By David Ney
What is it that you want? Husbands who want to please their wives ask them “What is it that you want? Wives who want to please their husbands ask them too. Friends ask each other, “What is it that you want?” Workers ask their bosses, “What is it that you want?” And sometimes, though perhaps not often enough, bosses return the favor.
“What is it that you want?” The question is basic to human relationships. It is also basic to the relationship humans have with their Creator. From the beginning humans have recognized that since they are creatures, God has a claim to what they do with their lives, and so they have continually asked God: “What is it that you want?”
What comes as some surprise however, is that in today’s Old Testament reading it is not the creature who asks the Creator but the Creator who asks the Creature, “What is it that you want?” So we have to ask ourselves, “How strange is it for God to ask a human this question?”
Well, of all the kings of Israel and Judah we encounter in the Old Testament, only Solomon is asked this question. But he’s not the only one in the Bible. In the New Testament, Jesus asks the mother of James and John, “What is it that you want?” (Matt. 20:21). And Jesus stopped and called out to two blind men sitting by the roadside, “What is it that you want?” (Matt. 20:32).
It is clear from what Scripture tells us that not all answers to the question “What is it that you want?” are created equal. Some answers are better than others. At the top of the list is Solomon’s answer. God is absolutely thrilled that Solomon asks him for wisdom, rather than for riches, or military success.
He is so thrilled that he answers Solomon’s request on the spot: “I will give you a wise and discerning heart,” God says to Solomon, “so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for — both riches and honor — so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings” (1 Kgs. 3:12-13).
In the New Testament, we find Jesus acting just like his Father acted in the Old Testament. He is quite happy to answer those who tell him what they want. He grants the request of the two blind men sitting by the roadside: they tell Jesus that they want to see he has compassion on them, touches their eyes, and immediately they receive their sight and follow him (Matt. 20:34).
Jesus was, however, less pleased with the mother of James and John: “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom,” she said. And Jesus replied, “You don’t know what you are asking. … these places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father” (Matt. 20:21-23).
Has God ever asked you, “What is it that you want?” I wouldn’t be at all surprised if one or two of you have actually heard God ask you the question. But what about the rest of us? I am of the opinion that God has asked each of us the question, even if he hasn’t told us in as many words.
God asks us “What is it that you want?” every day, every moment of our lives. He says, I’ve given you this life, this time on earth. “What is it that you want to do with it?” Sure, we’re not free-floating, autonomous agents. We are constrained; we’re constrained by our bodies, our age, by our families of origin, by our gifts and abilities, and by our intellectual capacities. As creatures we are forced to operate within these constraints. And that’s ok. That’s how God planned it. That’s how it’s always been.
God, we’re told, placed constraints on Adam and Eve. He put them in a specific place, a garden, and he told them, “Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” He also, however, gave them freedom within these constraints: “You’re free to eat from any other tree in the garden” (Gen. 2:16-17).
He also made sure that their actions had real consequences. The big decision they made — the decision to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — was honored by God. God gave them what they wanted — knowledge of good and evil — and as we know, the story goes on from there.
But God didn’t just make Adam and Eve’s big decision a decision of consequence; he honored their little decisions as well. We’re told that God brought to Adam “all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air … to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name” (Gen. 2:19).
And I dare say that this took great humility on God’s part. God surely could have given the animals better names than Adam, but he entrusted the responsibility to Adam and then honored Adam’s decisions. I mean, if the names we give animals are any indication, we can imagine Adam’s conversation with God going something like this: “This is a pink fairy armadillo.” “A pink fairy what?” “And this is a pleasing fungus beetle.” Excuse me? “This is a spiny lumpsucker and that, a tassled Wobblegong, and that, a fried egg jellyfish.”
We all find ourselves in a position much like that of Adam and Eve; we’ve each been given limited freedom, and we’ve been given a freedom of consequence. The things we choose to do with ourselves here on earth matter. It’s like there was a master who called his servants together and
to one he gave five thousand dollars, to another two thousand, to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities. Then he left. Right off, the first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.
After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them. The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment. His master commended him: “Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.”
The servant with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his master’s investment. His master commended him: “Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.”
The servant given one thousand said, “Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.”
The master was furious. “That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.”
Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb. (Matt. 25:14-30, Message).
