Chapter 9- Starve and See
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. ~Psalm 62:1-3
This final chapter combines the fight against worldliness and the flesh into one, because as it turns out, there is a single strategy for engaging both these enemies. As we saw in Part 1, both worldliness and the flesh operate on the level of desires. The flesh is the desires of my sinful heart that love the things of the world more than God. And worldliness is any thought or desire that does not have God as its central frame of reference. 1 John 2:16 defines worldliness in terms of fleshly desires:
All that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.
This means that the struggle against worldliness cannot be divorced from the struggle against the flesh, and vice versa. In the fight against worldliness, is not enough to simply turn off the TV and shelter your kids; worldliness flows from a heart that has displaced God from the center, and so the battle must take place there. And similarly, you’ll never make any progress in the fight against the flesh if all you do is recognize root idols and probe your hidden motivations without realizing that fleshly desires feed on worldly things. A battle strategy against the flesh must start with starving its desires, cutting off its oxygen supply, by removing those worldly things which it craves.
So you can see that the fight against worldliness and the flesh is really two sides of the same coin, two complementary battle strategies. Both battle plans make war at the level of desires. The Bible’s strategy for victory over worldliness and the flesh can be summed up in two words: see and starve. We must fight to see the better beauty of everything that God is for us in Jesus while simultaneously starving the worldly desires of the flesh.
STARVING AND SEEING
In chapter 5, we saw how the gospel undermines the power of worldliness: it is an invitation to behold a better beauty, to admire what is most admirable, and to be changed by what we see. At the cross we see the glory of God shining most brightly—the glory we were made to see and savor. To survey the wondrous cross is to find something better than the best which the world can offer. And in doing so, we will find ourselves disarming our flesh’s most potent weapon—deceitful desires—by exposing those desires as empty in the light of better satisfaction.
The key, then, to defeating worldliness and the flesh is to continually and relentlessly look. It’s not enough to just catch a glimpse of glory; the allurement of the world and the desires of the flesh are simply too strong for a quick glance to break every idolatrous chain. It’s not enough to just skim the surface; a two-minute devotional will not sustain the kind of self-denial and single-minded pursuit that the Christian life calls for. This is war, and if we are going to make any progress attacking the deeply embedded roots of worldliness in our sinful hearts, we need to get serious about the battle.
That’s one of the things I love about the Psalms; we would do well to steep in the raw urgency and desperation of these prayers until they become our own. In Psalm 63 we get to listen in on the cry of a heart that has found the world unsatisfying and turns to the sweeter taste and better beauty of everything that God is. David wrote this prayer while on the run in the wilderness; his surroundings are a poignant and poetic reminder that our surroundings, as comfortable and enjoyable as they may seem, are nothing but “broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13); they simply cannot satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts. This chapter will be framed by the first five verses of Psalm 63, in which we’ll see our battle with the world and the flesh intertwined down to the level of our desires. The key to defeating both is to see a superior love that satisfies.
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. ~Psalm 63:1
David’s prayer opens with a cry of hunger and thirst, a hungering and thirsting after God himself. “This world is not enough for me,” he cries. “I want more; I need you!” Is that the cry of your heart as well? Are you longing for greater glimpses and experiences and knowledge of Jesus? Or are you sort-of, kind-of satisfied with where you’re at and what you have? Or perhaps what you’re really longing for not Jesus at all, but more… whatever? More stuff, more popularity, more love, more comfort and ease, more… whatever?
The tragedy of our comfortable, high-tech consumer culture is that we have more to enjoy and know and experience and connect with than ever before, and yet we’re more bored, distracted, and lonely than ever. We have a wealth of information and a poverty of attention, the newest and latest gadgets and smartphones to lust after, bigger and better houses to live in, literally everyone on the planet to connect to through the internet, and yet we’re not satisfied.
