When Jesus encountered the blind Bartimaeus, his first words were, “What do you want me to do for you?” It strikes me as rather silly that anyone, let alone Jesus, would ask a blind man what he wanted. Wouldn’t it be plainly visible, even to the blind? It seems that Jesus frequently asked people what they wanted. He did not ask this question because he was curious; I am sure he had no difficulty figuring out that a blind man would want to be able to see more than anything else. He did not ask because he was necessarily keen on fulfilling the respondent’s request. When the mother of two apostles (the sons of Zebedee) came to Jesus, he asked, “What do you want?” She asked Jesus if her sons could sit next to him on his throne in his kingdom. Jesus’ answer was plain and simple: “No, I don’t think so.”
If Jesus was not asking for information, and if he was making no implicit promise to grant a request, then, why would he bother to ask what someone wanted?
Ignatius, in the Spiritual Exercises, encourages exercitants to ask for what they want. I can imagine that Ignatius noted that Jesus seemed to be perpetually interested in what people around him wanted and he presumed that God continues to ask the same question now. I have been asking God for what I want for decades. But, most of those requests were more in line with that of the mother of the sons of Zebedee. My prayer requests emanated from a quest to build my own kingdom, to satisfy base desires, to seek my own comfort, to assure my own success. Over the years, I have asked God for thousands of things. Nevertheless, when, during the course of the Spiritual Exercises, I started asking God for what I wanted during my prayers, it seemed odd, because my prayers were not necessarily being prompted by trouble or pain or failure. My prayers were associated with a contemplation of Jesus as he went about his life in Palestine. Devoid of a felt need, what was I going to ask for? And, why would I ask for what I wanted, when I didn’t need anything at the moment? Ignatius was very slyly pushing buttons, all with a very simple directive: “Ask for what you want.”
By asking Bartimaeus what he wanted, Jesus was making a request that Bartimaeus identify out loud his greatest need. There is something psychologically important about identifying and naming a need. Identifying a need requires exactly that: figure it out; identify it. I have found that identifying my needs, what I really want, is difficult. If a friend were to ask me what I wanted in life, my answer would probably run something like this: “Well, I want food, sleep, a job, sex, interesting leisure activities.” Given some more prompting, my answer might be more broad, and a little deeper, but not much. I am like most people, being pretty much out of tune with what is going on deep inside.
Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” Restlessness. Uneasiness. Longing. Thirst. The sense that there is something more, something “out there” lurks perpetually in the background of our lives. It is a feeling that many of us, from time to time, experience at the conscious level, but mostly it’s underground. We have a strong tendency to cover over this longing for “I know not what” with alcohol, compulsive eating, shopping, materialism, wealth-seeking, workaholism, sex. The thinking behind this strategy is simple: “If only I had more [ ], I would be happy.” Blaise Pascal expressed this sentiment more articulately when he wrote, in Pensées,
“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.“
In short, we use the created world to fulfill a thirst for the Creator Himself. That is the essence of sin. Not only does a new car or a new job not satisfy my deepest longings, I have discovered that, paradoxically, “becoming a Christian” or being religious or attending church or studying the Bible did not address the fundamental issue or get me one iota closer to the solution. Sure, religious activities put me in the right neighborhood, but I had no idea which door to knock on. The Spiritual Exercises brought me face to face with God and in that context, the question, “What do you want?” took on a whole new dimension.
Ignatius told his exercitants when they begin their prayers to “Ask for what you want.” God knows what I need; He wants me to name it, though. Once I begin to consider my needs, several things can happen. In naming it, I not only identify the need, but I admit that I have a need, that there is something I want. That is important because no one can seek to have a need fulfilled if there is no knowledge of the need. I may also conclude that, in my humble opinion, I don’t have the need that God thinks I do. Or I may not want what I know I should want. I know that I should love Jesus more than the stuff he’s given me, but I really like my stuff. It is common for me to ask for a desire, to desire the desire itself, or, for example, to ask that I could be the kind of person who would want to love Jesus more than anything else. By naming my desires, I receive a glimpse into God’s dreams for me and hear God’s invitation to come to Him.
I discovered something else when I persisted in asking for what I wanted. I continually confessed to God that I was not the person I should be and, often, I did not even want to be that person. Imagine telling God that you don’t want to follow Jesus and, even if I did, I don’t think I could do it! I was extremely surprised that God accepted and loved me anyway. I was even more surprised to hear God say, “That’s ok. I’ll work with what I’ve got. We’ll start right where you are.”
Amongst religious people, there is a widespread belief that a person must change, or be more religious, or be morally improved before an approach to God can be made. Oh, of course, such a statement would be instantly denied. We even sing, “Just as I am, without one plea… O Lamb of God, I come, I come.” But, many people do not come to God because they do not believe they are good enough. And when something bad happens, they take that as proof: “See, I told you so.” We dress up to go to church. We would clean ourselves up to meet the President. We extend the same sensibility to God. We would never come to God without having shown some evidence of self-improvement. And, surely, we would never, ever even consider coming to God unless we were able to convince Him that we were something other than miserable failures at everything He expects from us, and so we hunt around for some small morsel so that we can say, “Look. I’m trying. Won’t You pay attention to me, now?” Lacking a morsel of sufficient value, we choose not to come.
When I come to God, I come with the most abysmal performance record ever. Even worse, I can identify many areas of my life where I am not even trying, or where I am not trying because I do not know there is a problem. Sometimes I try, but only half-heartedly. When I get depressed, I often don’t really want to come out of it. Frequently, I find myself trying to improve, but I am impotent to make any headway. From the cross itself, from the cross on which we crucified God, He says, “I love you anyway.” Jesus, the third person of the Trinity, Creator of all things visible and invisible, was mistreated, abused, and tortured by the very men whom he had formed and shaped in his own hands. The creatures he made turned on him. “I love you anyway.” Can I possibly do anything, even repeatedly, that would ever prompt him to say, “No, that’s it. I’m done with you.”?
This is why prayer is so incredible. It escapes my understanding how God, who has every reason to turn His back on me, would instead say, “Come. Draw near. I know you are a mess, a horrible mess, but I want you to be with Me.” So I come, because I want to be with Him, too. (Ah! I’ve just expressed a deep longing!) And, surprisingly, unexpectedly, paradoxically, He asks me, “What do you want?” And this is what I told Him, verbatim, in prayer one night:
“When I am in prayer, most of the time I yearn to be close to God, to feel His presence and His gaze upon me. When I am not in prayer, I yearn sometimes for nothing in particular and at other times for all sorts of things. I am a complicated being. But, I am generally concerned about those things that I yearn for, that the yearning after created things keeps me away from God.
“I think that it is only in times of trouble that I learn what I thirst for. So, reflecting on times of trouble, I may be able to answer the question. I thirst for security: bodily safety and financial security. I want to know where my next meal is coming from. I thirst for comfort. Having to walk home from work is not something for which I yearn. There are many other examples. I yearn to be free of pain, emotional pain as well as physical pain. I yearn for intimacy with my wife. I yearn for a feeling of inner peace. I yearn to be free of boredom. I yearn for a job that will occupy my intellect and allow me to use my skills and talents. I yearn to be of use to the people around me, to be valued by them for my role in their lives. I yearn to be able to provide for myself and my family, so that I am not a burden to others or in a position of helplessness. I yearn to write about my spiritual journey and to be of some help to others as they walk their own journey. I yearn for God to reveal Himself as I live out my life, day to day. I yearn to be fed by God. I yearn to know that God loves me. I yearn to be with Him.”