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Lessons From The Psalms

Desiring God

Erwin W. Lutzer | May 19, 2002

Selected highlights from this sermon

Are you God-focused or self-focused? Too often, we follow our sinful desires and then recruit our intellect to justify our lusts. We harness our emotions to love ourselves rather than God. 

King David was thirsty for God. His enemies drove him to God. And occasionally, the Lord would remain distant in order to prompt David’s pursuit of Him. God wanted David to long for Him. 

Back in 1968 I (and a number of other students) climbed to the top of Masada on what Josephus referred to as The Snake Trail. Masada is a fortress near the Dead Sea. It was actually the winter home of Herod the Great. It had fortifications up there for many, many years, for many, many centuries.

Today tourists go to the top of Masada, being carried of course electronically in cable cars. But in those days the most important way to get to the top was to walk hundreds, and perhaps thousands of feet. And it was about 110 degrees and we had water with us but soon that ran out. And it was the only time in my life when I was thirsty (and the time that I usually refer to when I think of thirst). Sometimes we say that we are thirsty but have you ever had burning, raging thirst? In fact, days later I was drinking fruit juice and water to help my body make sure that it regained its fluid and its equilibrium.

David said, “As the deer pants after the water brook, so my soul pants after you, oh God.” And we don’t understand that in today’s society. What was this guy’s problem? Why was he wanting God that badly?

The fact is that we are all born thirsty. Physically we are born thirsty. We come into this world thirsty, wanting to drink. Spiritually we are also born thirsty. As one scholar says, we have within us a raging inextinguishable thirst, and we all have it, and we’re all seeking to satisfy it somehow in some way all the time. But because we are sinners we satisfy this thirst in the wrong way. These longings, these God-given desires become perverted.

For example, God has given us the desire for a relationship. We are born to want to connect with others. That’s part of our heritage as human beings. And so what do we do? We sometimes connect with the wrong people and we connect in the wrong ways. The desire for intimacy is strong and so you find those who fall into various forms of sexuality, but what they are really doing is they are seeking relationship. They are seeking a God-given desire, but they are doing it in the wrong way.

Not only that, but we all seek for meaning. We want to connect with the infinite because there is something within us that says that if you want to have meaning, you have to be plugged into what is eternal.

The other day on the news I saw somebody who builds sand castles, and not just castles but all kinds of beautiful sculptures. Every day he beings again and anew in the sand, and then the tide comes and washes it away. And then he begins again the next day. There’s a part of me that admired him because he was willing to do that, but there’s another part that says, “Surely there is more to life than that.”

And there are many of us who, instead of seeking for meaning, knowing that that meaning can only come in a relationship with God, are building sand castles that time is constantly washing away. And at the end of the day we have nothing to show for it. We all desire emotions. We are born with emotions. With these emotions we are supposed to love God and others, but we take these emotions and we end up making sure that we love ourselves, and we get it all wrong because we begin to seek an inward kind of satisfaction instead of looking to God. We have a desire to make good choices, and we use the will that God has given us to make wrong choices – selfish choices.

Conscience is a gift of God to keep us on the right path, and it is, in effect, standing judgments on all of our actions, and saying, “This is right and this is wrong.” But what do we do with conscience? We override our conscience. We learn to manage our sin. We learn to manage our rebellion, and so we do our own thing, conscience or no conscience.

What is characteristic of us human beings, left to ourselves? First of all, fulfilling all of these needs is very self-directed. They are very selfish. Second, we sometimes resort to the passions of the body and give them primacy rather than the intellectual pursuits and the value and the rationality of the soul. The simple fact is that we make a commitment to our emotions and our desires, and then we marshal all of our intellect to justify those desires, and to make sure that life comes out the way we want life to be. What we forget is that really what we are seeking for is God.

Paschal, the great mathematician and French philosopher, said, “There once was in man a true happiness of which now remains to him only the mark and the empty trace, which in vain he tries to fill from his surroundings, but these are all inadequate because the infinite abyss (he’s talking about our thirst) can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say by God alone.”

And Augustine said in the confessions, “Oh God, Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless until they find their all in Thee.”

That’s why Luther said that it is impossible to sin deliberately unless we first of all think wrongly about God because what we are saying is, “I want to fulfill my desires my way in rebellion against God because my way is better than His.” And it’s this that made George McDonald say rather boldly, “When a man knocks on the door of a brothel, he is actually seeking God.” He’s seeking God in the wrong place.

Now let’s look at the text – Psalm 42. David is seeking God as well. David is thirsty and he’s going to God. Why does David go to God? What is it that drove him to the Lord, his God? Why was it that he finally came to his senses and said, “Only God can meet my needs?” He says, “As the deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?”