And in fact, the more we give ourselves to these things, the less and less they actually give back. It’s like a drug addiction; as you give yourself to the world’s toys and pursuits, you need more and more of them to give you the same thrill. It’s why heroin users overdose; they need more and more of the drug to get the same high, until it finally kills them. It’s why you no longer like kiddie rides; when you were two years old, the merry-go-round was the most thrilling thing you could possibly imagine. But now you need a three hundred foot roller coaster to get the same level of excitement. And it’s why marriages disintegrate into affairs; the relationship that used to mean so much to you gets less and less satisfying until, driven by your desires, you start looking elsewhere to get the same level of emotional connection. Our hearts are restless, yawning chasms that will devour and devour our idols until they kill us.
And at the same time, while our insatiable appetites are pursuing worldly things and getting ever-diminishing returns from them, we find our desire and appetite for God and his kingdom weak and growing weaker. Why is that? John Piper, in his book “A Hunger For God,” diagnoses our problem as one of feeding the wrong desires: “If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great.”
It’s kind of like me every year at Thanksgiving. In my family, we sit down for our Thanksgiving feast mid-afternoon, but until then we have lots of little snacks and appetizers set out to keep us occupied during the parade: crackers, cheese, dip, etc. And year after year, I make the same mistake: in my lack of self-control, I stuff my face on cheese and crackers, and find that when I sit down for the feast, I don’t have as much of an appetite anymore. And when you’re full from cheese and crackers, the green bean casserole and mashed potatoes just don’t taste as good anymore.
That’s our problem with our relationship to the world. We have stuffed our souls with small things—with television, with sports, with relationships, with Facebook—so that there is no room left for great things—God’s purposes, his glory, his love, his Son, his gospel. And because we’ve nibbled at the cheese and crackers of the world for so long, when we open our Bibles and behold the gospel feast, we don’t have an appetite for the beauty that is there.
PUT YOUR DESIRES ON A DIET
The more you feed your flesh’s desires for the things of the world, the stronger those desires will get (and the less they will satisfy), and your desires for the things of God will grow correspondingly weaker. The solution to our lack of appetite for spiritual things, then, is the same as dealing with my lack of appetite for a Thanksgiving feast: we need to put our desires on a diet. To defeat the deceitful desires of the world and the flesh, we must starve those desires.
That’s exactly the remedy that Paul recommends in Galatians 5. Here’s the whole section in which he deals with the flesh’s desires, which we’ll unpack in detail before returning to Psalm 63:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. ~Galatians 5:16-24
Walk by the Spirit, Paul says, and you will not gratify—feed—the desires of the flesh. What does it mean to “walk by the Spirit?” We’re given clarity in the next sentence, because Paul goes on to define walking by the Spirit in terms of the “desires of the Spirit.” His argument goes like this: “You won’t feed the desires of the flesh if you walk by the Spirit, because the desires of the Spirit are opposed to the desires of the flesh.” Walking by the Spirit, then, means choosing to side with and cultivate the desires of the Spirit, and simultaneously beginning to starve the desires of the flesh. This is the strategy of the entire Christian life summed up in a sentence.
Before we look more closely at what the Holy Spirit desires, two immensely practical observations are necessary. The first thing to see is that it is impossible to feed both desires simultaneously, and the second is that all those “deeds of the flesh” flow from the “desires of the flesh.”
YOU CAN’T FEED BOTH
“The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other.” That means that you can’t simultaneously feed the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit. You can’t stoke a fire and pour water on it at the same time and hope for any progress. That may seem obvious to point out, but oh how insidious is my flesh in this area! How often I reason with myself, “I will have my quiet time this morning, but first let me spend fifteen minutes on Facebook,” only to find that suddenly all my morning free time has been consumed by my flesh’s desires and there’s no more time for God? Why is that? It’s because you can’t feed the flesh’s desires and then expect your flesh to push back from the table and say, “Okay, I’m satisfied now, you can go and feed the Spirit now.” Facebook will never satisfy your flesh’s insatiable desire for community and connection, and so like a ravenous animal it will keep demanding more and more. Or perhaps a better way to describe it would be like a little child saying, “Five more minutes! Five more minutes!” That seems much more tame, much more innocent. Our flesh really is a ravenous animal, but the voice in our head seems so reasonable, so innocent, that we usually don’t even try resisting; we just go along with our urges and before you know it, there’s no more room for God.
