Have you ever gone shopping for someone really special in your life? You want to buy them just the right gift, yet you’re not sure what that really is just yet? You wander up and down the aisles, from store to store, and you just keep struggling to find the perfect gift. You end up buying a bunch of other little things, only to keep searching for the perfect gift.
I think we often have that same struggle in our own lives. We are constantly looking for something, seeking something, wanting something. Something more, beyond ourselves, something we don’t have at the moment. Something that will give our lives more meaning, something that will enable us to live fuller, happier lives. Sadly, just like we do on our shopping endeavors, we walk up and down the aisles of life, pushing carts overflowing with good things, but we still have not found exactly what we are really looking for.
Jesus asked a good question in the Gospel of John about this kind of searching
Allow me to set the scene…
John the Baptist has been preaching about the coming Messiah, baptizing people, preparing the way because the Messiah is soon to come. One day Jesus came to John to be baptized too, and John realizes and testifies that Jesus is the one. Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. When God sent John to baptize, He told him that “the one on whom you see the Spirit descend and rest on is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” He saw this happen to Jesus and testified that He is the Chosen One of God.
Let’s read John 1:35-39 to see what happened next.
35 The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour.
Intrigued by the description John gave of the passing stranger – the Lamb of God – the two disciples immediately began to follow Jesus. Suddenly Jesus realizes they are following him, stops, turns around and says, “What are you looking for?”
I imagine this question must have caught the two men off guard. Here they are, obviously searching for something that is missing in their lives when Jesus asked them what that is. “What are they looking for?” And as we see, they weren’t really sure how to answer, which is why they changed the subject and asked where He was staying. Jesus entertains their question in return by telling them to come and see. He didn’t push His own question, just yet, because He knew it would take them some time to realize what they were truly looking for. No doubt, this question was the start though of that inner journey that would ultimately change their lives.
I want you to notice something about this story. In verse 40 only one of the disciples’ names is given, Andrew, which is Simon Peter’s brother. The other disciple is not named at all. Some scholars believe the unnamed disciple is the Gospel writer himself, John. Sort of like an author’s secret signature. However, the lack of a name gives us another suggestion. Maybe it is to invite us to put our own name in its place so we can respond to the question as if it were asked to us personally. “Trish, what are you looking for?” Maybe answering it could change our lives for the better, just as it did for the two disciples.
Jesus’ question has several layers of meaning.
Let’s explore what they are so we too can try to answer Jesus’ question.
1. The question urges us to listen to our hearts. The word heart occurs over 800 times in the Old Testament alone and does not refer to our physical heart. It is a metaphor that expresses the deep center of our lives, the core of our personalities, the person we really are.
When we say that someone has shared his or her heart with us, it means that we have been given access to the most sacred and secret depths of who he or she is. Think about it in a marriage setting. When Matt and I first were married, I had to learn how to share that depth with him. I had been single for so long, never realized this would be a problem, but it was strange to let someone into my inner heart (or vulnerable side). Thankfully with some outside help, I was able to completely open my heart to not only him, but also to myself.
When we listen to our hearts, we can start to pay close attention to our innermost longings. Yet too often we avoid taking the steps to really listen. We make excuses like we don’t have the time, we’re too busy, I don’t trust my heart anyways, it’s a waste of time, it’s too painful, or it’s too sentimental, we don’t know how to go about it, or we think our reasoning offers a better guide to life…the list goes on and on.
But whatever the excuse you use, the result is always going to be the same. We miss the opportunity to look into the deeper places of our hearts where God may be talking to us. When we are deaf to the cry of our own hearts, we are cheating ourselves. We rob ourselves of living a life that is marked by depth and wonder and passion. We miss out on experiencing beautiful, intimate relationships with each other and with God!
Therefore, we find ourselves living superficially – busy but going nowhere of any significance. Even in the middle of our outwardly successful lives, if we listen we can sometimes hear ourselves saying, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” At first, it may not be easy to look deeply into your heart, especially if you have been living on the surface for a long time. But whatever effort is required, I assure you it will be worthwhile. Just ask those two seekers in the Gospel of John who were completely changed once they started listening to their hearts.
2. The second layer to this question is that it also challenges us to discover what we desire the most. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Try answering the question right now, off the top of your head. What are you looking for? Finding the words to express our innermost desires takes some time and thought. That’s why the disciples gave such a superficial answer and changed the subject when Jesus asked them…”What are you looking for?”…”Uh, where are you staying?”