Thirsty for God! What drove David? Well I think the answer is that, first of all, he was pursued by his enemies. He says in verse 3, “My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’” And then he goes on to say in verse 10, “As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’”

I want you to know today that our enemies drive us to God.
If you’ve been pursued by enemies, if you have been wrongfully sued, if you have been involved in contests in which people want to seek your harm, whether physically or at work, and you discover that you’ve got all these enemies around whose day would really be made if you were to fail, it drives you to God.

Remember that your friends can only take you so far. “Friends can only take you to your potential,” someone has said. Only your enemies can take you beyond your potential, so thank God for your enemies. If enemies were not good for us, God would not allow us to have to put up with them. So thank God for your enemies because what happens is the supports that we have suddenly no longer are there, and we must flee to God and we say, “God, I desire you because there’s this sense of loneliness. There’s this sense of alienation. There’s this sense of helplessness. God help me.” And then we pursue the Almighty God. So that was part of the reason.

Another part is because of the withdrawal of God’s presence. Listen to what He says in verse 5. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” David was going through a time of emotional bankruptcy. It was a time when it appeared as if God had withdrawn from him. And God does sometimes withdraw His presence from us, that is, His felt presence. And He does that so that we might learn to depend solely and totally upon Him, when the emotions no longer can be relied upon, where we must walk simply by bare faith because when the Bible says we walk not by sight but by faith, it doesn’t mean just physical sight. It even means emotional sight, so there are times when we are despondent, and there are times when we cry out to God in despair, and God does not seem to be there. And those times are set up by God that we might pursue Him more passionately and more intimately.

David is having this little talk with himself. It’s the kind of dissidence that you and I experience. We know in our minds that God is with us, but our souls (our emotions) are not catching up with our theology. “Yeah, yeah, God is with us. We know all the promises; we’ve sung all the songs. ‘But why am I so downcast, oh my soul?’” So he talks with himself. There’s just a little bit of healthy schizophrenia going on here in the text. We all talk to ourselves. I used to talk to myself a lot more, a little less since I’ve been married, I am sure. I have a friend who says he always talks to himself because he says that as a rule he always wants to talk to the more intelligent person around. (laughter)

He’s saying, “Why do I feel so bad when I’ve got all the promises of God? So I’m speaking to my soul. ‘Soul, why are you so downcast when God is here? Hope in God.’” That’s another thing that made him pursue God. Of course, if we were to look at David’s life we’d discover also that the pleasures of this world began to turn sour on him, and that makes you pursue God.

And guilt makes you pursue God. You see, guilt drives many people away from God. They think that God is so mad at them, why should they come into God’s presence? And they do not understand that guilt is God trying to put His arms around them and bring them back into fellowship. And that’s why God rejoices when the Prodigal Son comes home. And we think, “No, God will be happier if I just stay in the pigpen.” No, God isn’t happier. And so God pursues us in all these different ways, and if we are believers He will not let us alone. He keeps pursuing us and saying, “I want you to trust Me. I want you to love Me. I want you to get to know Me.”

About a week ago my wife and I were at dinner with some friends who were involved in the construction industry for many, many years. And their construction company went bankrupt because of a number of different reasons. And this man whom I have known for years, sitting beside me at the table said, “I just want you to know that for years I went to church. For years I did the right thing. For years I heard that I should know God.” But he said, “It never really penetrated me at all, but now suddenly when our house was up for sale (and they almost did lose their house), and all of our savings were gone, it drove me to God.” He said, “In the last two years I’ve read 37 books.” And he said, “I sit there reading books on theology and books on God, and my wife even said to me, “Why in the world do you do that? You don’t even watch sports anymore.” She said, “You just sit there and now you’ve become so boring reading all of these books.” One of the reasons she said that was because he said that he reads these books to her (laughter) so that could necessitate some negotiation. But I’m sitting watching this guy whom I knew 25 years ago (30 years ago I actually met him). He was absolutely absorbed with the Chicago Cubs. If he couldn’t go to a game he watched the game. If he couldn’t watch the game he listened to the game. He kept up with the Chicago Cubs. Isn’t it amazing how God undercuts things like Cub fans, and the many different ways He does it? (laughter) He doesn’t watch them anymore? I know – great loss there! David says, “My soul longs for God.”

Now, what about God’s desire for us? The fact that we should know God and that we should desire Him is very obvious, but does God actually desire us? You know, John Piper, in his good book entitled Desiring God, a book that all of you should read, said, “The Westminster Confession of Faith which says that the end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever does not say the ‘ends of man.’ In other words there are not two goals. There is only one. And the way in which that should be interpreted is that the chief end (singular) of man is to know God by enjoying Him forever.”

