Preaching to Longing Hearts
What should we think of human desires?
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Editor's note: The subject of human desires—and how our preaching should take them into account—is complicated. Surely our preaching addresses at the deepest levels the full spectrum of human longings, yet at the same time preachers wonder just how intentional to be in speaking to the yearnings of the soul. To navigate this issue, we talked to a preacher who has written often on the subject of spiritual formation and the human heart: John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.
PreachingToday.com: When are human longings legitimate?
John Ortberg: If you think about human desires as they existed originally at creation, before they got messed up in the Fall, they are an important part of our humanity. We were made to have longings, and God loves to fulfill human desires. Psalm 103:5 says God "satisfies your desires with good things." Desires are actually one of the primary indicators of God's will for a creature. Fish want to swim; birds want to fly. God makes creatures to do certain things, and then he places within them the desire to do that. We have desires for food and for water. Because sinful desires can lead us badly astray, we Christians can sometimes mistrust them and not recognize the importance of desire and what a good thing desire is. The only way to have sustainable spiritual life is not to quench desire; rather, it is to retrain our desires so that we come to desire what God wants us to desire.
There is an interesting connection between the words emotion and motion. Emotions are what set us in motion. If we didn't have the capacity for emotion and desire, we would never do anything. So we have to recognize that desire is very good. It is central to understanding God's will for our lives. But then we must also understand that sin has messed up every desire we have.
For instance, even when I'm preaching, I have a bundle of mixed desires. I want to declare God's Word, and then I also want people to think that I'm doing really well, so that I can feel good about myself. There is this mixture of ego along with the desire to serve God. We all will wrestle with mixed desires as long as we live.
And so preachers should speak to and appeal to godly longings, the desires that will move people to be the people God wants them to be. We need to teach them what it means to die. The call of Jesus to die to self, to take up your cross in self-denial, is critical, and it's one that we rarely hear from our culture. So we have to teach on that. "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a solitary grain." But then we have to explain to people that the self we die to is always a lesser, sinful self, so that a greater, nobler self can come to life.
So death to self is not death to all desire.
Ortberg: That's right. I remember a talk by Lynne Hybels that she titled "I Died to Myself, and Myself Almost Died." The teaching of death to self had gotten confused in her background. Instead of understanding that our death to self is actually the door to the liberation of the self who God wants us to be, dying to self became an end in itself.
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