Early morning hours are precious. The house is still, quiet. The aroma of coffee wafts from the steaming mug. A single lamp illuminates the chair and table. Here is a sanctuary, a peaceful place of communion between a man and his God.
And yet on many days, it is anything but peaceful. Rather than quiet contemplation, I find myself battling on my knees against a persistent and pernicious straying of the heart. The prayer is not that of the demonized boy’s father: Lord, “I believe; help my unbelief” (though I too have prayed such words). Instead, I pray, “Lord, I desire; help my erring desires.”
While striving to meditate on the steadfast love and faithfulness and eternal goodness of God, I find that other concerns arrest my attention: anxious thoughts about how my work will be received, a nagging fear that somehow I’m just not doing enough, questions about what my coworkers think of me, jealousy over the success of others. A long list of anxious thoughts grip my mind and lead me away from the one offering rest and peace, satisfaction and joy. Here lies the battle. The straying thoughts reveal what’s driving my heart this morning: desire for the fleeting approval of man, not the eternal good.
One misaligned desire would be a significant battle by itself; this is a wide and diverse war. Fears about parenting failures reveal desires to be self-sufficient. Worry about a medical condition (whether minor or life-threatening) may indicate a greater love for this present life than the never-ending one to come. Pride fails to acknowledge that our plans are in the hand of the Lord, and reveals an arrogant boasting rooted in the desire to order life according to our own design. My sanctuary, it turns out, is also a battlefield.
The struggle to rightly order our desires lies at the heart of each Christian’s daily walk. Our redeemed hearts, still twisted by sin, simply do not function as they ought. In general, we have no problem desiring. We do have serious problems desiring rightly. Our hearts are disordered, and so we frequently spin out days chasing small and fleeting ends that fail to satisfy. We grow weary and despondent in our Sisyphean pursuits, and we wonder where our first love has gone.
In a meditation on Psalm 119:97–104, the late John Webster (1955–2016) describes the reordering of affections as “one of the most weighty claims [of] the Christian gospel” (Christ Our Salvation, 6). He argues that the affections are “the fundamental loves which govern us and determine the shape of our lives . . . [the] part of us through which we attach ourselves to things outside of ourselves. . . . [They are] the engines of our attitudes and actions” (7). In other words, each and every day, what we love and desire determines what we set ourselves to pursue.
‘Nature Abhors a Vacuum’
God made us, each and every one of us, to pursue. He gave us hearts that desire. Our pursuits — what we desire and strive toward — reveal our hearts because behind our pursuits lie affections. Imagine a string tied between the desire in your heart and each object you run after. If you pause long enough to tug on the strings, you will unearth what lies (and pulls) in the hidden recesses of your heart. And far too often, those hidden recesses are not filled with pure love for God; they contain the kind of covetousness that leads to strife (see James 4:1–4).
Sometimes, in the battle with such wayward affections, the temptation to quell desire rises to the forefront. “If only I could put the desire for X to death, then I would walk in freedom.” Erasing that disorderly affection seems like the key to holiness. And so we aim (rightfully, I should say) to put sin to death (Romans 8:13). We fight the battle with X and, by God’s grace, win. Then we stop.
Consider a knight on the warpath. He has heard of a dragon who reigns over a castle and keeps a king’s daughter locked up as a prisoner in the tallest tower. With great courage, he risks life and limb to face the dragon in open combat. Eventually he emerges from the battle victorious (though certainly wounded and a bit more well-done). What does he do next? He mounts his warhorse and returns home. No, good stories don’t end that way — and for good reason.
Everyone recognizes that the knight has won only half the battle. The princess still needs rescuing. If he leaves her locked up and the castle vacant, another winged, fire-breathing worm will soon take the place of the first. So too, the man who cleaned the house after the unclean spirit left suddenly finds himself fighting the original spirit again, plus seven more (Matthew 12:44–45). The man needs to fill up the house, not leave it empty; the knight needs to actually rescue the princess.
Scottish minister Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847) wrote, “Nature abhors a vacuum” (The Expulsive Power of a New Affection, 41). What did he mean? It does no good to merely take away a man’s sinful affection. By God’s design, man cannot be affectionless. To attempt to remove all that stirs his heart, in the name of pure and holy living, would be an “unnatural violence” to his soul (44).
