Of all the questions God might ask me, one in particular fills me with dread. It’s important. It’s crucial. In fact, it might be the most penetrating, vital question of all. But because my potential answer reveals so much about me, because it makes me feel naked emotionally and psychologically and spiritually, I’m afraid to respond. And, I suspect, you are too.
The question is this: What do you want me to do for you?
A mere nine words. Straightforward. No highfalutin language. But in that brief and seemingly simple question, I collide with an interior cosmos of chaos and confusion. A million desires come creeping out of the dark holes in my soul to fight for first place.
But I can’t evade the question. And neither can you. Because every day God puts it to us. We don’t hear his voice, but nevertheless his voice echoes within us. Asking, prying, confronting us: What do you want me to do for you?
Mercy or More?
In back-to-back episodes in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus asks that question (10:35-52). And he gets two very different responses.
First, the so-called Sons of Thunder, the brothers James and John, tell Jesus they want something from him. He responds, “What do you want me to do for you?” They want seats of honor, one on the right and one on the left, when Jesus himself sits on his glorious throne. Our Lord says, in essence, that he can’t give that, for those places are reserved for “those for whom it has been prepared.”
Second, immediately afterward, the blind beggar Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus to have mercy on him. Our Lord stops, the crowd tells the beggar to go forward, and Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” Teacher, he says, I want to regain my sight. His request is granted, and he begins to follow Jesus.
The brothers, out of their fullness, sought more, while the blind man, out of his emptiness, sought mercy.
It seems to me that in these two episodes, a mystery is unveiled. All is not perfectly clear, but there is enough clarity to show us a bad way and a better way to answer God’s question. We might summarize it this way: The brothers, out of their fullness, sought more, while the blind man, out of his emptiness, sought mercy.
Wants and Needs
Notice that God does not ask, “What do you need me to do for you?” That would make more sense. After all, aren’t we supposed to recognize the difference between wants and needs? Don’t we teach our own children that vital difference? Listen, Johnny, I know you want chocolate cake and ice cream for breakfast every day, but what you need is something else.
So why does God ask what we want instead of what we need? Because we are still children, still wanting the adult life-equivalents of chocolate cake and ice cream for breakfast. And our Father, knowing this, is still trying to pry open our eyes so that we see the difference between our wants and needs. Or, rather, he’s pushing us to mature so that what we want is actually what we need.
More, More, More
And that’s why this question fills me (and you?) with such dread. Makes me feel naked before God. Because the little I know about myself is sufficient to demonstrate that, like the brothers, out of my fullness, I want more. I want more happiness. I want more financial security. I want more people to like me. I want less suffering and more easy living. I’m not asking to be enthroned at your right or left, Lord, but I would at least like a spot at the head table.
Out of my fullness, I want more. And so, in my answer to the Lord’s question, I acknowledge my spiritual immaturity. Still a baby crapping in my own spiritual diaper. Still so far to go before my wants are my needs, and my needs my wants. Still no Bartimaeus, but just one more son of thunder, booming my desire for more into God’s ears instead of crying out like a blind man for mercy.
Christian Maturity is Obedience
Our Father is certainly open to hearing all our prayers, even as he was open to James’s and John’s request. But he’s also, like a loving parent, not content to let us remain acting like an infant or toddler or teenager. He wants us to grow up, to mature into a deeper awareness of our true needs, and to make those needs also our wants.
True Christian maturity is not marked by independence but by a deep awareness of our dependence.
He does this by bringing us, by and by, to a growing apprehension of our emptiness. True Christian maturity is not marked by independence but by a deep awareness of our dependence. Rather than desiring to sit on a throne at Christ’s right or left, he wants us to sit in the dirt beside Bartimaeus. To realize, with the church at Laodicea, that we are not “rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” but that we are “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked,” (Rev. 3:17). Rather than sons of thunder, he is reminding us that we are children of dirt in need of the rain of mercy that falls from his clouds of compassion.
“I want to regain my sight,” Bartimaeus said. Yes, Lord. Open our eyes, too, that we may see you and you alone standing there. And in you may our wants and needs coalesce. If we are going to want more, let it be more of you and less of ourselves.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. I want you to show me how empty I am in myself, and to fill that emptiness with the fullness of your presence. I want to take up my cross and follow you. I want to desire what you want, and want what you desire. I want to die and rise with you, to be conformed to your image, to set my mind not on earthly things but on things above.
I want, O Lord, to desire nothing more than your mercy, that is, to desire you.