In a recent post, I asked, “What do we really want?” This is a question I think about every day. The question is not asking, “Do you want regular or decaf? Will that be raisin or sesame seed?” It’s not even asking, “If you had it to do all over again, what would you be doing for a living?” As important as these questions might be, I’m thinking about issues that run much deeper, those things that drive my life and the choices that I make.
I have been a Christian for most of my life, but, more importantly, my religion has meant a great deal to me for all that time. Why? Some people are not religious, at all. Why am I? I cannot guarantee the absolute truth of this observation, but I don’t believe that my sustained interest in Christianity stems from a desire to be a moral person, even though I want that. Many people I know adhere to a high moral standard without being Christian, or even religious. I grew up in a “Christian” nation and in a nominally Christian family, so my culture plays a role, but it does not drive me. Unlike days gone by, when just about everyone went to church, there is no such expectation at present, particularly in the northeastern U.S. If I abandoned Christianity and became a Buddhist, some people I know would be concerned, but many would comment, “That’s cool!” Though I encounter subtle pressure from time to time to attend church services, I feel no social pressure whatsoever to continue my inner religious quest. Yet, I persist with considerable fervor. Why? What am I looking for?
In the gospels, Jesus asks “What do you want?” six times (a seventh is a repeat). Considering the variety of situations in which he asked this question, my sense is that it is a question he asked people all the time. Two thoughts come to mind. First, God Almighty, who knows everything, asks, “What do you want?” It should be plainly obvious that God is not seeking information, but is asking for our benefit. Some readers might be persuaded that Jesus, by virtue of his humanity, had cognitive limitations, yet he even asked “What do you want?” of blind men! Second, it is nothing short of remarkable that God, who has plenty of other things to do, should even care to ask, “What do you want?” as if the answer mattered.
In the Spiritual Exercises, I was instructed every day to “ask for what I want.” There is a context, though. I was not being advised to ask for any old thing, but to ask for what I wanted as I came to prayer anticipating an encounter with God. Furthermore, Ignatius did not tell me what to ask for. What I want is between God and me. This was new to me, and I needed help. Joseph Tetlow offers this explanation:
“God our Creator and Lord writes His hopes into our desiring. If our hearts are made for Him, then He has planted deep, deep desires for Himself in our hearts. If God’s command is that we love one another and do justice to all, then deep in our selves burns a passionate desire to do those things, and filling those desires will make us beatifically happy. Because of this, we keep asking God for what we want in prayer and in these exercises.“1
I encountered two problems. First, many of my deep desires are hidden, even from me. Second, after reading a gospel story, I would discover what I should want, but I didn’t really want it. There is freedom knowing that it is completely legitimate to ask for a desire. “Lord, I want to want…”
In thinking broadly about desires, it helped tremendously to consider the following passage from Psalm 63:
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.
Margaret Silf, in Inner Compass, advises, “Let those words soak into your heart, as you sit, silent and relaxed, in God’s presence.”
What do you thirst for? In the space of a few minutes, I came up with more than two dozen items. I like the word “thirst” because it seems to rule out stupid things like lots of money or a new car. Rather “thirst” seems to refer to desires that are abiding and lie deep within.
If you were to run into Jesus, chances are excellent that he would ask you, “What do you want? What are you seeking?” How would you answer?
(Please write an answer in a Comment to this post, or in the least, write down somewhere your own list of things for which you thirst. I will reveal my own answer in the next post.)
1 Joseph Tetlow, Choosing Christ in the World, The Institute of Jesuit Sources, St. Louis, 1989.
Blaise Pascal, in Pensées, also wrote about desires that God has planted within us by design:
What is it then that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” (Matt 20)
As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” Jesus stood still and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” (Matt 20)
James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, came up to Jesus, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.” And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” They said to Him, “Grant that we may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left. (Mark 10)
A blind beggar named Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the road… And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him here…” And answering him, Jesus said, “What do you want Me to do for you?” And the blind man said to Him, “Rabboni, I want to regain my sight! (Mark 10)
Jesus was approaching Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the road begging… And Jesus stopped and commanded that he be brought to Him; and when he came near, He questioned him, “What do you want Me to do for you?” And he said, “Lord, I want to regain my sight!” (Luke 18, repeat of Mark 10)
And Jesus turned and saw them following, and said to them, “What do you seek?” They said to Him, “Rabbi (which translated means Teacher), where are You staying?” (John 1)
A man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had already been a long time in that condition, He said to him, “Do you wish to get well?” (John 5)
Important (and profound) variations:
So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” (John 18)
When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they stepped back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” (John 18)
They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” (John 20)