Even though I’ve just recently released my second book, Keeping Place, I continue to travel and speak on the topic of my first book, Teach Us to Want. This is a question that was recently emailed to me, and I wanted to answer it at length here.
Can I run something up the flag pole with you on this subject? After reading the beginning of Teach Us to Want, I had to put the book down and take two giant steps backward. The book asks us about our wants and desires—our deep inside “ME ONLY” wants and desires. When I go the basement of my mind, lift up the rug and false floor, and pull out the old deteriorating suitcase labeled "Wants & Desires," I find a glaring new label affixed over the old one: "Disappointments.”
Man, it's heavy.
I had wants and desires from as long ago as when I was three years old. In the spirit of survival, those wants and desires were denied for me and on my behalf. Fast forward to my adult life. Ten years ago, I made the hardest decision I've ever made, which demanded that I walk away from my very last lifelong dream and desire. And somewhere, sandwiched in the middle, is the painful drudgery of single parenting and challenge of "motherhood" that feels like a noose around my neck. Now, I am unexpectedly a grandmother—the result of my Dean’s List college-aged daughter’s teen pregnancy.
From my earliest memories, my life story is a continuous tale of crisis aversion, management and the desperate scramble to simply touch the fringe of "Wants & Desires"—but never actually own one. In fact, after much review, I believe the last "want/desire" that I recognized and achieved was graduating High School in 1986.
It's not all doom and gloom. Sometimes life settles down, and I'm learning to find contentment in living the day to day.
The last decade? No desires. No wants.
Am I supposed to??? My greatest desire is to get back and forth from the grocery store without traffic. That's good, right?
So, I picked up the book again, this time at Chapter 3. "Delight yourself in the Lord and HE will give you the desires of your heart.” I'm not sure I want to "want" or "desire.” In fact, I'm sure that I don't want to. I hear that He wants me to trust Him with reckless abandon and to "delight" myself in Him (how do you EVEN do that??) and He will give ME desires.
But why?? Why desire? Why want? Do I NEED to desire or want??
Confused in California
Dear Confused in California,
Thank you so much for reading Teach Us to Want and for posing these very important questions. I’m so glad that you’ve written, and I’m also glad that you’ve given me the permission to share our conversation publicly.
I suppose the first important thing to say is this: we don’t want simply so that we can get things from God. That would be to do what James condemns in his epistle, chapter 4: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly to spend it on your passions” (v. 3). Many of us have our life of desire turned upside down and inside out.
Life with God isn’t ultimately about getting things from him: it’s about getting him in us.
You’ve referenced Psalm 37:4, and I’m so glad. It’s an often-misunderstood verse. People use it to defend their gospel of, “God loves me; I love him; therefore, it’s only right that he gives me what I want.” But as you say, that verse isn’t about us telling God what we want and getting it. It’s about him giving us HIS desires. It’s as we delight ourselves in the LORD that the whole nature of our desiring life changes. As we delight ourselves, more and more, in the LORD, we delight ourselves, less and less, in the shallow pleasures of comfort and convenience. As we delight ourselves, more and more, in the LORD, we delight ourselves, less and less, in material security, reputation, even temporal happiness.
To delight ourselves in the LORD is to love what God loves. And the Lord’s Prayer teaches us what God loves: God loves for his name to be made holy, for his kingdom to come, for his will to be done. It’s not, of course, that we should stop wanting for the simple sustenance of this life. The Lord’s Prayer also invites us to pray for bread, for restored relationship with others and with God, for protection. But as the late Kenneth Bailey wrote in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, there’s an important architecture of priority in this prayer. The “thee” petitions come before the “me” petitions, which provides a lesson for life.
We must become the kind of people who think of God and his kingdom priorities first.
I know I still haven’t answered your most pressing question: why want? If I’m only supposed to want what God wants, why even bother with the complicated business of desire? And doesn’t that just lead me to a lot of disappointments and unmet expectations?
