I am a red-blooded American male. I love my wife and kids, football, cold beer, and when conditions are just right (rude people, hot sauce, and lack of sleep) I can hurl curse words in the air that make truck drivers and sailors high-five each other with delight (though I promise I'm trying to change... no BS). But there is something I have to admit. I really love the movie The Notebook, the 2004 movie starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. I know it's cheesy, and I know admitting this means I probably can never get that skull tattoo I always wanted, but the film contains in it a scene that asks one of the most deeply spiritual questions that could ever be asked: "What do you want?"
Remember the scene? Country boy Noah Calhoun (played by Gosling) has been smitten with rich girl Allie Hamilton (McAdams' character) ever since he laid eyes on her at a carnival when they were teenagers. They share a summer love affair. But then life gets in the way. They go their separate ways only to find that their hearts are still very much connected. They meet again years later. Allie seems to have moved on; she's in love with someone else. But Noah? Well, Noah is still yearning for her. There is a confrontation that culminates in Noah repeatedly asking Allie, "WHAT DO YOU WANT? What do you want? What do you want? What-do-you-want?" Allie can't answer.
What do you want?
So many of us move through life in a fog, going through the motions, feeling a bit unsettled or uneasy, feeling a pinch of longing that never seems to go away. And yet few of us ever ask ourselves, what do really we want? This is a question that can be difficult to answer, but once you do in a sincere way, it can change your life.
In The Jesuit's Guide to (Almost) Everything, James Martin covers this topic extraordinarily well. He recounts the Gospel story of Bartimaeus, the blind man, who calls out to Jesus. The man's friends hush him, thinking that Jesus, this acclaimed miracle worker, is too busy to deal with the likes of this guy. But Jesus stops and asks Bartimaeus, "What do you want me to do for you?" The man replies, "Let me see again." Jesus answers, "Receive your sight ... Your faith has saved you."
Now, Jesus could see that the man was blind. Of course he wanted to see, so why did he ask the question? As Martin writes: "Jesus asks Bartimaeus what he wants, not so much for himself as for the blind man. Jesus was helping the man identify his desire, and to be clear about it."
What we see in this story is that desire plus faith yielded a miracle. I don't offer this equation as a magic formula. God is not a genie who grants wishes, and to think so is naïve and misguided. But, there is something special going on here; Bartimaeus was sincere in his request to be healed. So let's make a little adjustment: desire plus authentic faith equals miracles. And by authentic I mean strong, true, and just.
Why is this question, "What do you want?" so important? Let's let Ron Rolheiser, author of The Holy Longing and Sacred Fire answer: "What lies deepest inside authentic faith is the truth that God is the object of all human desire, no matter how earthy and unholy that desire might seem at times. This implies that everything we desire is contained in God."
Yet, accepting this is a challenge. Rolheiser goes on to write, "Do we really believe that God is the real object of our desires? When we look at all that is beautiful, full of life, attractive, sexually alluring, and pleasurable on earth, do we really think and believe that this is contained in an infinitely richer way inside of God and inside the life into which God invites us?" The answer for many of us is no.
But what if we tried a little experiment? What if we asked ourselves the question, "What do I want?" and just see if we can trace the answer back to God. Maybe that desire is for a car? But is it really for a car? Maybe the new car offers security because you don't have to worry about getting to work every day and providing for your family. Maybe God desires for you to experience the joys of being a good provider and having a new car helps you fulfill that purpose. Maybe that desire to post everything about your life on Facebook or Instagram is really a desire to know that you matter, that someone cares for you, that you're worthy. Can you search that desire and find peace in knowing that God is there for you?
This exercise doesn't mean you have to "get" religion or go back to church or even pray. Just try it as a form of mental stretching. Maybe you desire to travel or to pray more or spend time with your mom. Write your answers down. Then, ask yourself, "What do I really want?" Really is an important word here because it leads straight to the heart of your yearnings. And just list those answers. Don't be judgmental. Try it for seven days. And while you're doing this keep Noah Calhoun from The Notebook in mind. Noah really wants to know what Allie wants, not necessarily for himself (maybe a little), but because he wants her to be clear about her decisions. God wants the same thing for us.
Give the exercise a shot -- it's good for your soul -- and next week we'll look at another powerful question that will help give flesh to your answers.
Gary Jansen is the author of The Fifteen-Minute Prayer Solution: How One Percent of Your Day Can Transform Your Life