You see, it is not just that we desire God, but wonder of wonders, God actually desires us. And that’s why the Apostle Paul says that the time is coming when Jesus Christ is going to return to earth and be glorified. Jesus is going to be glorified in the saints. And this past week I was reading the book of 1 Peter where it talked about those who are going to be glorified, whom God is going to glorify.

God is so interested in us that we are number one on his agenda of things to take care of in the universe. And God can give us delight, and He can give us joy, because He Himself is a happy God. You know, could you imagine trying to plug into a God who is unhappy, (and you’ve heard me say this before, but it’s got to come one more time) or could you imagine trying to get to know a god who was moody, for example? A god whose emotions sometimes could not be depended upon? No, we can delight in God. In fact, the Bible commands us to delight in God because God is a delightful God and desires our own individual delight.

You say, “Isn’t God upset because of the evil that is in the world?” Well, Jonathan Edwards answered that question this way, and I believe it is biblical, by saying that if you look at it narrowly (through a narrow lens), yes, God is angry, and God is upset. But if you look at it from the totality of where history is going, and where it has come from, and the ultimate glory of God, God is a happy God, and God invites us to rejoice in Him. And the more we get to know Him, the more we can rejoice.

But still, I haven’t answered the question, have I? If you are downcast, if you have this raging thirst that has never been satisfied, if you are experiencing that, why God and why not drink? Why should we flee to God rather than to drugs and escapism? Why God? Well, just think of God’s resources to meet that deep need that you and I have. We were created for Him. You were wired for God because you and I have a soul. We have a connection. We have a spirit so that we can relate to God directly. No animal can do that.

Many years ago when I was in university we had to read articles about animals that were learning to talk. And I remember reading about Coco, a chimpanzee who was learning all of these words. And they were saying things like, “Well, you know, we want Coco to be able to talk, and maybe the day will come when she will record her history (and so forth).” Yeah, Coco was learning some words, but let me tell you something about Coco. Coco can never know God. Coco might be able to talk. You say, “Do monkeys talk?” Well that could lead to some humor too, but we’ll bypass that.

The simple fact is that we were created for God, and only God can fulfill and fill that God-shaped vacuum. And all of the lures of the world, all of the things that the world has to offer, the world always deceives us. And I’ve seen people spend their whole lives saying, “These wells have to contain some water. Somewhere, someplace I’ve got to be able to find it.” And they go from one sin to another, one indulgence to another, and even one addiction to another, absolutely convinced that the world has to keep its promises at some point. But the world does not keep its promises. You were made and created for God.

So what resources does God have? Imagine God being able to remove our guilt? Some of you spend so much time managing your sin that you think to yourself, “Well, I’ve taken care of my guilt.” No, you have not! Only God can take care of your guilt by wiping it away. He can remove our anxiety. He can bring us that peace of soul even in the midst of our despondency.

But there’s something else that God can do. He can love us unconditionally. He can fulfill that deep need for a lasting, meaningful, eternal relationship. Only God is able to do that, and when we come to Him we discover that this thirst that has been within us can be satisfied only by Him. And no person and no thing and no achievement can take His place.

You say, “Well, how is our thirst for God increased?” Well, it begins at salvation. When we accept Christ as Savior, God creates a new nature within us so that we begin to love God. As a matter of fact, if you are here today and you don’t love God, and the way in which you think about God is, “How can I use Him to help accomplish my own ends?” I would say that you have probably never been born again because one of the marks of the new birth is a fervent love for God. That doesn’t mean that you don’t struggle with sin. It may even mean that you fall back into old addictions, but there’s something within you that says, “I love God, and I desire to serve God, and the sin that I am committing grieves me because I know that it grieves God. But at the end of the day, I love God.” That is a necessary mark of being born again. And it increases with our appetite. As newborn babes desire the sincere milk of the Word, you grow thereby. And we begin to read God’s Word and we begin to love God more and more, and we begin to see that God really is satisfying.

We think of people like Bernard of Clairvaux who in the 12th century was trying to get the church back to a sense yes of mysticism, but who also a love for Christ. You remember he wrote these words:

Jesus, Thou Joy of loving hearts,
Thou Fount of life, Thou Light of men,
From the best bliss that earth imparts,
We turn unfilled to Thee again.

Men like that loved God.

