Once upon a time there was a young boy who wanted a tiny car very, very badly. That boy was me. But before I continue…
Recently I wrote a post about dreams and desires, and whether our dreams today are the same as dreams in the Bible. Since we Americans love, love, love our dreams, that topic always provokes a response. And, sooner or later, the quoting of Psalm 37:4. For the record, I consider Psalm 37:4 to be one of the – if not the – most dangerous verse in the Bible.
Now back to our story.
I grew up in a small town on the eastern edge of Iowa. In case you’ve never noticed, the eastern edge of Iowa looks sort of like a face, and my hometown was on Iowa’s nose.
But my mother was from Omaha, all the way across the other side of Iowa on Nebraska’s eastern edge. So at least twice a year we’d pack up the car and toddle all the way from Iowa’s nose to Iowa’s, well, butt, I guess. We’d hit Iowa’s butt, then flop across the Missouri River to Omaha. The big city.
When I was young, the most exciting part of arriving in Omaha was driving by the Mutual of Omaha building, famous for the hit TV show Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Each week animal expert Marlin Perkins took America all over the world to see dangerous and exciting animals. As far as I was concerned, Marlin Perkins was the Walt Disney of non-robotic animals. Driving by the Mutual of Omaha building as a kid, I remember thinking, “Marlin Perkins is in there somewhere. And his animals.” It never occurred to me that the show wasn’t filmed in Omaha. But I digress.
The next most exciting thing in Omaha was Peony Park, a small family amusement park featuring flowers, slides, and an modest assortment of unambitious kiddie rides. My favorite was the small track where kids could drive mini gas-powered cars, like Disney’s Autopia. I had never before experienced the thrill of steering a powered vehicle, nevermind the fact that the rail in the center of the roadway gave no more than 18 inches of steering leeway from one side to the other. It was limited free will, but it was free will nonetheless. And gas-powered.
After my first taste of powered driving I was hooked. I wanted one of those mini cars. A wrench, I figured, was all it would take to free one from the track and then I could be mini-driving all over Omaha. I could mini-drive over to see Marlin Perkins, who would say, “Nice ride! Shall we go on safari together? I’ll bring my rhino!” And then he’d fetch a rhino from somewhere near the accounting department.
That night, sleeping at my grandparents’ house on Charles Street, I dreamt about my mini-car. I dreamt that I awoke the next morning to find my gleaming mini-car in the driveway, polished and waiting for my six year-old foot to stomp on the gas and blaze out onto Charles Street, local kids staring in envious awe. “That kid from Iowa’s nose has a sweet ride!” they’d say.
Realizing I had been dreaming, I urgently set about to make my dream a reality by praying for the mini-car to be there in the driveway when I looked out the window. I prayed HARD. I prayed that God would grant my wish – that sometime in the night He himself would have taken a wrench to the mini-car in Peony Park and delivered it, Santa-like, to my grandparent’s driveway on Charles Street. There was nothing immoral about a mini-car. Marlin Perkins and I would drive responsibly around Omaha. It was a good wish. Surely God would grant it.
But he didn’t.
When I finally had the nerve to pull back the curtain, I stared at an empty driveway. No mini-car. God had not come through for me.
And so a six-year old boy had his first experience with unanswered prayer. It wasn’t a bad prayer. It wasn’t for revenge, or for all the money in the world. Just a slightly-used carnival vehicle. I would have been eternally grateful. Instead, I was deeply disappointed.
And so you learn early on that just because you want something doesn’t mean God is going to give it to you. Apparently it doesn’t work that way. But then you bump into that verse. That famous verse. That dangerous verse. Psalm 37:4.
“Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
You hear it in church or on Christian radio or see it cross-stitched on a friend’s dining room wall. Nowadays it’s Photoshopped all over Instagram. Delight yourself in the Lord, and he’ll give you whatever you want.
Then why didn’t I get my mini-car?? Wasn’t I “delighted” enough with God?? If I practiced my “delight” a little harder, THEN would I get my mini-car?? What level of holy delight must I achieve, say, on a scale of 1 to 10? Will a six get me a mini-car? What about a pony? What about world peace? How, exactly, does this magic trick work?!?
So easy to cross-stitch. So hard to understand.
It’s that exact combination – short and catchy yet theologically inscrutable – that makes Psalm 37:4, in my mind, perhaps the most dangerous verse in the Bible. Especially for innocent kids with innocent longings. So what do we do with this verse? Well, I’ve got a few thoughts. Here’s where I start:
1. Zoom back to the whole Bible. Sometimes a verse means exactly what it appears to mean. “Jesus wept” is a good example. No mystery there. Jesus wept. But sometimes the true meaning of a verse is BENEATH the surface, not right on top.
So how do we know if the superficial interpretation is the correct interpretation? The first step is to zoom back and take the verse in the context of the entire Bible. In the case of Psalm 37:4, we ask this question: Do we see, looking across the entire Bible, an abundance of people who “delight” in the Lord and then get their heart’s desires? Let’s just zoom in on one – Paul.
Paul was definitely in line with God. He was filled with the “joy of the Lord,” which, if it isn’t exactly delight, at least lives on the same cul-de-sac. Paul appears highly qualified to get the desires of his heart, if this is the correct reading of our verse. So … did Paul get the “desires of his heart?” Well, unless his heart’s desires included shipwrecks, stonings, poisonous snake bites, prison, failed missions trips, broken friendships and, ultimately, death by Roman sword, I’d have to say the answer is “no.”
