Yesterday’s spiritual exercise instructed us to read Luke 11:1-13 and to “accept Jesus’ invitation to ask for what you want.”
The passage recounts a story when Jesus instructs his disciple on how to pray and why they should pray.
5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
If you bother your friend enough, he will eventually give you what you want.
If you ask God for what you want, he is even more likely than your neighbor than to give you what you want.
But this seemed a bit childish to me. It seems like asking God for what you want is like asking Santa Claus for what you want.
This isn’t because I think God is some made up character like Santa Claus, but when you ask for things you want, you probably want things that are only good for yourself. Your desires may be childish.
It doesn’t seem right and proper to ask God for a new car or to win the lottery.
James Martin, a Jesuit priest, has some interesting ideas on the topic of desire.
Holy vs. Superficial Desires
Martin distinguishes between what I described above (wanting a new car or to win the lottery) and holy desires, which are “desires that help us know who we are to become and what we are to do.”
By merely identifying what we want in the context of prayer, we’re forced to distinguish desires we know are superficial from our deepest desires. It’s actually quite difficult to name your deepest desires.
Perhaps that’s why the Bible encourages you to ask for what you want, to help you distinguish between what you think you want vs. what you really want.
And this deep, “holy,” desire, is fundamentally good.
Martin quotes from another writer:
“We tend to think that if we desire something, it is probably something we ought not to want or to have. But think about it: without desire we would never get up in the morning. We would never have ventured beyond the front door. We would never have read a book or learned something new. No desire means no life, no growth, no change. Desire is what makes two people create a third person. Desire is what makes crocuses push up through the late-winter soil. Desire is energy, the energy of creativity, the energy of life itself. So let’s not be too hard on desire.” – Margaret Silf , Wise Choices.
I don’t think you need to believe in God to understand the distinction between your superficial and deeper desires, but using the framework of a loving God is useful.
If you ask yourself, “is this something I’d ask God for or is this something I’d ask from Santa Claus,” you force yourself to dig deeper, to find those deep desires that can guide you to a rich and meaningful life.
This is a feeling that has plagued me for the longest time. Feeling “incomplete” is a clue to understanding what you truly desire.
We all feel that restlessness, the nagging feeling that there must be something more to life than our day-to-day existence.
Feelings of incompletion may reflect dissatisfaction with our daily lives and point us to something that needs to be rectified. If we are trapped in a miserable job, a dead-end relationship, or an unhealthy family situation, it might be time to think about serious change. Dissatisfaction doesn’t have to be stoically endured; it can lead to a decision, change, and a more fulfilled life.
The Jesuits identify this “incompleteness” as a desire for God. Others mistakenly (according to Catholics) try to fill this “God-shaped hole” with money, status, or power because that’s what they attribute the cause of their emptiness.
What’s attractive about money, status, and power is that they seem attainable. The next steps to take are known, or at least, you know where to look for the next steps. And of course, the rewards are mesmerizing.
When I think about how I’d feel if I attained any of those things, I still think there’d be something missing. Sipping mojitos on a beach somewhere would get old after a month or so (though that first month would be awesome).
Alternatively, you can imagine yourself never attaining those superficial things that you desire. What would you do if you never attain the level of wealth you think you need? What would you do if you were never recognized for your work or never attained the level of status and fame that you think would you make you happy?
Those thought exercises have helped me recognize the extent of the emptiness that I feel, and is partly what led me to start The Ancient Wisdom Project.
“Somewhere deep in our hearts we already know that success, fame, influence, power, and money do not give us the inner joy and peace we crave. Somewhere we can even sense a certain envy of those who have shed all false ambitions and found a deeper fulfillment in “their relationship with God. Yes, somewhere we can even get a taste of that mysterious joy in the smile of those who have nothing to lose.” – Henri Nouwen
Common indicators of desire
I was surprised at the common experiences Martin ascribes to God, and how relevant they seem to my own life.
I’ve referenced this before, but when I’m in a particularly beautiful natural environment, a sense of serenity just washes over me and I feel all is right with the world.
I am also touched by certain story lines in movies and TV shows. I’ve definitely had those “there’s something in my eye” incidents during The Blind Side because I was so impressed by the kindness of the main character.
Martin suggests these are desires for God.
Sometimes you experience a desire for God in very common situations: standing silently in the snowy woods on a winter’s day, finding yourself moved to tears during a movie, recognizing a strange sense of connection during a church service—and feeling an inexpressible longing to savor this feeling and understand what it is.
I usually just dismiss these feelings or tell myself to pull it together. Apparently, that is most people’s reaction.
Many of us have had experiences like this. We feel that we are standing on the brink of something important, on the edge of experiencing something just beyond us. We experience wonder. So why don’t you hear more about these times?
Because many times we ignore them, reject them, or deny them. We chalk them up to being overwhelmed, overwrought, overly emotional. “Oh, I was just being silly!” you might say to yourself. Or we are not encouraged or invited to talk about them as spiritual experiences. So you disregard that longing you feel when the first breath of a spring breeze caresses your face after a long dark winter, because you tell yourself (or others tell you) that you were simply being emotional.
I like that it’s ok to take these feelings seriously, and that they may important clues to discerning what your true desires are. It is more data and information that can help you make better decisions, not something to be dismissed as an emotional breakdown or weakness.
Science vs. Jesuits
I’m very impressed by how sophisticated the Jesuits’ understanding of desire is. I want to use my Catholic month to gain clarity, and they have given me new language and methods to understand what it is I really want. They have given me a new source of information to study (feelings of incompleteness, emotions) and permission to take them seriously. Studying my desires in the context of God brings up questions that I wouldn’t have thought to ask.
It may seem silly if you don’t believe in God, but I’m not sure about the God thing and I find it incredibly helpful. I’m still skeptical and there are certainly rational and scientific explanations for feelings of serenity and emptiness, but it’s hard to act on scientific and rational explanations of desire.
Desire and fulfillment are complex and nuanced subjects, perhaps too complicated to understand completely. However, the Jesuits seem to have a good grasp on it and have valuable contributions to make to this subject. It would be a shame if we ignored what they have to say simply because we’re not open to the idea of God.