That’s just one example from my typical morning routine; I could go on and on with a million more. If your sinful heart desires control—a desire that often manifests itself in outward behaviors like anxiety—you can’t expect to indulge your worry for a whole day and then open your Bible and see passages about the sovereignty of God as beautiful and precious. Why not? Because you’ve spent the whole day feeding your desire for control, and so the last thing your flesh wants to do is gladly relinquish control to a better master.
The thing is, the Bible’s teaching on the sovereignty of God is the sword that will slay the desire for control. But could it be that the reason our simple, trite strategies aren’t working—“Oh, you struggle with worry? Here are three verses to encourage you about how God is in control!”—is because we think we can feed both sets of desires? In order for those Bible passages about God’s sovereignty to start really functioning with flesh-defeating power, you have to stop feeding your flesh’s desire for control and instead begin diligently pursuing the Spirit’s desire to gladly let God be in control.
Here’s what I mean practically: when the desire for control starts rising in your heart—it may emerge with thoughts like, “How am I going to get all of this done today?” or “Why can’t he ever show up on time?” or “There’s no way we’ll be able to pay this bill!”—don’t indulge it and let your thoughts and emotions begin sliding down that hill and snowballing into a panic attack, anger, or discouragement. Recognize that thought for what it is—a fleshly desire for control—and immediately attack it with the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17). When your flesh asks for control, shove a verse about God’s sovereignty down its throat instead. Your internal conversation with yourself could go something like this:
Flesh: “How am I going to get this done today!?”
You: “I don’t need to be in control of my schedule; Isaiah 33:6 says that Jesus ‘will be the stability of your times, abundance of salvation, wisdom, and knowledge; the fear of the LORD is Zion’s treasure.’ He is everything I need today.”
Flesh: “But I wanna be in control! I need to start whining, pouting, and hyperventilating!”
You: “Hebrews 13:5- ‘He has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear, what can man do to me?’”
Flesh: “Humph. I hate that. I don’t want to believe that.”
You: “Why are you downcast, 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 (Psalm 42:5).”
Flesh: *muffled whimpering*
And then, an hour later, when your flesh picks up its head and asks for control again, repeat the process. It will be slow-going at first; your flesh is probably not used to being refused and will fight back. But don’t get discouraged in the battle. Over time, as you relentlessly put your trust in God’s promises and combat the flesh’s deception with his truth, its voice will slowly get weaker, and the Spirit’s voice will get stronger. This is what it means to “put to death the deeds of the flesh” (Romans 8:13).
DEEDS FLOW FROM DESIRES
The second practical insight to glean from Galatians 5 is that all those “works of the flesh” that Paul lists in verse 19 (“sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these”) are not the real problem; they are only symptoms of the real problem. The real problem is the desires. The desires of the flesh manifest themselves in the deeds of the flesh; desires are the root, deeds are the fruit.
James traces this connection in the fourth chapter of his letter. All the outward manifestations of the sinful flesh, he argues, are just the outworking of a heart in love with the world:
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel… You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. ~James 4:1-2,4
What causes those deeds of the flesh that Paul listed in Galatians 5—enmity, jealousy, anger, etc? What causes sinful behavior like quarreling or fighting or murdering? The answer is desires. “You desire and don’t have… you covet and cannot obtain.” These are what birth sinful behaviors.
James is just expanding on what Jesus himself said:
“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” ~Luke 6:43-45
Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks, Jesus says. What comes out of your mouth is not ultimately caused by your circumstances or what that person just said to you; your response to these things flows from what you treasure—i.e., what you desire—in your heart. If, for example, your heart is attached to the idolatry of looking good in front of people, then when you are criticized, what comes out of your mouth will be anger, or condescension, or discouragement. Those outward signs are not the main issue; that’s just the fruit of what you really desire in your heart.
