“Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart”
– Psalm 37:4
How can we know we’ve made it in life? Some might say it is the ability to get what you desire. When we want something — a gadget, a job, a relationship, a certain outcome — and we can make it happen, we feel a sense of control and power over our lives. Christians know, of course, that God is the one in control — we don’t get to dictate how our life goes. But doesn’t Psalm 37:4 say, “Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart”? To “delight” seems like an easy way to get what we want— and it’s from the Bible!
When I was in junior college, the desire of my heart was to get straight As. That was what I put all my effort into. Working hard for the grades I wanted gave me a grim sort of satisfaction. Bible verses like Psalm 37:4 and Matthew 6:33 (“But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you”) helped me to add a Christian spin to my desire: I thought that if I did my ‘quiet time’ and went to church regularly, it would count as “delighting myself in the LORD,” so God would give me what I wanted. And in fact, I did get straight As. But does that mean that I had applied this verse correctly?
Psalm 37:4 is a verse that is often quoted to claim that if we love God, follow Him, and do ‘Christian things’, He will give us what we want. It has even been used more generally to claim that God will always give Christians what they want. But using this verse in this way is a misinterpretation. God doesn’t simply give us what we want or ask for just because we’re Christians. Oprah Winfrey, in a 2015 interview on Late Night with Stephen Colbert, interpreted the verse this way: “Delight thyself in goodness, delight thyself in love, kindness, compassion, and you will receive the desires of your heart … If you focus on being a force for good, then goodness will come, which is also the third law of motion, which is also karma, which is also the golden rule.” This is a common misreading, as it treats the verse as a magical formula whereby human action can directly trigger a response from “the Lord” to reward the person who exhibits such good behaviour.
Another problem that might arise from this interpretation is this way of thinking: What if we don’t get what we want? Could it imply that we have not delighted ourselves in God enough? Has something gone wrong with our faith? Such thoughts might cause us to work even harder to be a ‘good Christian’, or to lose faith in God’s promises.
WHAT IF WE DON’T GET WHAT WE WANT? HAS SOMETHING GONE WRONG WITH OUR FAITH?
How then should we interpret this verse? Here are some questions we must consider: What is the whole of Psalm 37 really about, and what is the context of the verse? What does “delighting yourself in the LORD” mean? How does God give us the desires of our heart?
UNLOCKING THE CONTEXT
Psalm 37 is classified as a wisdom psalm. Wisdom literature often presents contrasting ways of life to the reader in order to persuade them to choose rightly. In Psalm 37, the life of the righteous is contrasted with the life of the wicked. The wicked seem to prosper as they do evil (vv. 7, 12, 14, 21, 32, 35) — but only for a time. The wicked will eventually perish (vv. 2, 10, 13, 20, 36, 38). On the other hand, although the righteous will experience trouble, God will be with them (vv. 16–19, 24, 28, 33, 39–40). They will be rewarded, and this psalm paints a picture of what that will be like: dwelling in and inheriting the land (vv. 9, 29), enjoying abundant peace (v. 11), being a blessing to others (v. 26), reflecting the character of God (vv. 30–31), and having God’s help in times of trouble (vv. 17, 24, 33, 39–40). The choice is clear: trust God and be blessed, or forsake God and perish.
Moreover, the psalmist is encouraging the reader to delight in the Lord as a contrast to being angry about the wicked prospering, since the prosperity of the wicked is only temporary. Eventually, the righteous will
IT’S NOT THAT OUR DELIGHTING IN GOD CAUSES GOD TO GIVE US WHAT WE WANT
be rewarded. Both the rewards for the righteous and retribution for the unrighteous come from God, and God’s way of dealing with the world is based on His character: He loves justice (v. 28). Those who live according to God’s way will be rewarded, but the reward is \ dependent on God and given by Him — not earned by us.
The person who delights in the Lord, then, is one who is not focused on how others are living or fretting about it, but committed to living according to God’s design. It’s not that our delighting in God causes God to give us what we want. Rather, as we grow in God’s ways, we find that what we want starts to align with what God wants, and what God gives us is then indeed what we desire — in fact, what He created us to desire (Eph 2:10).
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR ME?
Getting straight As in junior college didn’t make me happy. As I was holding my result slip, feeling empty and hollow, I realised that it wasn’t what I truly desired. I had tried to manipulate God into giving me what I thought I wanted. But God is neither a genie, subject to our whims and fancies, nor an unwilling giver, who needs to be arm-twisted into blessing us. He is a God who knows what our truest and deepest desires and needs are: to be known and loved by Him, and to live the life that He has intended for us. As we follow Him, He shapes and moulds our hearts so that our desires conform to His perfect will for our lives. May we pray in the words of the hymn: “Take my heart, it is Thine own; it shall be Thy royal throne.”