I was watching ESPN awhile ago when they did a story on an MMA fighter. To set up the segment, the guy from ESPN said:
"MMA… it's one of the fastest growing and one of the most physically demanding sports in the world, and although you can teach a left-right hook combination, you cannot teach heart, you cannot instill a desire to climb into a ring, an octagon or on a mat and compete in a sport where the goal is either knock somebody out or force them to submit…"
And that struck me as terrible news. You cannot instill a desire. It struck me as terrible news because desire seems to be where most of my battles are won or lost. Skills are a dime a dozen. Information is overwhelmingly available. But those things are only transformative when they're attached to desires that take me in the right direction. And with all our technological advancement, all our education, I think we still feel weak and afraid when questions of desire come up.
Jesus seems interested in those questions.
He says "You're blessed when you hunger and thirst for righteousness." When you desire a world of justice, in which things are as they should be and people are who they were meant to be, that's the good life. That's interesting, because I'm not sure I'd describe it that way. When you feel the devastating gap between what is and what should be, that can be painful. It's like part of your heart is tethered to Heaven and part of your heart is chained to this broken world, and the distance between them is tearing you in two. And Jesus says the desires that create that painful experience are part of a blessed life.
I've read a few commentaries on the Beatitudes, and it seems like the best commentators agree: Jesus isn't preaching this prescriptively. He's not telling us to try harder to want it. He's not saying, "Try to ache for justice." He's saying, "When you ache for justice, you're blessed." And I'm also beginning to think He's talking to all of us. This blessing is for everyone, because everyone has a place somewhere in their heart where they ache for justice. But we live in this blessing when we stop numbing ourselves to the pain and frustration that come with that holy longing and allow ourselves to rediscover it. Jesus says you're blessed when you remember your deepest desires.
Jesus was in Jericho once when a blind man named Bartimaeus started shouting at him, "Have mercy on me!" I've prayed something like that a lot of times. When I'm in over my head. When I'm broken down by my failures. When I'm exhausted and life is asking for more than I have. When sin leaves me and the people I love wounded.
The people around the blind guy told him to shut up. They were probably embarrassed. It's awkward when someone stops pretending that everything is alright. It makes the rest of us uncomfortable. We'd rather come before God all put together. We'd rather talk to Him about our resumé than our rap sheet.
But Bartimaeus wouldn't shut up, and Jesus wanted to talk to him, so He calls the guy forward. And then He asks him a question: "What do you want me to do for you?"
If Jesus asked me that, I'd probably get awkward, unable to really say what I want. Since it's Jesus asking, I'd want to offer a good answer. I'd want to dig deep. But that's hard to do.
And if I did dig deep, I might discover that so much of what I want is puny. In Jesus' presence, I think I'd be embarrassed to talk about how badly I want cool friends or financial security or success or to never feel lonely.
It's not that those things are bad. It's just that, when you're talking to the maker of universe, you don't want to mistake good things for ultimate things.
But like the beatitude suggests, I think we actually do want the biggest, most important things. I think that's part of being made in God's image. I think it's part of living in a universe that's held together by God's presence. It's inescapable. Which may be why we try so hard to escape it. Because those desires create an ache. And we've been taught to be afraid or ashamed of those desires. Life tries to beat them out of us, but they're still there.
I know it because so many times, I've been with someone who may not come across as very 'spiritual', who may not talk like a saint or live like one, who may scoff at spirituality or express little interest in things like faith -- and this of course is a description of myself as much as anyone else -- who then, in a moment of raw honesty, when they were broken down by grief or difficulty, or when just enough silence created a little bit of space for their heart to breathe, when the stars were bright enough and the air was heavy enough to feel the weight of the question -- what do you want? -- found their heart springing up and crying out for God and for a life where meaning is founded in Him. It turns out we may in fact want goodness and beauty and truth, and we may want the One who is good and beautiful and true. It's just hard to feel that when we want so many other things. But discovering that deeper desire starts with hearing the question.
Thinking about all of this has helped me change my attitude toward what happens when the Church gathers to worship. I'm not sure if worship can always give us what we want. I'm not sure if worship is supposed to satisfy our desires. But it seems like a great place to think about our desires, and to feel the tension created by the deeper ones. The time we spend worshiping together is a great place to hear the question.
If I had a vendetta against the human race, and if I had some power to affect people all over the world, I think I'd try to convince them that the most important question in life is, "How do I get what I want?", because then I would have tricked them into skipping right over the more primary question: what do you want? I would have hidden it in plain sight, right in front of them.
But if we can find some space in life to hear God asking us that most important question, we can be changed. And we can find that space. We can find it because it's there in the world God created. It's there in the Church God loves. It's there in the stories where Jesus meets men and women like you and me. And the question is like a magnet, drawing us toward its only true answer.
Maybe ESPN is right; maybe you can't instill a desire. But what if we can rediscover one that was always there? Maybe that discovery happens when we get quiet enough to hear Jesus asking us, "What do you want?"