If you find yourself frequently lashing out at people in anger, what you need is not behavior modification—“stop yelling at people!”—or coping techniques—“take three slow breaths”; what you need is desire modification. You need to uncover the idol of control or praise or whatever it is in your heart. You’ll often need the help of others to see your own heart clearly—that’s why Hebrews 3:13 says “exhort one another every day, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Our own views of ourselves are often distorted and inaccurate; that’s one of the effects of the sinful nature. We need the help of trusted brothers and sisters in Christ who can gently and patiently ask questions and give gracious, firm observations that help us dig down to the root of the problem. Once you’ve discovered what you really desire and treasure, then you can start attacking that desire using the sword of the Spirit, like we examined earlier.
Jesus’ picture of a tree is a really helpful illustration, because so much of our efforts to change seem to completely ignore what he says about desire and behavior. Trying to change your behavior without uncovering the root idol that is driving that behavior is like trying to staple apples onto a thorn bush and calling it an apple tree. It might work for a couple days, and you might even fool a couple people with your new-and-improved behavior, but those apples will soon wither and the true nature of the thorn bush will shine through again. Or it’s like weeding your garden; if your solution to weeds is just to mow over them but never get down on your hands and knees to yank them up by the roots, your flower bed will look good for a couple days, but the weeds will grow right back. You didn’t attack them at their roots, so they actually grow up stronger the next time. So it is with our behaviors; the only way to change the fruit is by going after the root. Jesus and James and Paul all point us to the root and hand us a bottle of weed killer: attack the insatiable desires of our flesh by starving those desires and instead feeding the desires of the Spirit.
THE DESIRES OF THE SPIRIT
So what exactly are “the desires of the Spirit” that Paul talks about in Galatians 5? This is where we’re going to begin pivoting back to Psalm 63 where we started; up until this point, most of this chapter has been focused on the negative—the sinful desires, not feeding them, etc. But we can’t merely starve sinful desires; our hearts were created to crave, so it’s impossible to just “turn off” bad desires without actively cultivating good ones to replace them. If we’re not actively feeding godly desires while muffling sinful ones, we won’t actually experience victory. So what are these Holy Spirit desires that we must pursue?
One thing that “the desires of the Spirit” aren’t is the fruit of the Spirit. Those are not synonymous. Don’t get them confused: when Paul says “Walk by the Spirit and feed the desires of the Spirit” he’s not saying, “Be loving and joyful and peaceful and patient and kind.” Remember, the fruit flows from the root; the deeds flow from the desires. Just like the deeds of the flesh flow from the desires of the flesh, the fruit of the Spirit flows from the root of godly desires. To “walk by the Spirit” isn’t a call to just do the right things; it is a call to love the right things. Which is a lot harder.
In order to know what the “desires of the Spirit” are, I propose asking the Bible a simple question: what does the Holy Spirit love? He’s a person, after all—the third Person of the Trinity—who can rejoice (Luke 10:21) and grieve (Ephesians 4:30). So what does he love to do?
That question is worthy of a whole book on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, so I’ll content myself with one simple answer: He loves to make much of Jesus by showing him off to our hearts.
He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. ~John 16:14
The Holy Spirit loves to glorify Jesus—to point to him and make much of him—and Jesus says that the Spirit does that in a specific way: “he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” That means the Spirit takes Jesus’ love and declares it to us; he takes Jesus’ power and declares it to us; he takes Jesus’ meekness and majesty and holiness and humility and declares it to us. He speaks through his Word (compare Ephesians 5:18-20 and Colossians 3:16-17 for more on the relationship between the Spirit and the Word) and opens up the eyes of our heart to see Jesus shining off of its pages in all his superior glory and better beauty. This is the primary work of the Holy Spirit in our lives: showing us more and more of Jesus to see and savor and celebrate. He loves to behold the beauty of the Son; that’s what he desires. And it’s that desire which Paul says we must feed.
