The desires of our heart matter because they give us hints of our personal calling. They guide us toward what we are called to be, to live, and to do. Our responsibility is to choose between those life-giving desires that lead us to become the person God wants us to be and those disordered ones that take us in the opposite direction.
Above all, our deepest desires matter because through them God leads us into the life that God wants to give us. Formed in our heart by the Spirit, these hidden longings echo what God longs for within our own unique circumstances. As we learn to discern and respond to them, the consequences are transformative. We move toward greater intimacy with God and others. We become different in a compassionate and loving way. We receive strength from a power source beyond ourselves. We realize that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God’s love. We discover zoe life in the here and now.
Can you see why discerning our desires becomes essential?
A Three-Part Toolkit for Discerning Our Desires
Let us look at the Gospel encounter between Jesus and the blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52).
Bartimaeus was seated by the side of the road when Jesus and his disciples passed by. When he heard that Jesus was near, Bartimaeus shouted out, “Son of David, have mercy on me.”
The crowd told him to be quiet, but he was insistent in his desire and again cried out to Jesus.
Finally, Jesus called him and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?”
It is a question that has several layers of meaning that are relevant for us as we build a toolkit for discerning our desires. Let me tease some of these out.
1.Noticing Our Desires
Jesus asked Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Imagine how this question must have floored him. Surely Jesus would have known what the man wanted! Jesus, however, wanted Bartimaeus to get in touch with what he desired. What did Bartimaeus want more than anything else in the world?
Jesus’ question invites us into a similar exploration. Jesus wants us to pause, listen to our heart, and recognize what we really want.
Many of us avoid this inward journey. We make excuses. We say we’re too busy, or it’s a waste of time, or it’s too painful, or it will lead to selfishness, or we think that reasoning offers us a better guide to our lives. The list goes on. Some of us have also had our capacity for desire scarred by painful disappointment.
Whatever the reason may be, the result is always the same. We miss the opportunity to notice the desires of our heart and hear what God may be saying through them.
The consequences are sad. We rob ourselves of living an energetic life of depth and wonder and passion. We miss out on an intimate connection with God and with others. Perhaps the gravest consequence of not being aware of our different desires is that we cannot sift through them to see which come from God and which don’t. We get captured by our lesser desires rather than following the greater ones. We can only see which desires are life-giving when we stop to reflect on and notice what they are. This means we must take this question from Jesus seriously, stop in our busy lives, and give attention to our longings and yearnings.
As a pastor, I have learned from Ignatius and Dallas Willard to sometimes ask others, “What do you really want?” These conversations usually take us beneath the surface.
I’m reminded of a forty-something-year-old man, a nominal churchgoer, with whom I have been having lunch a few times each year. Over the years, I had built a level of trust where I could risk some personal questions.
One lunchtime, I asked him what he most wanted as he faced the second stage of his life.
“Well, I guess, I just want to be happy,” he said.
Knowing that he was happily married and had a good job, I wondered aloud, “What do you think would bring you the happiness you want?”
“I am not really sure,” he responded. “Something is missing from my life, and I can’t really put my finger on what it is.”
As we explored what could be missing, he used a poignant phrase that I have heard a few times. Wistfully, he said quietly, “There must be something more.”
We sat in silence for a moment. Then he added with a smile, “That’s what I am looking for! I am looking for the ‘something more.’ Where do I find that?”
We are still in conversation. My friend is building a toolkit for discerning his “something more.” He is noticing the desires of his heart. It still feels strange, unfamiliar, and even a little uncomfortable for him. He struggles at times to put into words what he longs for.
I can understand this. Even though we acknowledge how important it is to respond to Jesus’ question, finding words for what we want is not a simple matter. The language of the heart takes time to learn. When we do learn, though, our conversation with God extends to a deeper level.
This is happening for my friend. He is talking with God about matters that he has never spoken about before. He is also (I believe) on the edge of discovering another kind of life.
2. Sifting Our Desires
When Jesus asked Bartimaeus what he wanted, he was inviting him to name what he wanted most of all. What do you want, Bartimaeus? Do you really want to give up begging for a living? Do you honestly want another kind of life? Do you genuinely want to become responsible for the life you have?
There were many possible answers. Bartimaeus’s response was “Let me see again.” He wanted what only Jesus could give him. This was the deepest desire of his heart. His intensely focused desire brought him both the healing and the new life he wanted.
