On one occasion, Jesus told the story of a lost child (Luke 15:11–32). Many of us are familiar with this parable, in which the Prodigal Son left his father’s home and squandered his inheritance through reckless living—and then, upon the son’s sorrowful return, his father met him with tremendous compassion and rejoicing.
Reading further, however, we’re introduced to an often-overlooked character in the story: the older brother. Hearing of his younger brother’s jubilant return, the older “was angry and refused to go in” to the celebration (15:28). What was his problem? Surely the older brother had reason to celebrate. There was music, dancing, happiness, forgiveness, family, and food. It was all there! But he refused to participate because he had no appetite for joy. Through his years of self-righteous service and obedience, he had left his heart behind.
The older brother’s condition reveals a sobering truth about the spiritual appetite: our pursuit of God and godliness will always be in vain if our hearts are malnourished—or, worse still, dead.
Our circumstances are not much different from those of the older brother’s. Just as his father prepared a feast with his name on the guestlist, so our Father has prepared a nourishing feast to satisfy our souls. God has prepared for us in His Word all the food that we will ever need (Song 2:4). Yet God is not in the business of force-feeding those who have no genuine spiritual hunger. Rather, He pours out His bountiful provision and invites the hungry to enjoy what is good (Isa. 55:2).
So what are some signs of a healthy hunger for the things of God? In Psalm 84, the writer establishes three identifying features of a good spiritual appetite. We can pinpoint these features by looking for the word “blessed,” which appears three times in this psalm (vv. 4, 5, and 12), pointing us to the blessing that accompanies hunger for the good gifts God has prepared for us.
The first feature of a healthy spiritual appetite involves praising with God’s people: “Blessed are those who dwell in your house,” the psalmist writes, “ever singing your praise!” (Ps. 84:4).
It’s important that we understand this verse in its historical context. In the period in which the psalm was written, the singer would have had in mind the Jerusalem temple, the appointed place of worship for Old Testament saints (Pss. 42:4; 43:4). Writing as one distanced from the temple, the psalmist’s “soul long[ed] … for the courts of the Lord” (84:2). He yearned to be with God’s people in God’s place.
God has prepared for us in His Word all the food that we will ever need.
As modern-day Christians distanced from the setting of the psalmist’s world, how are we to make sense of this temple language? How can we, like the saints of old, long for God’s courts? Paul, writing to the Corinthian church, helps us to an answer by making an astonishing connection, asking, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16; see also 6:19). In other words, Paul described believers as a new temple—the very dwelling place for God. The psalmist’s love for the temple courts, then, is to be matched by our love for Christ’s body, for we are, individually and collectively, God’s temple. The hungry heart should long to be among God and His people in worship.
But while we shouldn’t neglect the location in which God’s people gather, we should note that the object of our praise is infinitely more important. After all, the psalmist sang praise not ultimately to the location of God’s presence but “to the living God” who filled the temple (Ps. 84:2). As it is with a man who loves his wife enough to simply walk and talk with her, enjoying her company regardless of location or circumstance, so it is in our relationship with the Lord. Regardless of place or circumstance, God Himself is the true object of a good spiritual appetite.
If the location of our praise is with God’s people and its object is God Himself, then its expression should culminate in a life of worship—something that was so clearly lacking in the elder brother in the parable above. The psalmist describes believers as “ever singing [God’s] praise” (82:4). Put simply, the person who truly hungers for the things of God shows it through continual praise. It’s neither a little section in his day nor an adjunct to the rest of his life. Rather, he “giv[es] thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20). Our appetites will be revealed in our praise of the living God.
Secondly, the Christian whose spiritual appetite is healthy will not only be known by the marks of his praise but also by the source of his strength: the Lord alone (Ps. 84:5). This strength, this moving with God’s power, bears four marks.
The first is dependence. The psalmist understood that God requires humility from those who would truly praise Him. They fundamentally rely on God for strength. Few people have demonstrated this truth better than Paul. When vexed by hardship, he recalled God’s promises: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). It’s by walking through trials, not living above them, that believers display their dependence on the Lord for strength.
The second and third marks might best be viewed together: devotion and direction. To find strength in God, the believer must be one “in whose heart are the highways to Zion” (Ps. 84:5). That is, the believer’s heart is both devoted to the things of God and set on a godward trajectory. Addressing the heart’s devotion, Jesus stated, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). A preoccupation with the things of this world will never satisfy the spiritual appetites of God’s people. Only the heart that is devoted to God and marching toward eternal life will find true nourishment. For this reason, we have our hearts set on Zion. Like a marathon runner with the finish line in view, the believer is set on reaching the heavenly city.
A proper devotion and direction make all the difference in the world. Rather than allowing our appetites to be ruined by the things of this life, we find everlasting nourishment in devotion to our Lord. And because we have the destination marked out for us, we have a sense of direction in which we can find true, God-glorifying meaning.
It’s by walking through trials, not living above them, that believers display their dependence on the Lord for strength.
The fourth mark of moving with God’s power in the Christian life is seen in the discovery the psalmist makes. “As they go through the Valley of Baca,” he writes, “they make it a place of springs” (Ps. 84:6). The Valley of Baca was a dry and arid region, not suited for flourishing. It’s as if the psalmist is saying, “The journey of faith is not all flowers and palm trees. But God’s people know how to make every circumstance a place in which they can flourish.” The connection to the Christian life is clear: regardless of circumstance, we can “go from strength to strength” because God Himself is the source of our might (Ps. 84:7). And as we navigate this journey with God’s power, we display the genuineness of our spiritual appetites.
The psalmist names the final identifying feature of a good spiritual appetite in verse 10: “A day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere” (Ps. 84:10). The healthy Christian will be found trusting in God’s provision, enjoying all the benefits of God’s presence. The writer says, in essence, that even the greatest treasures and blessings that the world can offer pale in comparison to the joy of being with the Lord. Believers would rather assume the lowly position of a servant in God’s house than enjoy the apparent luxuries of the world (Ps. 84:10). And God, we are assured, withholds no truly good thing from those who long after His presence, trusting in His provision (Ps. 84:11).
A preoccupation with the things of this world will never satisfy the spiritual appetites of God’s people.
The closing words of this psalm invite us to take spiritual inventory of our own hearts. The psalmist declares, “O LORD of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you!” (Ps. 84:12). Do we trust in God and therefore live with His blessing? Do we trust Him not only with the big things but with the meager also? Are we prepared to trust Him with our marriages, our careers, our educations? In our panic-stricken world, God affords His people the opportunity to, like trusting sheep, follow the Good Shepherd and enjoy His provision (John 10:3–4).
“Blessed.” That is how the psalmist has outlined the three features of a healthy spiritual appetite. The person who longs for the things of God will be found praising God with His people, moving with His power, and trusting in His provision. Indeed, Jesus Himself said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). God has guaranteed it.
The God of the psalmist is the same God today—which is our great hope! He can, as He did with the psalmist, work into our own hearts a genuine desire for Himself, today and every day.
This article was adapted from the sermons “A Healthy Spiritual Appetite — Part One” and “Part Two” by Alistair Begg.