BEHOLD A BETTER BEAUTY
And now, as promised, we’re back to Psalm 63. This psalm is simply an echo of the desire of the Spirit: to see and savor more of Jesus. Feeding the desire of the Spirit means cultivating longings that looks like this:
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; and in your name I will lift up my hands. My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips. ~Psalm 63:1-5
In response to the empty things around him, David’s prayer is earnest and urgent: “earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you.” And look at what he pursues: not doing better things, not behavior modification, not even putting to death the deeds and desires of the flesh. No, what he pursues is one thing: seeing.
“So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.” That right there is the whole goal of the Christian life. This is what the Holy Spirit longs to do; this is how transformation takes place. “Beholding the glory of the Lord, we are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
The most urgent business of your life is to behold. Not just glance, not just skim; to stare until your soul is satisfied. I love what worship leader Matt Papa says in his excellent book “Look & Live”:
“Worship is war. The call is to behold the Son of God, not merely look at him. It is to gaze deeply into the gospel, not merely pray some prayer and then move on. We must linger. Christianity is the hard, joyful journey of beholding Jesus by faith until the day you behold him by sight.”
This is where the war is won: the fight to see. And not to just see generally, but to behold and believe specific wonderful things about Jesus. We must fight to see his power, his glory, and his superior steadfast love: “…beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.”
For me, this is what my entire devotional life is about. Now, I don’t claim to have this figured out or, honestly, to have made much progress in this. Far too often the gaze of my soul is distracted by smaller beauties and my attention is captured by lesser things. But what I have learned in my walk with Jesus so far is that nothing is more important than this seeing, and that everything else in the Christian life rises or falls to the extent to which I see him. I used to read the Bible for lots of different reasons: to know and obey God’s commands, to understand biblical history, to shape my worldview, to be more like Jesus. Don’t get me wrong: those are all good and valuable things. I don’t necessarily recommend ceasing to read the Bible for those reasons. But for me, it wasn’t enough. Over time, the focus of my quiet time has narrowed and narrowed until 90% of my prayers and 100% of my Bible reading is laser focused on one thing: I need to see Jesus. I need to see his power and glory and steadfast love. I need to be daily persuaded that his steadfast love is better than life. And so the vast majority of my prayers are that the Spirit would open the eyes of my heart and help me see (“Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of your law!” Psalm 119:18), and then all of my Bible reading is aiming at seeing until my soul is satisfied (“Satisfy me in the morning with your steadfast love!” Psalm 90:14).
I don’t think that this undivided pursuit is misguided. Remember how Jesus, in teaching on prayer, said, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7)? What are we supposed to ask about and seek for and knock at? Psalm 27:4:
One thing have I asked of the LORD, that I will seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and inquire in his temple.
The great ambition of my life—not yet fully realized, but by his grace I’m running after it—is to make Psalm 27:4 the banner over my life. One thing, Lord; I want just one thing: I want to ask and seek and knock down the door of heaven in my pursuit of one great joy: to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord today, tomorrow, and forever.
I urge you to join me in this single-minded pursuit. If what Psalm 63:3 says is true—“your steadfast love is better than life”—what better pursuit could there possibly be? His steadfast, relentless love and amazing grace outweigh every other thrill and joy and pleasure that this world has to offer. “The surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8) makes everything else look and taste like rubbish and loss in comparison.
And this surpassing worth, this better beauty, is what you were made for. You exist to see and be satisfied by the greatness of God’s glory and grace. Worship leader Matt Papa again serves as a valuable guide:
“We were made for the Holy. The Beyond. Our soul’s attention is like one thousand laborers that need a task—that crave a task. And the task we were made for is to mine the infinite depths of God—to scale the mountain of his holiness and sing for joy on every peak. Nothing else is enough. Everything else will leave us bored. There is no end to the hunger of the soul and there is no end to God. He is the only Thing that is always ‘more.’ An ocean without a shore. A mountain without a peak. The Holy One.”
This knowledge of God is what we were made to experience and enjoy, and this knowledge is the weapon that defeats all the strategies of the world, the flesh and the devil.
