“What do you want?” — How to want what you really want

“What do you want?”

It’s the first thing Jesus speaks in John’s gospel. A question. And a simple one at that. But it’s one of the most powerful questions any of us is ever asked. What is it that I want? Really want?

The problem with our wants is that what we think we want isn’t what we really want. Most of our wants are for things we’re told to want. We didn’t even know we wanted these things until we were told to want them.

Apple excels at the creation of desire. Before the first iPhone came out, no one knew that we wanted smartphones. But once it came out and all of the copies and variations of it, we’ve become obsessed with them. Apple has continued this creation of desire with their iPads and now their Apple Watch. No one wanted either of those devices until we were told to want them.

A couple days ago, my kids and I were traveling to a track meet in Eugene, Oregon, and we passed by a Dutch Bros. coffee stand. Immediately, my kids began asking for coffee drinks. None of them had wanted coffee drinks before that, but as soon as they saw the stand, a desire for them was created in them. They wanted what they’d been told to want.

This happens to us continually. The movies we watch, the clothing styles we find attractive, the food we eat, the books we read, the social issues we get worked up about — these have all been told to us.

I had no desire to see most of the movies I’ve seen until they popped up on a list or a friend told me to see them. My food choices are built around what’s available in the grocery stores we frequent, and if you go to ethnic stores you notice just how constrained the veggie options are that you’re given.

The recent desire to change the definition of marriage is a created desire. We’ve been told to want this change and so most of us have decided to want a change that generations before had never been told to want.

What’s so interesting about the creation of desire is that most of us actively seek out this being told what to want. We get fitness magazines to tell us what we should eat and wear and do to our bodies. We get women’s magazines to tell us what kind of clothing and make-up and food to get and what vacations to go on and how to decorate our homes. We go to music websites to be told what music to listen to. We watch TV news to be told what political issues to be concerned about. We go to ESPN to be told what sports we should watch and what athletes we should love or hate. And really, we check each of these out for the ads as much as for the rest of the content.

We tune in and are told what to want. Sure, we don’t end up wanting all of it. But almost everything we do end up wanting came from outside of us, not from inside of us.

Philosopher Rene Girard calls this mimesis or mimetic desire. We mimic or copy others.

There are major problems with this, especially when we end up flocking like sheep to things that are absurd — as happens every year during the weeks before Christmas with some ridiculous toy that becomes all the rage. It’s even more dangerous when we get caught up in ideologies that are hateful and violent. Just like the Nazis before, the followers of ISIS did not know that they wanted to kill certain people until they’d been told to want to do so.

We are all vulnerable to ideological desires being foisted on us. In fact, all of us are in lock step to some right now. The problem is that we’ve swallowed the Kool-Aid and are unaware that these ideological desires weren’t our own to start with.

The question is: Who do you go to in order to know what you want?

Since we all go somewhere for our desires, we ought to be aware of who’s shaping them.

Are the magazines or websites or TV shows you frequent reliable sources of created desires? Are the friends you copy (and be honest, you do copy them) worthy of being copies? Are the authors you read trustworthy shapers of your political, social, and religious ideologies?

Psalm 37 addresses the sources of our wants. It begins with “Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong,” calling us to avoid being envious (having our desires shaped by) those who do wrong, because they and their desires are fleeting. On the other hand, we are to “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (vs. 3-4).

When we trust God and find our delight in him, our desires become shaped by him and we find our hearts full. This may seem like yet another being told want to want, but there’s something different in this case. This is a return to the desires we were created to have in the first place. This is a stripping away of the desires we’ve been sold and told to want and a return to the desires that are basic to our humanity.

We want what we really want when our affections are rightly ordered, when are loves are each in the right place. When we love God and trust him to care for us, we stop grasping for other things to secure us. When we truly love our neighbors, we cease our envy and coveting (which are false desires) and are left with our true desires, desires God is glad to give us.

It’s interesting how when we operate out of these two most basic loves and someone asks us what we want for our birthdays or some other occasion, we find ourselves strangely and wonderfully satisfied. Because isn’t it love that we really want?