self-esteem, success, control, power, self-righteousness, aesthetic pleasure, knowledge, marriage, and family. Must these rule our lives? They did not rule Jesus’ life. Can these cravings really be changed? The Bible says Yes, and points us to the promises of God: to indwell us with power, to write truth on our hearts, to pour out his love in our hearts, to enable us to say “Abba, Father.”

As we have seen, many of these things are not bad in themselves. The evil in our desires does not lie in what we want, but in the fact that we want it too much. Our desires for good things seize the throne, becoming idols that replace the King. God refuses to serve our instinctive longings, but commands us to be ruled by other longings. What God commands, he provides the power to accomplish: he works in us both the willing and the doing of his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12–13).

Can you change what you want? Yes. Does the answer to this question surprise you? It counters influential contemporary views of human motivation. Most Christian counseling books follow on the heels of secular psychologists and take your desires, your “felt needs,” as givens. Many leading Christian psychologists make the unchangeability of what we long for the foundation of their systems. For example, many teach that we have an “empty love tank” inside, and our craving for love must be met, or we are doomed to a life of sin and misery. Desires to feel good about ourselves (“self-esteem”) or to accomplish something meaningful are similarly baptized. This creates the psychological equivalent of the “Health and Wealth” theology, which similarly selects certain common desires and accepts them as givens that God is obligated to fulfill. The psychological versions of health and wealth miss that God is about the business of changing what people really long for. If felt needs are unchangeable, then it is impossible for us to learn to pray the way Solomon did. This reinforces our tendency to pray for our cravings. It reinforces a sense of victimization in those who were mistreated. It reinforces the tendency to press God into the service of our lusts.

The deepest longings of the human heart can and must be changed if mankind is to become all that God designed us to be. Our deviant longings are illegitimate masters; even where the object of desire is a good thing, the status of the desire usurps God. Our cravings should be recognized in order that we may more richly know God as the Savior, Lover, and Converter of the human soul. God would have us long for him more than we long for his gifts. To make us truly human, God must change what we want; we must learn to want the things Jesus wanted. It is no surprise that the psychologists can’t find any biblical proof texts for their view of human motivation. The Bible teaches a different view.

The Christian life is a great paradox. Those who die to self, find self. Those who die to their cravings will receive many times as much in this age, and, in the age to come, eternal life (Luke 18:29). They will find new passions worth living for and dying for. If I crave happiness, I will receive misery. If I crave to be loved, I will receive rejection. If I crave significance, I will receive futility. If I crave control, I will receive chaos. If I crave reputation, I will receive humiliation. But if I long for God and his wisdom and mercy, I will receive God and wisdom and mercy. Along the way, sooner or later, I will also receive happiness, love, meaning, order, and glory.

Every vital Christian testifies that the instinctive passions and desires of the flesh can be replaced with the new priorities of the Spirit. This reorientation is not instant and complete, but it is genuine and progressive. Two of the greatest books of practical Christian theology—Augustine’s Confessions and Jonathan Edwards’s Treatise Concerning Religious Affectionsmeditate on this transformation. And one assumes that Francis of Assisi meant his prayer: “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love.” The craving to learn how to love and understand replaces the craving for love and understanding.

Those who hunger and thirst for such righteousness will be satisfied. We have Jesus’ word. We have no promise, however, that God will satisfy the instinctive cravings of the soul. The Bible teaches us to pray, to learn to ask for what we really need. Can we pray the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer and really mean it? Yes. Can we long for God’s glory, for his will to be obeyed, for daily material provision for all God’s people, for sins to be forgiven, for aid in warfare with evil? Yes.

A wise Puritan pastor, Thomas Chalmers, once wrote of the expulsive power of a new affection. New ruling desires expel lesser masters from the throne. What are the new and different motives that rule in renewed hearts? What changed objects of desire characterize the master motives of the new, listening heart? How does God change what people want? The Bible treats these matters everywhere.[1]

Idolatrous cravings hijack the human heart. Both the Christian life and Christian ministry are by definition about the business of accomplishing a transformation in what people want. Such transformations lie at the center of the Holy Spirit’s purposes in working his Word into our lives. The lusts of the flesh lead somewhere bad: dead works. The lusts of the flesh have a specific solution: the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which replaces them. “He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf” (2 Cor. 5:15). The desires of the Lord lead to somewhere good: good works. One key ingredient in reclaiming the cure of souls is to make this transformation central.

Note

The following passages get a start on this question. For each passage ask, “What does this person really want, long for, pursue, delight in?” Pss. 42:1–2; 63:1–8; 73:25–28; 80; 90:8–17; Prov. 2:1–6; 3:13–18; 8:11; Isa. 26:8–9; Matt. 5:6; 6:9–13, 6:19–33; 13:45–46; Luke 11:9–13; Rom. 5:1–11; 8:18–25; 9:1–3; 2 Cor. 5:8–9; Phil. 1:18–25; 3:8–11; 3:20–21; 2 Tim. 2:22; 3:12; 1 Peter 1:13; 2:2; Rev. 22:20.

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