Here is a biblical study of the term desire. I thought it would be beneficial, in my study of prayer, to get a thorough understanding of this term desire, since prayer has so much to do with it. The biblical meaning of desire is quite broad. In my study I found sixteen Hebrew and Greek words translated as desire, and have put them in the following six categories:
To delight in: Hebrew – chapets, taavah. This term, as indicated by these two Hebrew words and their verses, convey the idea of delighting in, to be pleased with, satisfied with, and to incline toward. Thus the meaning here is that when we desire a thing it brings us pleasure and satisfaction, and we are drawn toward it. The desire could be for good or for evil. Most of the references I found in conjunction with these words were for good, but some for evil. Many had to do with a desire for God and His Word, such as the following two verses: Psalms 40:8, “I delight [chapets] to do Your will O my God, and Your law is within my heart”; and Psalms 112:1, “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who delights [chapets] greatly in His commands.”
Here is a verse where desire is bent toward evil: Genesis 3:6, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable [taavah] to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate…”
To long for, yearn for, crave after or lust for: Hebrew – taavah, ttaabah, avah, kacaph; Greek – epithumia, epipothesis. Again these words are used both for good desires and bad desires. Here are two examples of a good desire: from Psalms 119:20, “My soul is consumed with longing [taabah] for Your laws at all times”; and from Psalms 84:2, “My soul longs [kacaph], yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord.”
The Greek word epithumia is used mostly of evil desires, such as in Jude 18: “…there would be mockers in the last time who would walk according to their own ungodly lusts [epithumia].” In 1 Thessalonians 2:17 is one of the few times it is used of a good desire. Here Paul wrote, “But we, brethren, having been taken away from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavored more earnestly to see your face with great desire [epithumia].”
So far, we have seen that both good and evil are brought about by the vehicle of desire. And in both cases desire is like a servant. It either serves us for sin, or it becomes for us a servant of love, good deeds and prayer (Read Romans 6:12-18). Therefore, desire itself is neither good nor bad, but it may bring about good or bad. It is that vehicle, created by God to bring about good (e.g., to desire God and His will), but of which we are also given the freedom to use to bring about evil (e.g., desire to sin).
According to E. M. Bounds, “Desire is the will in action…” I think that’s true; the will is at the heart of it. And there are a few Bible verses that will give us this idea. As we continue in our study, we will first take a look at the word eudokia, which is rendered as a “good will” given by God, and then we will take a look at some other words and their verses, which again could be used for either good or evil.
Good pleasure, good purpose, or good will: Greek – eudokia. This Greek word is used nine times in the New Testament. Only in Romans 10:1 is it rendered as desire; all the other times as good pleasure, good purpose, or good will. By this word, in all occurrences, desire is understood as a good desire and comes from God. In Philippians 2:13 it says, “… it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure [eudokias].” Thus Paul is saying that God works in us and gives us good desires—they come from Him. So when Paul said in Romans 10:1, “Brethren, my heart’s desire [eudokia] and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved,” this was a desire made in heaven by God and placed on Paul’s heart.
The will in action: Greek – eudokia, thelema, thelo, boulomai. From these words we learn that the will is involved in desire. Eudokia, as we said, is used only as good will (or as good desire), which comes straight from God. But the other three words could be used as either good will or bad will, of the will of God or of the will of the devil or of the flesh. Here are two examples, one of each kind:
From John 4:34, Jesus said to His disciples, “My food is to do the will [thelema] of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.” Then, from Ephesians 2:3, Paul states, “…we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires [thelema] of the flesh and of the mind…”
Notice again that our desire, which is our will in action, comes from either the will of God or from a bad source—from the flesh or the devil. And the way it works is that when we give our lives over to God to do His will, then our will (our desires) will be for Him and for prayer. And this will always be true, not because of our own will but because of His work of love in drawing us to Himself. For God is always working in us, trying to get us to desire (and to do) what is good (Phil. 2:13). But if we reject God then our desires will be bent toward evil, to fulfill our own lustful pleasures.
Now since we were all born into sin, it is natural for an unredeemed person to desire (and do) what is sinful; he is carried away by his own desire (lust). But when a person becomes a Christian he is given a new nature; and so, even though he may at times, through his unredeemed flesh, fall into temptation and be carried away by desires to sin, the general direction of his desire has changed. God has begun to work in Him to give him His desires; all things, including all his desires, have “become new” (2 Cor. 5:17).
To seek after: Hebrew – baqash; Greek – zeteo, orego. These three words, translated as seek after, also mean to desire; thus when we seek after a thing we desire it. Accordingly, when we seek after God or His righteousness, it means that we desire Him and want to do His will.
Deuteronomy 4:29 offers a wonderful promise to those who seek God with their whole heart: “…you will seek [baqash] the Lord your God, and you will find Him if you seek Him with all your Heart and with all your soul.” Matthew 7:7 also offers a similar promise: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek [zeteo], and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”
As prayer: Hebrew – taavah; Greek – erotao, aiteo. In Psalms 10:17, taavah is translated as desire: “Lord, You have heard the desire [taavah] of the humble; You have prepared their heart; You will cause Your ear to hear.” It seems clear to me that we could replace “desire” with “request” or “prayer”—e.g., You have heard the prayer of the humble. Also, if you look at eratao and aiteo you will find that these words are most often translated as “ask or “request,” but they could also be translated as desire. Thus we may conclude that prayer, or at least part of prayer, desires a thing. I think for our sake, however, when we prayer, we need not only have desires, but we need to express our desires to God in words—because we need to hear ourselves pray so that we will be encouraged.
Conversely, and as a fitting conclusion to this section, let me say this: God doesn’t ever need to hear our words of prayer; He hears the desires of our heart even before we ask Him (Matt. 6:8, Isa. 65:24).