One reason we find it so hard to know what innermost desires we have is because we have so many of them. Some are quite superficial, like “I would really like a new car.” Others are deeper, sometimes coming from painful places within our hearts, like a childless couple longing for a baby, a single person wanting a partner, a sick person hoping to get well. And sometimes our desires may clash with each other. As I’m writing this message, part of me would really like to go home, take care of things there and write this message tomorrow, yet the other part of me says get it done now so you can do the other things tomorrow. It’s not always easy to know which desire to follow in the moment.
How then, do we discover what we most deeply desire? Well, let me share an exercise I found helpful. When you die, what do you want your eulogy to say? What do you want people to say about you or remember the most about you? Write your own eulogy – not the one you are most likely to receive but the one you would like people to say about you. Let your imagination roam freely. You don’t need to show this to anyone, so be honest. If you don’t wish to write it all out, just make a list. Just make sure it fulfills your deepest desires as you are aware of them in this moment.
3. The third layer to Jesus’ question is that it invites you to ask for what you want. What?! I know, this sounds contradictory to Jesus’ teachings, right? After all, are we not supposed to put aside what we want and try to find out what God wants us to do? Didn’t Jesus teach us to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? Didn’t Jesus say, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
Let’s look at it this way…Imagine a couple getting married and they have carefully written their own vows to each other. The groom vows to his bride, “You are my heart’s delight, and I love you with all of my being. However, you must understand that from this moment on, you must not expect me to have the slightest interest in your wants and desires. Until death do us part, your happiness consists in the submitting of yourself to my will with total dedication and with no thought of your own.”
How do you think the bride would respond? I know what I would do. Hand him my bouquet, turn and walk away. Many people believe God is like this bridegroom. Yet the scripture in John 1:35-39 reveals a very different picture of God. When Jesus asked the disciples what they were looking for, his question demonstrated once and for all that God is concerned and interested in our desires. Clearly God does not want us to ignore our longings, push them aside, or forget about them altogether. In fact, the exact opposite is true. God wants us to listen to the desires of our hearts, to understand them, and then to ask for what we want. Whatever your longings may be, God is truly interested in them.
This does not mean that God will simply just give us whatever we ask for. Not all of our desires express the true longings of our hearts. Some are selfish and superficial. Some will lead us only into destructive directions, which only leads us to great pain. If God were to grant the superficial ones, we would never discover the deeper ones underneath them. The ones that God planted there. The ones that make us who we are.
And unhealthy desires make our world small. They isolate us from other people and pull us away from God. They close us down and enslave us by tempting us into destructive habits. Yet, healthy desires expand our world. They connect us with others in life-giving ways and draw us towards God. They invite us to share God’s dream for the world. And when we follow them we find ourselves coming alive in new and exciting ways.
Nonetheless, we need to bring all of our desires into the open…before God. Only then can He help us sort out the healthy from the unhealthy. And if you think you can do it yourself, think again. Sometimes it’s hard for us to distinguish weeds from the wheat. Doing it without God will only lead to our reasoning and way of thinking…not His.
So what are you looking for?
Clearly Jesus knew how powerful our desires are. I mean think about it. Our desires shape who we become. They give us the energy to pursue our dreams and our goals. They influence our decisions which is why Jesus invites us to listen to our hearts, discover what our desires really are, and then ask Him to fulfill those desires in the presence of God.
Write a list of your desires, all of them. What do you want? What are you looking for in your years remaining on earth? What do you still want to do with your life? What kind of person do you want to become before you die?
Take your time. Please don’t come up with your answers so quickly. Share your thoughts with God, and ask Him to help you sift through them. Then pray, “Lord, here are my longings. Please show me those that reflect your heart and those that don’t. Help me to turn from destructive desires, and give me the courage to follow those that will genuinely bring me life.” Over time, you will experience God giving you the wisdom of discernment.
Psalm 37:4 says, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires.”
This verse tells us that God grants the desires of our hearts – not the superficial ones that shout for instant gratification or the destructive ones that keep us in bondage or the evil ones that use people for our own selfish wants.
God grants the desires that come from the deepest place of who we are. Who He made us to be. These are the God-prompted desires, the ones that God initiates in our hearts, the ones that reflect God’s will for our lives. When we follow these desires, they draw us toward an abundant life. The way that it’s supposed to be. So again, listen to your heart. What do you desire most? Ask God to fulfill those desires in your heart through His will, through His plan for your life.
May the Spirit of God lead us to these life-giving desires.