The world is defeated by this sight of superior glory. That’s why Psalm 63:5 says, in response to this better beauty and superior steadfast love, “My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food.” Feed your soul with this gospel feast, and you will find that the world’s crackers and cheese lose their appeal. Only this love, only this greatness, only this glory, will satisfy the soul completely. Chocolate won’t make you lastingly happy. A steak dinner won’t leave you satisfied. The best cup of coffee in the world won’t sustain you. Only in the superior steadfast love of God can you exult and say, “In this my soul will be satisfied.” Only he is enough.
The flesh is also defeated by this superior glory. The twisted, selfish desires of my heart—what John calls “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life”—are undone and reordered in the light something so much better. How can I keep lusting after the fading beauty an “fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25), when I am looking forward to this reward that outweighs all the competition? “Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things, and give me life in your ways” (Psalm 119:37).
And finally, this better beauty is the undoing and defeat of Satan as well. “Upward I look and see him there, who made an end to all my sin,” and the accusations and temptations of Satan vanish. The third verse of “Before the Throne of God Above” captures this victory:
Behold him there, the risen Lamb,
My perfect, spotless Righteousness,
The King of glory and of grace.
One with himself, I cannot die;
My soul is purchased by his blood.
My life is hid with Christ on high,
With Christ, my Savior and my God!
WAR IS WORSHIP
Matt Papa said, “Worship is war,” and he is right. But the reverse is also true: war is worship. The good fight that we are called to engage in against all three of our enemies is, ultimately, a war of worship. The battle that rages is one for the attention and affection of our souls. Satan says, “Bow down and worship me” (Matthew 4:9). The flesh says, “Love and serve me.” The world says, “I am all there is; desire and pursue me.”
But Jesus holds out the superior invitation of Psalm 63:3: “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. My soul will be satisfied… and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips.” Worship flows to what satisfies us. And so the ultimate way to break the chains of the world, the flesh, and the devil, is to discover and delight in the highest Object of worship: Jesus himself.
In 2 Chronicles 20 we are given an incredible literal picture of this worship war. King Jehoshaphat is facing an unbeatable army arrayed against him, impossible odds are stacked against him, and there is no hope of victory. And so he falls on his face and prays a humble and heroic prayer of faith:
O LORD, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you… We are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”
In response to his prayer, the word of the Lord comes to him with a promise of victory:
Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s… You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the LORD on your behalf.”
And so King Jehoshaphat does something surprising. He assembles all the priests along with his army, and put the temple worship team in front of the army. All the singers went before the army, praising God and singing,
“Give thanks to the LORD, for his steadfast love endures forever!” And when they began to sing and praise, the LORD set an ambush against the men of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come to Judah, so that they were routed.
The front line of the battle was praise, and the war was won with worship. Israel’s three enemies were routed when the singing started, and the army got to stand back and see the salvation of the Lord on their behalf.
This is a picture of our war as well. Worship of the One who is truly worthy cuts the roots of fleshly idolatry, severs the allurement of the world, and silences the accusations and temptations of the demonic. So, to end this book, I want to linger on worship, using the words of those saints who have gone before us and have tasted and seen the superior goodness of God. These are the words of those who have beheld better beauty and been ravished by what they’ve seen. They have climbed the mountain to be with God, and then come down with words that strain to describe what they’ve seen, urging us to follow them up into the presence of God. One of the great benefits of poetry and praise songs is that they articulate familiar glory in a fresh way; some of my greatest strides in seeing and savoring Jesus have come through hearing a new song that takes something I already knew and makes it explode with new significance. Make these songs, poems, and prayers your songs, your poems, your prayers, and fight the good fight of faith. Commit them to memory, sing and pray them, wield the weapon of worship, and enter into the joy prepared for you.
This first poem was written by Ann Griffiths, a young woman who lived in Wales at the end of the 18th century and died before her 30th birthday. Her short life overflowed with songs celebrating her Beloved, the Savior who captured and widened all her longings, and met them all with his relentless love:
Earth cannot, with all its trinkets,
Slake my longings at this hour;
They were captured, they were widened,
When my Jesus showed his power.
