Actions speak louder than words — but desires speak loudest.
The pursuit of pleasure is what drives all our actions and decisions, driving us into relationships, driving us to watch football, driving us toward excellence at work. We authentically pursue what we are convinced will bring us pleasure.
John Bunyan was a pastor who spent considerable time thinking about how pleasures operate in our lives. In one of his sermons Bunyan said: “desires are hunting things.” Stalking through cornfields in boots, camo overalls, and a blaze orange hat is a fitting metaphor for the restless heart in search of pleasures. Our hearts are hungry and our hearts hunt this world for something (or someone) to fill a void.
But of course not all of our desires are good and helpful. Our desires may be pure or sinfully twisted.
Discerning the Desires
Sinful desires manifest themselves in sinful actions and words. A heart bent on sinful, selfish pursuits will trample anyone who gets in the way (James 4:1–4). Self-centered desires lead into all sorts of problems: the desire to win arguments, to overeat, to indulge in laziness, to pursue sexual sin, or to chase after selfish gain. The heart chases a million desires.
The gospel of Jesus Christ confronts these sinful desires head-on. Christ died on a cross not merely to self-improve us but to re-create us, from the inside out, and that includes our unseen desires and motivations.
By God’s regenerating grace, new desires begin to emerge in us. For the first time, we desire to commune with God, to spend time with him, and to learn about him in the Bible. We feel a new pull towards God like we’ve never experienced before (Isaiah 26:9). These new longings and desires and anticipations get expressed to him in our prayers (Romans 8:15). And we experience new delight in gathering with God’s people in church on Sundays, and new delight to live in obedience to God’s will, all for his honor and his glory.
As Bunyan said, “Love to God is more seen in desires than in any Christian act.” This is because outward religion and actions can be faked; but our deepest desires cannot. Therefore, “There is nothing that God likes of ours better than he likes our true desires.”
When God has a priority in our desires, he has our hearts. And this is a miracle.
What fundamentally changes is that we no longer live for ourselves and for the gratification of our sinful inclinations. Our hearts are now driven by new desires for God.
But those old sinful desires don’t forfeit and move on. In the Christian heart a war breaks out. The flesh (the fountain of old desires) and the Spirit (the fountain of new desires) war against each other. Our faith in Christ introduces us to the conflict of the Christian life, a conflict of passions (Galatians 5:17). In this conflict we get exposed to the scent of desires that entice us.
Here’s where it gets even more interesting.
As Bunyan explains, the tension between the old desires and the new desires birth in the Christian yet another new desire — the desire to be freed from the presence of sin and to live in the physical presence of Jesus Christ. This is the pleasure of heaven we seek (Psalm 16:11, 1 John 3:2).
And so this new desire for heaven — the desire to enjoy God himself — becomes a potent force in the Christian heart. By this new affection for God we learn to say no to our old sinful desires that seek immediate gratification in order to say yes to a delayed gratification (Matthew 5:2–12).
In this life we get a foretaste of spiritual joys in Christ (by faith), but we live in anticipation of joys to come (by sight). This is what it means to live a life of desiring God.
But we haven’t exactly answered the initial question: What do your desires say about you?
Bunyan’s metaphor of hunting fits our desires. The promises of pleasure will lead our searching hearts somewhere. Just as the hunter tracks, so does the heart.
This was Bunyan’s conclusion when he stopped to study Proverbs 10:24:
What the wicked dreads will come upon him,
but the desire of the righteous will be granted.
Here in this passage is the answer to our question. Our passions expose our eternal trajectory.
Apart from Christ, sinful and self-centered pleasures will lead us toward unimaginable pain and eternal judgment away from the presence of God. But in Christ, no matter how strong those old desires tug at you, your sins have all been paid for, you have been covered with God’s righteousness, and as a result of God’s saving grace you will find in yourself new desires that only God himself can satisfy (Isaiah 61:10; Romans 4:5).
Because Christ died and was raised from the dead for you, you will find in Christ that every eternal pleasure you can imagine has been pre-paid. They’re all yours. Your life in Christ today is to be lived in anticipation of the future eternal joys that will be showered on you, joys beyond your wildest imagination as you live in the presence of God and Christ for all eternity (Hebrews 11:6; 1 Corinthians 2:9).
This is the enduring testimony of John Bunyan, a man who hunted the world and found only heartache until he found his joy in Jesus Christ. He was converted and became a pastor, dedicating his life to studying the Bible, preaching Christ, and helping others make sense of their desires. For preaching Christ he landed himself in prison where he wrote one of the most famous books in Church history (Pilgrim’s Progress). Bunyan entered into unspeakable eternal pleasures on this day, 325 years ago.