A couple months ago, I spent the day with some friends in Joshua Tree National Park. After we finished climbing and hiking and nearly dying of heat stroke, we watched the sunset near the park entrance before heading back to L.A. I sat on a dirt-covered flannel that was flattened against the desert floor like a picnic blanket, my arms wrapped around my knees and my eyes wide, searching the horizon. It is not often I find myself solely devoted to reflection in the wild. I enjoy participating in beauty—hiking, climbing, kayaking, dangling my feet over the edge of it—more than I enjoy only observing it. But there I was observing, and it captured my full attention as I watched an orchestra of colors dance gently in the sky.
The colors grew richer and richer, painting the coming night a more florescent orange, and a C.S. Lewis quote popped in my mind. He once wrote, “[Jesus] died not for men, but for each man. If each man had been the only man made, He would have done no less.” A thought quickly followed: if Jesus would have still died even if I was the only human on earth, maybe he also would have created this beauty even if I was the only one around to enjoy it. Maybe he cares so much about coming after me that he would have gone through all the trouble of speaking mountains and oceans and wild flowers into existence just to win me over. Maybe my delight, my joy, is the serious business of Heaven. My fragile heart, softened by one killer desert sunset, proceeded to explode into a million pieces.
I felt particularly selfish during this trip to California. I love traveling with my whole heart, but it often feels self-indulgent. What purpose am I serving? How is gallivanting around national parks bettering the world? How can I justify spending time and money on airfare and margaritas and chilling on the beach? I put almost all of my dreams and desires through this same vetting process. I ask, “How is this serving purpose?” first and, “Do I have a desire to do this?” second. And most of the time, my dreams and desires fall short and I can’t come up with a good enough purpose they are serving to keep them around.
A prominent example of this for me is found in songwriting. When I write music I struggle with the tension of purpose and desire all the time. How is me chasing a dream serving other people? How is writing about loneliness and whiskey and making out glorifying God? What do I believe about God and desire and purpose?
I once heard someone point out that God loves us so much that he gave us the smell of coffee. This hits me right in the feels. Because my friend, I love the smell of coffee, probably more than anything else. The idea that God would create my sense of smell and the aroma of coffee to dance a sweet little tango honestly blows my mind. Because he did it for the only purpose of bringing me joy. He only had my delight in mind. I can’t turn my love for the smell of coffee into ministry or use it to serve my neighbor, I am only asked to enjoy it. And that means God cares deeply about our joy. He cares deeply about the things we delight in.
I recently finished 40 days of praying for the same things every day, and let me tell you, this is a surefire way to wake up some desire. And because desire points to what I delight in, or anticipate delighting in, and it's hard for me to see purpose in that, most of the things I was praying for didn't seem important enough. My prayers often went something like, “yeah, Lord, a husband who has tattoos and loves kayaking would be dope, but there is not real kingdom purpose in this desire, so you can do whatever you want, sorry for asking.” Or, “Hey God, a publishing deal and more stable income would be nice, but there are people who are in much worse circumstances so never mind, forget I asked.” I end up watering down what I want because I am ashamed of it. I honestly can’t tell you why it is that shame and desire walk hand in hand for me, but I am beginning to believe that it is God’s heart to untangle the two.
My pastor recently talked about how, in the Gospels, Jesus was always asking people what they want. He, of course, already knew, but imagine what it would have been like to have love incarnate look you in the eyes and gently, gracefully ask what your heart’s desire is. I imagine how it would soften me, how I would feel seen and known and loved in places that have long been abandoned in my heart.
“What is it you want?” I have so many answers to this question, and maybe the point of Jesus asking people this is to awaken them to their desire. Maybe he wants them to acknowledge the deep places in their heart that long for something better, different, more beautiful. Not because he is in the business of acting as our magic genie who grants our every wish, but because maybe this is the place we connect to God and ourselves in a more authentic way. What is the purpose of soaking in a sunset? Of wanting to be married? Of writing and playing songs about real life emotions? The purpose is to be more fully alive—to acknowledge the dreams that were placed within us. The purpose is connection. And out of the place of being more deeply connected and more fully alive we can walk with purpose and serve a hurting and broken world in a better way. God did not create our joy to suffocate it; he created joy to be its fulfillment.
My roommate and I recently had a long conversation about what a good friendship is built on. We talked about the friendships that dive deep too fast and, why is it that we can know all the details of someone’s life and struggle to feel connected? We decided that it is because friendship has to be built on fun and adventure and mutual experience first. Real friendship happens over margaritas at a favorite Mexican restaurant and on Monday nights laughing about the absurd dates on The Bachelor. It happens while hiking and road tripping and, if you are Ally and me, making an impulsive decision to buy matching kittens. And then it is sustained and deepened through showing up during hard moments and learning the details of each other’s stories.
I wonder if this is how our relationship with God works, too. Maybe he is so concerned with our desire and joy and the things that make us come alive because those are the places where we build real relationship with him. Maybe he connects with us in the places we experience joy in a way that he can’t in the places we experience pain. Maybe asking the question, “what do you want?” is the serious business of Heaven. Maybe it's time we take answering it seriously, too.