Let’s apply Chalmers’s insight to my early-morning battle. As I analyze the internal struggle, I see how my worry over how I might be received reveals a desire to please men. Behind my desire is an unhealthy craving for the kind of recognition, applause, and affirmation I might receive from my coworkers. I might pray in that moment for God to remove that desire from my heart — but the struggle doesn’t stop there. Affection cannot merely be put to death; it must be remade.
‘Seek the Things Above’
Paul wrote to the Colossian believers about the emptiness of merely negative commands. Seemingly powerful and wise in the fight against sin (at least initially), “they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:23). We cannot stop at mere negation. For this reason, Paul gives the Colossians a positive command: “Seek the things that are above. . . . Set your minds on things that are above” (Colossians 3:1–2). Do not expect denial, by itself, to lead to holiness. We need redirection.
God created us with the capacity for affections, and it’s a good design. To attempt to merely get rid of sinful desires (and not redirect the heart) is to deny our very nature. Chalmers understood this, which is why his little sermon continues to resonate with readers. “We have already affirmed,” he wrote, “how impossible it were for the heart . . . to cast the world away from it and thus reduce it to a wilderness. The heart is not so constituted, and the only way to dispossess it of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one” (49).
The pursuit of holiness has to be just that: a pursuit. And to pursue something means that we desire it, we want it, we set our minds and order our days to have it. Left to ourselves, such a task is hopeless. Twisted and corrupt trees do not produce good fruit. But we haven’t been left to ourselves. The Lord has raised us up to new life (Colossians 3:1). He has given us his Spirit. And he is at work to detach our affections from their empty, death-producing objects and reattach them to their proper treasures. We do not enter the fray alone or without hope.
Test, Seek, Pray, Fight
What might this good battle look like each day? We can sketch the fight in four steps: test, seek, pray, fight.
What captures your heart today? What do you find yourself aiming for? What do your recent actions and decisions reveal about what you love? Start pulling on those strings. Try to unearth the loves behind and beneath those strings. Before you engage the enemy, you have to know who the enemy is. What do you find yourself repeatedly struggling against? Unfortunately, the desire for others’ approval didn’t simply go away that morning. I still find myself seeking to put it to death (and quite frequently).
Honest self-reflection, while important, can’t be the only means to putting twisted desires to death. We need communities of brothers and sisters around us who know us well. Because we’ve cultivated strong relationships of trust, these fellow soldiers have the freedom to tell us when a path we’re pursuing leads to death.
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above” (Colossians 3:1). The apostle’s command requires us to actively set our hearts on other, heavenly objects. We must come to see them as more worthy of pursuit than the ones that tempt us.
Early-morning meditation has been the single best practice I have learned over the years (and one that countless believers have practiced throughout history). Psalm 90:14 sets the agenda: “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” Finding our delight in the Lord orients and redirects our hearts. When we have tasted and seen the goodness of God, the fool’s gold of worldly pursuits grows tarnished in our eyes (1 Peter 2:1–3). Where do we see his goodness displayed? In the word as we open it with fresh eyes of faith.
While prayer accompanies every step in this battle, concerted effort comes during and after time in the word. “Lord, you’ve shown me your goodness and character this morning; grant belief and desire for more. By your Spirit, mold my desires to conform to your goodness, your holiness, your majestic worth.” These steps of prayer and seeking, like testing, can (and arguably should) also take place with our local church. The Lord uses fellow saints to help us see more of him in the word. And God will use the prayers of other saints to strengthen and encourage right thinking and feeling in our hearts and minds.
“Put to death,” writes Paul. Them’s fightin’ words. Just because we taste and see the goodness of God doesn’t mean our battle is over. Sinful desires remain, and they reveal themselves throughout the day in our attitudes, actions, and words. Paul calls us to the strenuous life, actively working to kill corrupt desires in the hope that God himself works within us to cause conformity to the image of Christ (Philippians 2:12–13).
So, test and seek, praying at all times, and then fight. And fight alongside friends, because wars like these are lost alone.