What We Get Wrong About the ‘Desires of Our Heart’

God does give us the desires of our hearts, but first He must shape them

“How many of you have prayed, ‘God, help me to love you more?’” the pastor asked from the pulpit.

Me, I volunteered silently. For 20 years, I had prayed those words almost as ritualistically as the Lord’s Prayer. Those words were my desperate, white-knuckled grip on grace—because, like the Prodigal Son, I knew about loving something and someone other than God.

“If you’ve prayed, ‘God, help me to love you more,’” the pastor continued, “you’re praying the wrong thing. You should be praying, ‘God, help me to know you more.’”

“Don’t ask God to do what’s your job,” he warned. “You don’t ask your husband or your wife to help you love them, do you? No, that’s your responsibility. And neither should you ask God to help you love Him.”

I have been protesting that sermon for three years now.

A Theology of Loving More

It’s not that I don’t love theology. I do. I believe in the great good that good doctrine can do as it teaches us about God, about the world, about ourselves. Every day, in fact, I read the Bible to know more of God. Every week, I participate in a Biblically reflective, theologically substantive liturgy. At home, our young children know something of the Trinity, atonement, and total depravity—because theology is a frequent dinner guest.

My spiritual problems, in fact, seem less related to what I don’t know and more related to what I don’t love.

But for all of this accumulated knowing about God, never do I entrust myself to the foolhardy certainty that "knowing things" is a talisman, warding off temptation and threat. My spiritual problems, in fact, seem less related to what I don’t know and more related to what I don’t love.

Among Christians, we often hear that God will give us “the desires of our hearts.” And it’s true that God cares about our innermost desires, but often, we need His intervention to shape those most important desires, including our desire for Him.

Every one of us needs to be praying, “God, help me to love you more.”


Three years ago, I intuited this from my own spiritual history. Mine was a heart prone to wander, and the prayer the visiting pastor in our pulpit was warning me not to pray was precisely the prayer upon which I had learned to depend. Only more recently, however, have I been learning from Christian theologians why the formation of holy desire—holy loves—must be the focus of our discipleship. We can’t think our way into the Kingdom of God. We arrive there by love.

There’s probably no better ancient thinker on the subject of desire than Saint Augustine, fourth-century Bishop of Hippo, whose conversion in The Confessions he describes as “the struggle of myself against myself.” As a young man, Augustine understood that in order to follow Jesus, he would have to abandon his illicit passions. Like many of us, he struggled against the seemingly irresistible lure of extramarital sex and professional ambition. He despaired of himself, and though he wanted the surrender that obedient faith demanded, he failed to muster the courage repentance required.

“Grant me chastity and continence. But not yet,” Augustine prayed.

Competing desires warred within him until one day, beset by tears, he picked up the Scriptures and heard the unmistakeable voice of God. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to satisfy their desires,” he read from the book of Romans. By the gracious intervention of the Holy Spirit, Augustine was, at that moment, made willing to love and obey Christ.

Holy Longing

Though Augustine knew firsthand the strangling power of sordid desire, he never suggested we abandon desire. Augustine knew that humans could not give up wanting, that central to human identity was our capacity for desire. Instead, he argued for its re-formation. “The whole of the good Christian is a holy longing,” Augustine wrote in one of his sermons. We are creatures made to love, so let us, then, learn to love what is most lovely—Christ.

James K.A. Smith is a modern theologian and philosopher whose book, Desiring the Kingdom, explodes the myth that discipleship depends on the transmission of information. We aren’t primarily thinking beings, Smith argues, we are worshipping beings: homo liturgicus. As such, every human being is in pursuit of the “kingdom.” The kingdom is the good life. It’s how we imagine our lives will flourish. “Rather than being pushed by beliefs,” writes Smith, “we are pulled by a telos [end or goal] that we desire.”

Beliefs don’t change behavior: desires do.

The Conversion of Our Desires

You Might Also Like

This means that we don’t intentionally think our way through the world: we feel our way through it, guided, in many respects, by the subterranean desires that form our habits. Beliefs don’t change behavior: desires do. Even the Scriptures warn of the demons’ accurate theology (cf. James 2:19). Until we recognize the need for something beyond cognitive conversion, Smith argues that the church is “pouring water on our head to put out a fire in our heart.”

Praying for the conversion of our desires—praying to love God— is exactly what we need for a lifetime’s supply of faithful following. Yet in truth, the practices that shape our desires aren’t unlike the practices the pastor, who commended we “know God,” would himself suggest. We’d both affirm church membership, Scripture reading, prayer and service among many other essential disciplines for spiritual transformation. In practice, we would seem like companions on the same journey.

