I am curating stories for a blog project called, “Found Wanting.” (If you’d like to submit a guest post, learn more here.) During Jesus’ earthly ministry, it was not uncommon for him to approach the sick and sin-sick with this question: “What do you want?” In John 5, he speaks with a man lying next to the healing waters of Bethesda, a man who has been an invalid for 38 years.
“When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’”
The man seizes an excuse. “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up.”
Was it too much for this man to hope for healing?
What is too great a risk to invite the responsibility for walking again?
There can be fear in desire: fear that we will want what God will always refuse to give; fear that we will not want whatever God, in his sovereignty, chooses to give.
Ultimately, we are profoundly afraid of ceding into the hands of God our trust.
I’m grateful for those willing to share their stories of desire here. I'm neither applauding nor condemning their stories: rather, I am amplifying their desires - and reminding each of us that to be human is to want. In my book, Teach Us to Want, I claim that:
“Desire takes shape in the particularities of our lives. We cannot excerpt desire from the anthology of our stories. Our desires say something about us – who we have been, who we are and who we are becoming. They tell a part of the story that God is telling through us, even the beautiful and complicated story of being human and becoming holy.”
To catch up on the series, read these featured stories: Amy Chaney, "I didn't want to be a coach's wife." Beth Bruno, "I've wanted beauty." Wendy Stringer, "I didn't want to move to suburbia." Steve Burks, "I've wanted to produce entertainment." Faydra Stratton, "I didn't want a child with Fragile X." Brook Seekins, "I never wanted to be a missionary in Africa." Sarah Van Beveren, "I have always wanted to be strong." Holly Pennington, "I didn't want to find out what I wanted." Larry, Shallenberger, "I wanted to know what I wanted." Hannah Anderson, "I didn't want - because I couldn't afford to."
Today, Megan Hill writes her story of desire.
I want your blessing, good health, and traveling mercies. Amen.
That’s what I want.
Or is it?
In my twenties, after years of praying pious-sounding but endlessly vague prayers—at youth group meetings, in the classrooms of my Christian high school, and during college dorm Bible studies—I was confused. When I prayed, what was I asking God for?
What did I want?
My confusion was not exactly doubt. I belonged to Christ. Trusted that my sins were atoned for. Had a pretty good knowledge of my Bible. I even had every confidence that my prayers were true communication with a sovereign and compassionate God. I didn’t wonder, as many do, if my prayers were actually being heard by someone, and I didn’t question whether I might ask for bread and end up with a rock. No, I simply realized that I wasn’t actually asking for anything.
Something nice, Lord. Please? I think I might want something nice?
Maybe I needed to be more specific. And though asking bold particulars from the Lord seemed like it might be the answer to my confusion, it wasn’t really. Because there were also times I prayed prayers so detailed they consumed all of my quiet time with a single request. I begged God for a husband, and, like Tevye the fiddler’s daughter, I boldly listed the qualities I thought he should have. But even that left me uncertain. Was godliness the thing I really wanted in a husband? What about my desire for a tall man, so tall that I could fit under his chin? What did I want? And were those things God would even give me?
My prayer life was faltering. I had little energy for prayer because I little confidence in what I was praying. I read wistfully the account of the persistent widow in Luke’s Gospel. She knew what she wanted. She had the conviction that she could reasonably expect to get it. And so she wasn’t tired of asking again and again and again and again. I wanted to be like her. Eventually, in God’s kindness, two things happened.
First, a college friend read to me Psalm 37:4. She was a friend-of-a-friend, really, and we were having breakfast together in the cafeteria. I don’t remember ever eating with this woman either before or after. And I don’t remember why she read me that text. But it was the inspired words themselves that that press on my mind to this day: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.”(NASB) Here, finally, was a prescription for desire and prayer—shaped and fulfilled in God Himself.
What I desire and what I pray always occupy the same space. For me, this is like the act of breathing: inhale desire, exhale prayer. And I realized that in order to pray well, I would have to desire well. That verse in the psalms, read aloud by a pony-tailed classmate whom I barely knew, showed me plainly what I wanted. I discovered that I wanted to want what God wants.
Which, of course, begs the question: What does God want?
His kind answer came when I began to pray with Carol. Years after my Psalm 37 cafeteria epiphany, the second thing happened, and Carol, an older woman in my church, invited me to her house for a weekly hour of prayer together.
J.I. Packer writes, “People who know their God are before anything else people who pray.” Carol bears out this statement like few women I’ve ever met. Carol knows her God. And Carol prays. She and I would start out our prayer time sitting on the couch—hers or mine, it varied over the years—praising God for His character. But, soon, those vocal meditations on God’s kindness and power and glory would move Carol to ask that great God to act. And, remembering friends with cancer and children rebelling against their creator and brothers and sisters in chains because of Christ, she would abruptly stand up, continuing her prayers on her feet, begging the Lord who heals, the Lord who saves, the Lord who vindicates, to work.
Knowing God shaped Carol’s desires, energized them, emboldened them. She desperately wanted what God wanted.
What does God want? He wants to glorify Himself in His fullness. He wants to act in accordance with His holy character. He wants to advance His kingdom, care for His children, and exalt His Son. And so, through Carol’s God-filled petitions, week by week, I learned to want—and to pray—these things. Inhale. Exhale.
The catechism of my church (The Westminster Shorter Catechism) begins its definition of prayer this way, “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will. . . .” At first reading, this seems like it might cripple prayer. Prayer can only be for the things that God wants?
But I have discovered how learning to pray this way actually gives clarity and confidence to my desires. I didn’t know what I wanted—I didn’t desire anything with conviction—until I considered what God wanted.
After years of praying like a kid hesitantly asking Santa for a real live unicorn, I feel like I’m finally figuring out what to want. Desire compels prayer. Prayer strengthens desire. Inhale. Exhale.
These days, I’m learning to want things that I can expect to receive, and to boldly plead for them from the very One whom I can expect to give. “Lord, teach us to pray” begged the disciples. Teach us what we want, and then we’ll ask You for it. And that’s what I want, too.