In the world I have known, the American Midwest, the word desire has been used too often in the context of lust and sex. And yet, desire is such a sweet spiritual word, if we receive it as such. It is used in the Bible in a variety of ways, most of them referring to God’s desires for us, such as when Jesus quoted from the Old Testament, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13) to describe God’s true heart.
And we who are made in God’s image can claim desire for our spiritual benefit. St. Ignatius believed—and this belief lies at the heart of Ignatian spirituality—that our truest desires reflect God’s desires in us and for us.
One problem is our tendency to cover up our true desires with shallow wants and fashionable whims. I think I desire to look 25 again. Do I really? Or do I want to feel beautiful as I am right now? Certainly, God wants me to see my true beauty regardless of age. Does a young husband and father truly want to work ridiculously long hours to impress his boss? Or is his true desire to provide a stable living to support his family—and he’s become convinced that working himself to death is the only way to do it?
Do we desire to win the argument—or to achieve peace? To avoid prayer because it brings up fears and guilt—or to encounter God in a way that banishes these ills and heals us?
In fact, are my desires determined by my fears? If so, then they are probably false or incomplete desires. God’s perfect love casts out fear, leaving us free to desire what is best, not what is expedient or merely safe.
The only way to discover our truest desires is to bring ourselves to prayer and spend time with our questions, our hurts and fears, and our dreams. In prayer and over time, we can allow the Holy Spirit to sift through all of it until what remains is what we really long for.
I can admit that I desire money, as long as I wrestle with how that desire is connected to something deeper, such as security, freedom from fear about what might happen to me in the future. Eventually, I can pray, not for more money, but for greater faith in God’s care for me. I can admit that I desire to beat cancer but let that desire take me further to a desire for peace in God’s presence whether here or in the life after this.
It’s healthy to ask often, What do I desire? Ignatius posed this question to retreatants many times. He prayed that God’s desires would be formed in them as they named what they needed and wanted.
We can find God in our longing and our desiring, because God is the ultimate end of all human desire. Thus, we need not fear desire but stay in conversation with it, as we remain in conversation with God.