Here’s the first reason to want in your life of faith: because it’s one way to risk on God’s goodness. Or maybe I could put it this way: how often is our failure to want really about our failure to trust God’s goodness? The Psalmist says that God is good and does good (Ps. 119:68). Whatever he chooses to do, whatever he chooses to give, whatever his timing: it’s good. We see this all throughout Scripture, that God’s impulse is to give and to bless. This doesn’t mean of course that we get to say “This is good, therefore you must give it to me, God.” But it is to say, “God, I trust you have my best interest at heart.”
To illustrate what I mean, let me share a story from my friend’s book, Praying Together. Megan Hill tells the story about arriving with her husband at the Ethiopian orphanage to take their son home. All the children, having learned just a few words of English, were crying out, “Mommy!” “Daddy!” She writes, “Those little ones knew the language of family and the gestures of asking, but twenty-four of the children had no right to use them. And though we gave candy and balloons to every child, there was only on little boy whose cries to us of ‘Mommy’ and ‘Daddy’ were absolutely compelling. This was the child with whom we have a relationship—having just appeared before a judge in a courtroom to secure his adoption—and this child alone could reach into our pockets with every assurance that he’d be granted whatever treat he could find there.” As Jesus said, if this inclination to generosity is true of flawed human parents, how much more must our heavenly Father want to be generous with us! God is good and does good. That’s a reason to bring him your desires—because he can be trusted to receive them and respond to them out of his lavish love.
A second reason to want—a reason connected to this first point—is that it will grow your intimacy with God. There is a vulnerability to admitting our desires to anyone, whether that’s a friend or God himself. It’s vulnerable in one sense because our desires say something about us. Maybe they say that we’re selfish! Maybe they say that we’re apathetic! To bring our desires before God is a vulnerable act—and prayer, if we want to pray like Abraham and Hannah and Jesus and Paul prayed—is supposed to be vulnerable. Bold. Self-disclosing. The Psalmist says, “O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you” (Ps. 38:9). I believe that God wants to know all of us. I believe that a life of walking with Christ is a life of walking in the light, of disclosing ourselves to God, not concealing ourselves. Maybe we could even just think about the impulse of Adam and Eve in the garden, after they had eaten the fruit. They hid themselves from the presence of God, rather than walking before him naked and unashamed. One way of seizing this marvelous invitation to “draw near to the throne of grace with confidence” (Heb. 4:16) is to come to God without concealment: to tell him what we really think, really want, really despair of, really fear. Only then do those things have a chance of being repaired, reformed, transformed! Only then do we deepen our friendship with God, which is what he is ultimately after and which is the only thing to satisfy our deepest longings and desires.
Maybe it’s in coming to God with our desires that we begin to see how much anything pales compared to the great worth of knowing him.
And here’s a final point that I’ll make here. (So much more to say, but I guess you’ll have to finish the book!) There is no real lasting transformation in our lives apart from a transformation of our desires. Philippians 2:13 talks about the ambitious scope of the gospel. When the Spirit of Jesus indwells us, he’s not content simply that we believe differently or behave differently. We must want differently. And when we want differently, we sustain real change in our lives. I suppose we’d only have to consider New Year’s Resolutions to consider how insufficient duty and obligation are for sustaining change. That’s not to say that we shirk duty and obligation, but it is say that when we do something dutifully, we have our eye on desire. God, let my heart change—alongside my behavior.
As I’ve risked to disclose my desires to God, to wait on him, to surrender to him, I’ve learned in much deeper and personal way that he is good, that he can be trusted. I’ve also learned that this world, so deeply broken and in need of repair, will always leave me wanting for a better one. And maybe that’s one of the most important lessons of desire. As C.S. Lewis has famously written, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
We’re living in the middle act. We’re not at the end of the story yet. When you open that box labeled “Disappointments,” you can remember that Jesus is coming again, that he’s promised to deliver the world from its groaning. You can remember “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).
With you, I am longing for that home.