But there would be an essential difference, and ironically, it would be a theological one. He would remain self-assured that a lifetime of Biblical study, devotional reading and theological education would amass necessary love for God. And I would walk more hesitantly, thinking of the Pharisees whom Jesus denounced, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me,” (Matthew 15:8). Though I, too, would study and read and learn, in the studying and reading and learning, I’d recognize my own heart as a desperate sieve.

“God, help me to love you more.” A restless and reckless sinner, I would continue to pray this prayer. And find steadying grace.

Top Comments

Maryann K Bennett


Maryann K Bennett commented…

I feel like "know" can have another meaning, though: "know" in the sense of intimacy, the way Adam "knew" Eve. Becoming familiar with someone's soul. Pursuing them on an emotional, relational level. Not just "knowing about" but really knowing. I agree that we should ask God to help us love him, but I think it is perfectly legitimate to say that a worthy alternative is to ask him to help us know him.

Alex Aili


Alex Aili commented…

Knowledge is important in learning how to love. We can't love what we don't know. The more I know God, the more I love him. Likewise, the more I love him, the more I want to know him. There's too many gray areas of life with God to separate knowledge from love. We should focus more on how they both work together for our ongoing relationship with God rather than splitting them apart.


Jesus Saves


Jesus Saves commented…

It is written "Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." John 3:3

Jay Santos


Jay Santos commented…

I disagree that you have to know to love.
Love freely just as God loved you. Too many live with their head instead of their heart. Love your neighbor, love your enemies, love, love and love. Sometimes you even have to get over what you know in order to love. And I do pray help me love my wife more. Not because I don't love her, but because I love her so much that my desire is to love her more each day.

Logan Sloan


Logan Sloan replied to Jay Santos's comment

Why did you come to love your wife in the first place Jay? Is not because you meet her and got to know her? Knowing and loving are inseparable, the Bible makes that clear:

1 John 4:8
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.

Yet, you are right, simply knowing is not loving. I don't, however, think too many live with their head; most people feel a certain way about something then develop their beliefs about it, then pursue knowledge that agrees with what they believe and, more so, with how they feel. Emotions are not inherently bad; God made them, and all He has made He pronounced "very good". It is that both our knowing and loving have been corrupted and the way in which we pursue and perceive these things as well.

As Jesus said we must pursue God is spirit and truth, in love and in knowledge, to worship without knowledge is to worship a god that is not the God of salvation (salvation was from the Jews who worshiped God from their knowledge of Whom He is); likewise, he who does not love does not know God, for God is love--one must know Love in order to love Love Himself and love others from their knowledge and love of Love, or, in other words, one who does not know God cannot love God nor others.

Steve Cornell


Steve Cornell commented…

Transformation of desire is at the heart of spiritual change. "For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him" (Philippians 2:13).

An example of transformed desire is when the desire to learn to love becomes greater than the desire for love. This happens when "we know and rely on the love God has for us" (I John 4:16). Here is where we begin to “Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other” (Romans 12:10).

God's kingdom is always ready to challenge the desires that preoccupy everyone (Matthew 6:32).

I suggest 5 desires that are actually distinguishing marks of authentic faith (see: http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2014/05/07/5-desires-of-true-believers/)

Breandan McTighe


Breandan McTighe commented…

Your writing seems to hold resentment towards this pastor. I think that's why reading this made me feel sad. From what you wrote about what he spoke, it seems very possible that the confusion, and heartache you have experienced from his message was all a misunderstanding. Did he know that you prayed this prayer every day? Can he see into your heart? No, he can not. So it seems to me that your personal experience has led you to interpret his teaching in a very specific way. When I read what he spoke I hear something much different. Knowing God, and studying theology are two different things (though at the same time they can align when motives are right). The pharisaical pursuit of knowledge was a selfish pursuit of self elevation and manipulation. I don't see this as synonymous to praying "God help me know you." I hear, "God help me know you're heart." I hear David's prayer in Psalm 139 where asking God to know "me" is a prayer for intimacy and love, and David's prayer in Psalm 86:11 where David prays to "teach me your way, O Lord." That to me is a beautiful and intimate request.

Helen Barker Schirmer


Helen Barker Schirmer commented…

This is confusing. No wonder
Christians never escape the
constant crush of personal guilt. Prayer scripture sounds simple, but really is complicated and

Uncertain. No wonder so many give up in frustration and crushed hope.

disqualifications and disclaimers

to prevent the request coming to be. Having the right attitudes and motives. Hoops to jump through. The difficulty is overwhelming to a regular imperfect and struggling believer.

many disqualifications and disclaimers to prevent fulfillment. So many rules to comply with and correct attitudes to have. No wonder prayers fo not get answered.

Please log in or register to comment

Log In