Paul even specifically prays to be healed of some sort of condition. (The “thorn in his flesh.”) Three times he prays. “Hey God – my life would really be more enjoyable if I didn’t have this – you know – ‘condition.'” Three times he prays. And God says, “Nope.”
What gives?? Who deserves a break more than Paul?? The missionary journeys, the ship wrecks … and all he wants is a little relief from his halitosis or toenail fungus or whatever it is that’s keeping him awake at night. And God says, “Nope.” Sheesh.
So when we zoom back and hold our initial interpretation of Psalm 37:4 up to the whole Bible, it falls apart pretty quickly. Apparently, delighting in God does NOT get us whatever we want.
“So WHAT does it MEAN, man?!?” (Delivered like William Shatner. Probably shirtless.)
Okay – next step:
2. What Testament are we in? The Psalms are in the Old Testament. Old Testament verses can sometimes have different applications for ancient Israel (the original setting), and for the church (our present setting). In other words, the good news of Jesus Christ is a lens through which we read the Old Testament, often subtly altering the conclusions we reach about specific verses and teachings. Following me?
SO – Psalm 37:4 … in the setting of ancient Israel: Most Psalms were written by or for kings of Israel. Many Psalms have a royal application – they apply to Israel’s kings in different ways than they would apply to common Israelites. Psalm 37:4 seems to have a fairly specific meaning for Israel’s kings … if you make Israel’s God your delight (instead of other gods, gold, horses, or adding to your wife collection), the God of Israel will give you the desires of your heart. Yay! Gold and wives! No! What a good king of Israel desires – if he has made God his delight – is the peace, security and prosperity (“shalom”) of Israel. If you focus on God, your kingship will succeed on the measures most important to the health of the nation of Israel. Get it?
“But I’m not a king of ancient Israel!” Right. The original usage of that verse probably doesn’t apply to you. You aren’t a king of Israel. Your focus – or lack thereof – on God will not affect the “shalom” of Israel.
Great! So is Psalm 37:4 useless?? Should we pull the cross-stitched versions off our walls and the Photoshopped versions out of our Instagram feeds?
Heck no! Now we go back and read the verse through the lens of the good news of Jesus, and see if there’s a meaning for the church.
Okay – follow me. “Delight yourself in the Lord.” We make God our delight – the source of our joy. Not the world. Not the world’s pleasures. Not power, sex, money. Not anything that ever appears on a magazine cover in the checkout line. We make God our source of joy.
How do we do that? Really important first step. Actually, the first step in following Jesus.
Yeah. Chipper, isn’t it? Cross-stitch that line on your throw pillow. We die. We take up our cross, and die to ourselves. We are “crucified in Christ,” and we “no longer live.” That’s how Paul put it. The guy sustained by the joy of the Lord even with a pit viper hanging off his forearm. Not to mention the halitosis.
We die to ourselves. We die to our ambition. Our will. Our goals. Our – gasp! – dreams. Our desires. We put them on the alter and kill them, because as long as they live, they will be forever trying to put themselves on the throne. The throne that belongs to Christ. Anything we can’t let go of is an idol. I’m going to say that again in case you missed it. Anything we can’t let go of is an idol. Following Christ starts with an act of murder. Our dreams. Our desires. Our lives. Dead.
THEN we are reborn in Christ. He lives through us. He becomes our delight. He becomes our joy. Our strength. Our first love. Our deepest desire.
And then we back up and we read Psalm 37:4, this time through the lens of the good news of Jesus. “Delight yourself in the Lord” – Make God our delight. Make him our joy. Our focus. Our dream.
“And he will give you the desires of your heart.” If we have died to ourselves, and God has become our delight, what is our heart’s desire? Communion with him. His love, grace and mercy. His companionship. And the fruit of the Spirit. Peace, joy, love, patience, kindness, and so on. And when these are the desires of our heart, God is more than happy to give them to us. In fact, he promises he will.
Seriously. A pony – a mini-car – even a great job or a nice house. They all pale in comparison to loving, joy-filled communion with the Creator of the universe. Seriously.
So let’s go back to Paul and his halitosis. If you remember back, God didn’t actually answer Paul’s request for healing with a “no.” He answered with a statement.
“My grace is sufficient for you.”
Grace – “unmerited favor.” God’s overwhelming and unearned love. “Paul, compared to my overwhelming and sustaining love for you, that little ‘thorn’ really isn’t a big deal. Besides, it reminds you that you aren’t doing this work through your own strength – I’m working IN you.”
And Paul was filled with joy, because God was giving him EXACTLY what his heart desired.
In future posts we can talk more about how to teach this truth to kids and how to live it in front of them, because this is hugely central to life as a Jesus follower. But right now, I just want you to rest. What is your heart’s desire? Something so small it can be captured on the cover of a drugstore magazine? Or someone so big they fill the universe?
Misunderstood, Psalm 37:4 makes God the means to an end and leads us into idolatry. That’s why it’s “dangerous.” Understood correctly, the promise of Psalm 37:4 is absolutely true.
Bottom line: We don’t love God because he can give us our dreams. We love God because he can, and will, give us himself.
Get it? Leave a note and tell me what you think.