None but he can now content me,
He, the Incomprehensible;
O to gaze upon his Person,
God in man made visible
Let my days be wholly given,
Jesus’ blood to glorify,
Calm to rest beneath his shadow,
At his feet to live and die,
Love the cross, and bear it daily,
(‘Tis the cross my Husband bore!)
Gaze with joy upon his Person,
And unceasingly adore.
The ancient hymn, “Be Thou My Vision,” was probably written in the 700s AD, and has served as the battle anthem of believers ever since. Two verses in particular spur on the fight to delight in God above all earthly treasures:
Be Thou my battle shield, sword for the fight
Be Thou my dignity, Thou my delight;
Thou my soul’s shelter and Thou my high tower;
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise;
Thou my inheritance, now and always.
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart;
High King of heaven, my treasure Thou art.
One of the most prolific hymn writers in American history was the blind ex-slave, Fanny Crosby. Her life was wrecked and remade by the glory that she saw in Jesus (perhaps her blindness to earthly things helped sharpen her sight of the Savior!). She wrote such classics as “Blessed Assurance” and “To God Be The Glory.” She prayed and set the lofty goal of one million people coming to faith through her songs. Her hymn, “Take the World” is a powerful weapon to stir your heart to set your gaze above earthly trinkets on the One who satisfies the soul. The last verse recalls her oft-quoted statement, “If I had a choice, I would still choose to remain blind… for when I die, the first face I will ever see will be the face of my blessed Savior.”
Take the world, but give me Jesus,
All its joys are but a name;
But His love abideth forever,
Through eternal years the same.
Take the world, but give me Jesus,
Sweetest comfort of my soul;
With my Savior watching o’er me,
I can sing though billows roll.
Take the world, but give me Jesus,
Let me view His constant smile;
Then throughout my pilgrim journey
Light will cheer me all the while.
Take the world, but give me Jesus!
In His cross my trust shall be,
Till, with clearer, brighter vision,
Face to face my Lord I see.
This last poem, a little-known song by a little-known author, captures the single pursuit that sets the soul free from lesser beauty: the “sight of peerless worth”:
What has stripped the seeming beauty
From the idols of the earth?
Not a sense of right or duty
But the sight of peerless worth.
Not the crushing of those idols,
With its bitter void and smart;
But the beaming of his beauty,
The unveiling of his heart.
‘Tis the look that melted Peter,
‘Tis the face that Stephen saw,
‘Tis the heart that wept with Mary,
Can alone from idols draw.
The only thing powerful enough to break Satan’s temptations, disarm worldly idols and strip them of their seeming beauty is not duty or obedience or willpower or trying harder; only a better beauty, a “sight of peerless worth” can draw the human heart away from idols. The only way to crush and dethrone Jesus’ rivals from the throne of your heart is to fix your eyes on “the beaming of his beauty, the unveiling of his heart.” This is the fight of faith; this is what the Savior calls us to and what he purchased for us: a wartime lifestyle of pressing on to know him better, until “the things of earth grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” May you taste and see that glory and grace in ever-increasing measure, and find in them freedom from all your enemies.
O Lord, unveil your heart, shine the light of your glory and grace into my soul, and draw me away from the idols that compete for my attention. Break my heart with the same look that melted Peter, give me courage as I see the face that Stephen saw, meet me tenderly with the same heart that wept with Mary. Help me to say daily, “Take the world but give me Jesus.” Enthrone yourself as First in my heart, and be my Treasure today and always. And “let my days be wholly given, Jesus’ blood to glorify,” as I gladly proclaim that you are better than anything this world has to offer. O to see you face to face! I long for the day when my hope becomes glad fruition and my faith becomes sight. Until that day, open my eyes to behold your beauty and satisfy me every day with your steadfast love. Help me to fight the good fight of faith: the fight to delight, the fight to see, the fight to be satisfied.