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God transforms our desires

Much of the narrative rhythm of the Old Testament seems be along the lines of this: God’s people receive His abundant favour; they promise their allegiance to him; but then each time their basest desires trump their love of God. This pattern recurs at Eden, Babel, the Flood, with the Golden Calf, and even in the lives of their judges and kings. 

The prophet Jeremiah sums up this depressing diagnosis in his famous description of the human heart: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” (Jeremiah 17:9). But we need to be careful about taking this Old Covenant verse as a sufficient account of the one who has put their faith in Christ. Later on, Jeremiah promises a New Covenant: “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:33)

So, even in the Old Testament, there is the promise of a cure for our deceitful hearts. In our own strength, our hearts are stuck in their desire for ungodly things, but nothing is impossible for God (Luke 1:37).

Learning to discern God’s gentle nudges can take time and practice

We are given a new self

New Testament believers are promised a new self to replace our old selves. In the context of putting on godly behaviours, Paul addresses the Christians in Colossi as those who “have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” (Colossians 3:9-10)

When we become Christians, God gives us a new self, with godly desires that don’t come naturally to us. However, putting on this new self is not a passive affair – Paul uses the metaphor of getting dressed. If we are given a new outfit of clothes, they make no difference to us unless we take off our former garments and then put on the new clothes. First of all, we’ve got to take off our old self (“with its practices”) – it’s hard to give up comfy familiar old clothes, however ragged they are. And, secondly, we’ve then got to put on the new self. Colossians 3:12 says, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” 

You might be thinking that this just sounds a lot like behaviour modification rather than the transformation of desire. That’s a valid concern – but the Bible is realistic enough about humanity not to advocate a “fake it till you make it” psychology. The key distinction is that living in a godly way isn’t “faking it” once we realise who we are in Christ – we are called to live in a way that reflects the reality of our new personhood. The apostle Peter puts it like this: “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

Will God change my same-sex feelings?

So far, we’ve talked about desire in general. The verses we’ve looked at in Colossians 3 come shortly after a clear imperative to crucify ungodly desires and activities in our lives: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” What does it mean exactly to put to death “evil desires”? For us at TFT, does this mean we should be trying to eradicate our same-sex sexual feelings? It’s probably helpful to distinguish between two aspects of sexual desires: firstly, their orientation (or, to use biblical language, the prevailing pattern of our temptations) and, secondly, the power that they have over us.

Our experience at TFT is that most people’s sexual orientation changes little once they’ve reached adulthood. One of the problems with conversion therapy is that it focuses on a change in orientation that most are unlikely to achieve. The Apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” may have been an ongoing pattern of temptation: God’s answer to him was not to take it away, but rather to give Paul grace to endure it (2 Cor 12:7-10).

On the other hand, we have seen for many people at TFT the power that their same-sex feelings have over their lives can greatly diminish as they grow in their Christian lives. They recognise that their flesh is weak and that they need the grace of God and the accountability of His people. Unlike the foolish young man in Proverbs 7, they move away from flirting with worldly influences and cut off the paths back to sinful ways. And they acknowledge the reality of spiritual attacks, and arm themselves appropriately (Ephesians 6). The change in the power of these feelings comes both in the person no longer being a slave to them (Romans 6:6) and often in terms of a reduction in their intensity, as they become less deep-seated behaviours.

Let us return to the question: “Will God change my same-sex feelings?”. In summary, He may well leave you with them as a pattern of attraction. However, as you pursue godliness in your life, their power over your mind, body and soul should diminish over time. This is one outcome of sanctification.

Exchanging the old for the new

This transformation into a person who desires from the heart to behave in a way that pleases God doesn’t come overnight. Addressing the Ephesian church, Paul writes, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires...  and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22,24) He describes an ongoing rhythm of putting off the old and putting on the new. Paul goes on to give examples of ungodly behaviours that are to be replaced with godly ones. But notice that our “former way of life” in v22 is associated with the “deceitful desires”: in other words, behaviours and desires are inextricably interconnected. Speak to a former addict and he will confirm that the more he indulges his addiction, the more he feels the urge to do it: repeating the behaviour drives both the obsession (can’t stop thinking about it) and the compulsion (can’t stop doing it!).

Interestingly, the in-between verse in the quote above is Ephesians 4:23: “to be made new in the attitude of your minds”. It seems that fundamental to the shift from the old behaviours and desires to the new ones is that we need to allow the Holy Spirit to be changing our thinking. The whole concept of replacing distorted thinking with true thinking, in order to improve mood and behaviours, is fundamental to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, but the Bible has been advocating this approach for centuries before CBT came along! And, indeed, the transformation that happens within a Christian should be deeper than that within therapy, because the Holy Spirit is at work to reorient the person’s very desires, not just their mood and behaviours.

Sometimes Christians struggle in their journey towards a transformed heart because they neglect one of these commands in Ephesians 4: we need to both be putting off the old self (Ephesians 4:22) and putting on the new self (Ephesians 4:24).

Garden your soul well

Let me change the metaphor... If we neglect putting on the new self, then it’s like a gardener carefully weeding the old bed, only to find the same old weeds returning a few weeks later. Behaviour management like this is disheartening, and eventually the person is likely to give up or become distracted – where’s the joy anyway in an empty flower bed!

If we neglect putting off the old self, then it’s like the gardener trying to plant seeds in a bed where all the energy and water is already being consumed by established weeds. Weeds mustn’t be pruned – they need to be completely dug up and thrown away! There are some excellent Christian courses out there which are helpful for helping believers to gain freedom from established sin.

As a novice gardener, I was delighted to discover the benefits of ground cover plants. Ground cover plants fill the bed with what you want, starving weeds of the space and light that they need to grow. Likewise, with sin in our lives, once the big stuff has been dealt with, displacing old sinful patterns by crowding them out with new godly patterns is a great way to secure lasting change. As an example, if I know that I am vulnerable to looking at unhelpful websites/videos late in the evening, then finding some regular fellowship at those times with other Christians helps to crowd out those temptations and starve them of the attention that they need to succeed.

In summary, there is great hope for us as Christians in the transforming work God wants to do in the desires of our hearts. By continuing to co-operate with the Holy Spirit to root out the old and establish the new, ungodly desires will fade and godward ones will increasingly take hold.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2024 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.

Download the Summer 2024 edition of Ascend