Many of you J.R.R. Tolkien fans will recall that as the little hobbit Frodo drew nearer and nearer to Mordor, he felt the weight of the ring becoming more and more burdensome, physically, he was unable to continue the grueling quest, and spiritually, the ring had sapped all of his strength. Finally, he turned to his companion Gandalf the Wizard in desperation and cried, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened. But Gandalf replied, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
The situation we find ourselves in is what the great 18th-century theologian and bishop Joseph Butler called “a state of probation.” We all operate under heavy constraints; and we’ve all been handed different things, different circumstances; and like Frodo much of the time we teeter on the brink of Kierkegaardian despair; we wish for different circumstances, even different selves; but we have this in common; we’ve been given this limited time that we have here on earth to use as we please; and we’ve all been given resources that are entrusted to us.
We can shrink from the responsibility, but whether we like it or not, God has asked each one of us, “What is it that you want?” And whether we like it or not, we cannot avoid answering the question. The lives we live are our answer. How we spend our time is our answer. How we use our resources is our answer. When you spend your time making money, you’re actually talking to God: you’re telling him that what you want is to get rich.
When you spend your time devoting yourself to your family, you’re talking to God: telling him that what you want is a loving family. And when you spend your time seeking pleasure, you’re talking to God too: telling him that what you want is the rush, the adrenaline, the buzz. Whatever you choose to do with yourself, you are sending God a message: you’re answering the question he puts to you: “What is it that you want?”
You’ll remember that in the Book of Acts, Ananias and Sapphira sold a field, kept some of it for themselves, and brought the rest to Peter and the disciples and said, “Here’s all the money we received for the field that we sold.” Peter said to Ananias, “Ananias, how did Satan get you to lie to the Holy Spirit and secretly keep back part of the price of the field? Before you sold it, it was all yours, and after you sold it, the money was yours to do with as you wished. So what got into you to pull a trick like this? You didn’t lie to men but to God” (Acts 5:3-4, Message).
We don’t have to pretend to live our lives for God when we have no intention of doing so. We don’t have to pretend to serve God when really all we want is to serve ourselves. God lets greedy people hoard themselves. He lets atheists live their lives contentedly without him. He lets young people make foolish decisions. And he lets old people become entrenched in bitterness and isolation if they choose to do so. He lets us all do what we want with what he has given us. But he also reminds us that we’re on probation. As St. Paul puts it, we “must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10; Ecc. 12:14).
And so, my dear friends in Christ, our reading of Scripture today has called us to remember what is true today, as it is every other day, as it has been, from the beginning: God is asking us: “What is it that you want? What is your goal? What is it that you seek to achieve?” Kierkegaard puts this question three different ways: “What is it that you will choose to love?” Kierkegaard asks. “What is it that you dare to expect?” and “What is it that you struggle against?”
No one who was great in the world will be forgotten, but each was great in his own way, and each in proportion to the greatness of what he loved. For the one who loved himself became great by himself, and the one who loved other persons became great by his devotion, but the one who loved God became greater than everybody. Each will be remembered, but each became great in proportion to his expectation. One became great by expecting the possible, another by expecting the eternal, but the one who expected the impossible became greater than everybody. Each will be remembered, but each was great wholly in proportion to the magnitude of that with which he struggled. For the one who struggled with the world became great by conquering the world, and the one who struggled with himself became greater by conquering himself, but the one who struggled with God was greater than everybody (Kierkegaard, 2006, 13).
The choice is up to us: Go ahead, says God, choose to love your money; expect and anticipate that riches will be yours; struggle against the market, and against the economy; and you will find that a proportional greatness will be yours. You’ll be greater than your money. Go ahead, says God, love yourself; expect and anticipate that you will find your own personal fulfillment; struggle with your desires and your pleasures; and if you should overcome them, a proportional greatness will be yours.
You may just find that God gives you what you want. But if you dare to do the impossible; if you set out to love God; to expect and anticipate that you will find him; and if you struggle with him as Jacob wrestled with God; then that is another matter altogether. You may just find that the same God that gives all these other people what they desires gives you what you desire as well; the best gift of all: himself. There can be no greater thing. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (Lib 1,1-2,2.5,5: CSEL 33, 1-5).
The Rev. Dr. David Ney is associate professor of Church history and director of the Robert Webber Center at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.