It is not always easy to discover what we desire the most. Just try answering that question immediately! One reason it is hard is because when we are asked what we want, usually many desires come to mind. It is easier to name those that are more superficial than the deeper ones. We may write down immediately things like:
- “I want to lose weight.”
- “I want to stop smoking.”
- “I want a new car.”
- “I would like a different job.”
- “I want more money.”
There is nothing wrong with these surface-level responses. But if we stop with these, they keep us from looking deeper.
We must not write off our more superficial desires. We come to know our deepest desire by sifting through our surface desires. They are necessary signposts on a journey toward what is most true and genuine within us. They are not irrelevant to finding out what our deeper desires are. Sometimes the only way we can identify what desires lie at the core of our being is to begin with those at the uppermost of our minds and then follow them downward toward the longings that lie beneath. Discernment involves noticing our many desires, sifting through them, and distinguishing the deeper ones from the more superficial ones.
It is also hard to identify what we want most when we get pulled in different directions by contradictory desires.
One strong desire of mine is exploring with others in week-long retreat settings what it means to live in a friendship with God today. It brings me great joy and profound fulfillment to do this whenever I’m invited to do so. But doing this often necessitates time away from home. I also want to spend time with Debbie, to relax with her as much as possible, and to enjoy our life together. We are both getting older, and I know that our time together is limited. It is not always easy to sift through these conflicting desires and to know which one I need to follow in the moment.
Facing incompatible desires raises the critical question: What is the most fundamental desire of my heart that can guide me through these tensions and conflicts in my life? Sifting through our responses to this question until we begin to find some clarity about what we most want is what discerning our deepest desires is all about.
Here we come to the third ingredient necessary for our discernment toolkit: Asking for what we most desire.
3. Asking for What We Desire
Recall our Gospel story one last time. Jesus was really interested in what Bartimaeus wanted. “What do you want me to do for you?” It was an honest question.
Bartimaeus took the question seriously too. He didn’t assume that Jesus knew. He asked Jesus for what he wanted. “My teacher,” he answered, “let me see again.”
Bartimaeus’s asking led to him getting his sight back and entering more fully into the life God gives us. Notice how the story of his healing ends not only with him been able to see but also with him following Jesus “on the way,” into another kind of life (Mark 10:52).
Both Ignatius and Dallas Willard stressed the importance of asking for what we want in our friendship with God. We share with the Lord our real desires, wants, and longings, and we give God time to respond.
Remember, God meets us where we are, in the midst of what we want, and leads us on from there. Any relationship that is moving toward intimacy requires time and patience and this kind of honest, vulnerable asking. Sometimes it will become clear that what we ask is way off the mark and requires radical reshaping. We do not, however, give up on asking. “Asking,” Charles Spurgeon maintained, “is the rule of the kingdom.”8
You may wonder why God wants us to ask for what we want. Here is an analogy from Gerard Hughes that helps me:
Imagine a couple getting married. They have written their own vows for the wedding service. The groom says to the bride, “You are my heart’s delight, and I love you with all my being. I will love you for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death parts us. However, you must understand that from this moment on, I have no interest at all in what you desire or want. From now on, your happiness consists solely in submitting yourself to my will, with complete dedication and with no thought for your own.”
After the groom says this to the bride, the minister asks the woman, “Will you take this man as your husband?”9
How do you think the bride will respond? Not very well, I think.
Many people believe that God is like this bridegroom in that scenario. Yet our Gospel story reveals a very different picture of God. The God we meet in Jesus is concerned and interested in our desires. God would like us to bring them in prayer.
Jesus’ response to Bartimaeus’s request encourages us to see that God really cares about we ask for. This does not mean that we always get what we want. Not all our desires express the truest longings of our hearts. Some are quite self-centered and superficial. If God granted them, we would never discover the truer desires of our heart. Selfish desires can push us in destructive directions. If they were expressed, they would cause great pain. But God meets us where we are, no matter what our desires are, and then gives us the light we need to sort out which are deepest.
Trevor Hudson is an ordained minister in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. After spending forty years doing pastoral ministry in a local congregation, he now gives his time to lecturing, teaching, and writing in the areas of spiritual formation and spiritual direction. Throughout his life as a pastor and teacher, he has sought to prioritize the discipleship ministry of local congregations, build bridges across different “streams” within the Christian community, and relate spiritual formation to daily life within the context of our suffering world.
He is married to Debbie and is the father of two children, Joni married to James, and Mark married to Marike.
Taken from Seeking God: Finding Another Kind of Life with St. Ignatius and Dallas Willard by Trevor Hudson © 2021. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.