Let me tell you about a young woman by the name of Madame Guyon. She experienced a close relationship with God in the midst of a very hard and cruel life. Some of you have read her book and her diaries. She was rejected by her family and harassed by her friends. When she was silent she was accused of pride. When she spoke she was ridiculed and cursed. And yet, despite all of this, she wrote at the age of 17, “Nothing was more easy for me than prayer. Hours passed away like moments. It was a prayer of rejoicing, devoid of busy imagination, and forced reflections.” Catch this! “The taste of God was go great, so pure, so unblended (?) and so uninterrupted that it drew and absorbed the power of my soul. I had not sight but of Jesus alone. All other pleasure was pain to me. I tasted with unalterable sweetness the enjoyment of God.”

And remember, God is most glorified when we are satisfied with Him. David said, “Satisfy me with Thy mercies,” and indeed David was satisfied with the mercies and the grace of God.

What is the bottom line to all of this? First of all, remember this - that all sin at root is distrust of God. We think, for example, of Eve in the Garden. There she was. God said, “Don’t eat of the fruit of the tree,” and Satan came along and said, “Eat of the fruit of the tree,” and now she faced a choice. “Whom shall I obey? What voice must I listen to? Shall I listen to God who seems to be restricting me, or shall I listen to Satan who seems to be giving me a whole new sense of freedom. And furthermore, if I didn’t eat, I’d always wonder what it was like if I had, so I might as well do it.” And so she distrusted the goodness of God and she ate, and of course, that was the beginning of plunging the entire human race into its sin, and misery and despair.

But you and I face the very same choice, because the decision that we face is this: Is it really true that I can trust God in my relationships? Is it really true that if I follow the Lord with my whole heart (even if I never am married, even if I never have a relationship that I would like to have of intimacy), that that is much better and satisfying and more fulfilling than finding that relationship and that fulfillment on my own terms? Do we trust God?

You see now why sin is so serious? It’s serious not only because of what it does to us, but it does grieve God. Now God is happy with His people. God is a very complex emotional being. On the one hand He is grieved. On the other hand He does rejoice in us. But the simple fact is that our sin is saying, “God, I have found a better way. In fact, it is necessary for me to choose another way because Your way simply does not satisfy.” Imagine how God feels when we say that.

And then there’s a second lesson, and that is to seek God is not the renunciation of joy but the fulfillment of joy. It’s not the renunciation of joy but its fulfillment. You see, there are many people who think they have to choose between their own happiness and following God. And if they follow God, then of course, their own happiness is circumvented and they end up without any pleasures in this world, any meaning in this world. That’s such a wrong conception of God that again we insult the Almighty because, you see, when we pursue God, like Madam Guyon or Bernard of Clairvaux, when there is something within us that says, “God is the One who is going to meet my need,” what we discover is the happiness and the sense of fulfillment and the sense of meaning that we have been looking for. It lies in the direction of God and not all of the other places that we think it should be.

Do you remember what Jeremiah said to the people? Speaking on behalf of God he said, “You know the people have forsaken Me, the fountain of living water, and they have gone out and they have dug themselves holes and cisterns that have no water.”

I want to tell you today from the bottom of my heart that when it comes to the world, all of the wells are dry, and some people never learn that and they die, still absolutely convinced that somewhere, someplace, whether it’s through money or position or power or something somewhere, their raging thirst is going to be satisfied. And they don’t understand it cannot be satisfied apart from God.

Back in about the year 638, there is a story that comes to us from Arabia. A man by the name of Faris the Horseman was riding and he had a whole herd of horses there in the desert, and suddenly in the distance the horses saw the mirage, and they thought that it was water, and they began stampeding in the direction of more desert, though they didn’t know it. And the story goes that Faris took his horn that was used to make the horses halt and obey. And he blew it as loudly as he could but only six horses stopped. And all of the others went to the mirage. And the story goes on to say that it is from those six mares that we have today the famous Arabian horses.

I want you to know today that God blows the bugle. God is saying to us, “Look, the world is mad with its pleasures. It is mad with the promises that the world makes. But the world always betrays us. In the end it is only more desert. Stop!”

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

Your raging thirst can only be met by God. Only by God!

Let’s pray together.

Father, again we are reminded of the words of Bernard of Clairvaux. “Jesus, the very thought of Thee, with sweetness fills my breast. But sweeter far Thy face to see, and in Thy presence rest.” We think today of the words of Augustine who said, “Oh God, Thy Word says that I cannot see Thee and live. May I die that I might behold Thy face.”

We ask today that you shall forgive us for all the different ways in which we seek to fill the void, to seek to drink from bitter waters and more desert. Make us a congregation that remembers that your Word says that God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him out, and may we spend the rest of our days coming to know Him whom to know is life eternal. Birth within us that desire, we pray.

Father, we pray that we as a congregation may be able to identify with David, that as that deer pants for streams of living water, so oh God, may we desire Thee. And take from us all that hinders that, we pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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