The Bible is a large book whose pages contain an eclectic collection of literary types, mainly history, poetry, wisdom, and spiritual commentary, for lack of a better term. One of the Bible’s main purposes, as a religious book, is to provide information: to get answers from God to our questions about life. What is fascinating, though, are the questions that the Bible presents to us. For example, after Adam and Eve sinned, “the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” Surely, God, who sees everything, knew exactly where Adam was hiding. God was not looking for information. The question was posed for our sake.
I have encountered two questions in the Gospels that are asked several times, albeit in different ways, the repetition highlighting their importance.
What are you seeking? (What do you want?)
Who are You? (or, Who do you say that I am?)
These are neither idle questions for academics nor questions akin to wondering how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Indeed, they are central questions that everyone asks, whether Christian or Muslim, agnostic or atheist. Everyone. The answers that each of us provide drive the decisions that we make in life, no matter who we are. Whether they are ever expressed explicitly or not, each of us has answers for both questions. Considering the way most people live their lives, the answers are usually superficial. Many of us don’t ever take the time or apply the effort required to dig deep down inside to discover our root desires, that which we really are seeking at the deepest level. And our self-centered approach to life prevents us from coming to terms with who Jesus truly is. We settle for who we want him to be.
The next day again John [the Baptist] was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and you will see.”
“Where are you staying?” That’s the best that Andrew could come up with?!? Before we get our noses lifted too high toward heaven, I also have to guess that if Jesus were to ask any of us, “What are you looking for?”, I expect our answer would be different, but similarly ridiculous. We want all sorts of things: health, job, security, comfortable home, food, love, sex, refrigerator, garden, hobby, a spouse, direction in life, help with a decision, respect, honor. The list is nearly endless and who among us has not asked God for one or more of these things at some point. But, just like God’s question to Adam, “Where are you?”, Jesus’ question to me, “What are you seeking?”, is not posed so that Jesus can learn something about me. It is targeted at prompting me to think more carefully and deeply about what it is that I really want.
As with the first question, we have a range of answers to the second question.
And He got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Hush, be still.” And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm. And He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They became very much afraid and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?”
Jesus and his disciples, several of whom were seasoned men of the sea, were in a boat, sailing from one side of the sea to the other. The boat was suddenly struck by a dangerous storm and the men in the boat were suddenly struck by fear proportionate to the severity of the storm. Jesus calmed the storm in a demonstration of power that was in itself fearful. Interestingly, he did not calm the disciples’ fear. After the wind died down, Jesus said, “Why are you afraid?” Note the present tense. They were afraid to ask Jesus directly, so they asked each other, “Who is this?” They all had their opinions; after all, they had left their occupations and were traipsing around Palestine following this Rabbi who held out some promise for each of them. Who is this? John the Baptist. Elijah. Other disciples referred to Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word in the sight of God and all the people. The religious authorities viewed Jesus as a blasphemous imposter. In those days, people could watch him, touch him, listen to him, debate with him. Even with such close contact, there was little consensus about who he was. The same conundrum persists to the modern age, a fact that stands to reason considering that he is not physically in our presence where he can be subjected to rigorous inquiry.
Today, atheists might see Jesus as a “great Teacher.” Muslims view Jesus as a prophet. Christians, in my experience, are the ones who, by and large, ascribe to Jesus the greatest number of roles and titles. Many Christians call Jesus one thing (Christ, Son of God), but, based on their behavior, believe him to be something quite different: Santa Claus, a policeman, a judge, a psychologist. The list goes on. Human beings are psychologically complex and, so, “who Christ is” shifts, depending largely upon the immediate need or mood. Like the apostle Peter, we may even have arrived at a settled conviction that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God”, and yet waver. “This very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.”
What are you seeking? Who are You? Our answers to these questions, whether we ever take time to consider them or not, determine how we live our lives and are the major contributing factors in all of our decision-making. If being relatively wealthy (or have a fear of being poor) is what I seek in life, then I will allow work to become an all-consuming activity in my life. If I think Jesus is a “Santa Claus,” then, whenever I need something, I will ask him provide what I need. But Jesus is not Santa Claus, and having riches may not be God’s ultimate purpose for me. (It wasn’t for Jesus, God’s only Son!) Many well-meaning Christians end up angry at God because “I asked Him for help; why in the world hasn’t He helped me?” Or, they wonder why God never answers their prayers, not realizing the great harm that would come should God unwisely take notice of their selfish prayers. But, we persist in asking God for the most ridiculous things, resulting in self-inflicted pain and suffering, whether our prayers (seemingly) get answered or not. St. Teresa had this to say in her book, The Way of Perfection:
Let us not pray for worldly things, my sisters. It makes me laugh, and yet it makes me sad, when I hear of the things which people come here to beg us to pray to God for; we are to ask His Majesty to give them money and to provide them with incomes—I wish that some of these people would entreat God to enable them to trample all such things beneath their feet. Their intentions are quite good, and I do as they ask because I see that they are really devout people, though I do not myself believe that God ever hears me when I pray for such things.
To most of us moderns living in the affluent West, St. Teresa’s view on this issue seems rather extreme, even unhealthy, and certainly strange. We probably would have a similar response upon hearing Jesus:
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (my emphasis)
St. Teresa understood what Jesus was getting at: if I follow my deepest desires, which are located in the center of my being, I will find what I have always been looking for, and at the center of those desires will be God Himself. Everything else in my life is only useful to the extent that it helps me to get to that center, to where God is. Approaching life in any other way leads ultimately to dissatisfaction, frustration, even suffering.
Margaret Silf includes a useful graphic in her book, Inner Compass, that I have redrawn.
At the center of my self is “I am,” which can be taken in two non-exclusive ways. It is the center of who I am, at the very core of my being, where my deepest desires are created. It is also that place where God, the “I AM,” resides and where He lives with me.
Because most people live in the outer two layers, our “I am” center remains largely unknown. The desires that we pursue in life are generally superficial, rather than stemming from the deepest parts of our lives. As a result, many of us feel unsatisfied and restless. We chase after money or sex or work or religion, thinking that one of these will bring meaning and satisfaction. All of us do this and most of us do it to a large extent, larger than we might think. Superficial desires can be satisfied with a new car, a good meal, or a change in job, but that underlying uneasiness never goes away. We tenaciously hold on to an irrational belief that a new hobby or a new spouse will fix what ails us. When they don’t, we inexplicably get angry with God rather than ourselves. All of us can cite personal examples of failed attempts to find satisfaction and meaning in created things. St. Ignatius noticed that creation is a poor substitute for God, a major theme of the Biblical prophets. Created things are not useless; they have their place, as Ignatius pointed out: “The other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.” The Song of Solomon explains that which satisfies our deepest longings: “My beloved is mine, and I am his.” In chapter 5, the writer follows up with a blockbuster question: “What kind of beloved is your beloved?”
Honestly answer the questions, “What are you seeking?” and “Who are You?”, based not on what you hope the answers are, or what someone has told you the answers should be, or what your religious beliefs tell you the answers are. Base your answers on a critical analysis of how you are living your life. This exercise will give you a sense of who you see as your beloved(s).
Once we know what we’re seeking, we can ask ourselves, “What kind of beloved is your beloved?” In other words… How’s that working out for you?