You GOTTA have the “WANT TO”
Mr. Hammerstein was my ninth-grade basketball coach. Because he acted like an ex-marine sergeant and his head was shaped like a sledgehammer, we called him The Hammer (never to his face, of course). For the most part he was very kind, but occasionally the sergeant would emerge, causing my teammates and me to shake with terror.
During one game, I became the object of his fury. We were playing a team we should have been beating; instead, we were down by eight points at halftime. It was probably the most uninspired, lackluster game in my brief basketball career. During halftime, as The Hammer lectured us about basketball fundamentals and the need for more hustle, my mind wandered and I yawned. The Hammer suddenly stopped talking, grabbed me by the jersey, lifted me off the bench, and started shouting two inches from my face: “And Woodley, if I don’t see more hustle out of you, I will personally pour gasoline down your shorts and light you on fire. You got that, son? You gotta have the want to, Woodley. You gotta find the desire!”
I’m not sure how I did it, but I got the “want to.” I played inspired basketball, and we came roaring back to victory. In Spite of his unusual tactics, I believe that The Hammer had a profound insight for our journey with Christ. When it comes to spiritual growth, desire is the primary fuel. Without it we’re like a care without gas. Sure, we could get out and push, puffing and straining to move forward by sheer determination and duty. But we won’t get nearly as far as when we’re driven by a holy desire to know Christ and make Him known, a craving to drink deeply from God’s fountain of beauty, holiness, truth, and love.
Called to Desire
What do a screaming baby, a thirsty deer, and a Olympic sprinter have in common? They all provide active, vivid pictures of the desire that fuels our spiritual growth.
Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk,
so that by it you may grow up in
your salvation. —1 Pet. 2:2
As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul
thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God? —Ps. 42:1-2
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run,
but only one gets the prize?
Run in such a way as to get the prize. —1 Cor. 9:24
These word pictures portray an intense, insistent yearning for God that can’t be ignored. The great saints of church history unabashedly expressed such deep desire for God. Augustine once prayed, You breathed forth fragrances and I drew in my breath, and I still pant for you. I tasted much, and still I hunger and thirst. You touched me and I burned with desire for your peace. Panting, hungering and thirsting, craving— does that describe my life in Christ? It should. Jesus said that only those who desire deeply, who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” will be satisfied (Mt. 5:6).
When He encountered the woman at the well (John 4), it was her desire that He immediately addressed. This woman, married five times and shacking up with man number six, wasn’t exactly a paragon of morality. But Jesus didn’t say, “What were you thinking? Five failed marriages? Don’t you believe in the sanctity of marriage? Why couldn’t you stick with it?” Instead, He invited her to thirst, not for another human relationship or sexual encounter, but for the water of life that only He could give (v. 14).
His invitation echoes others throughout Scripture:
Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat! —Is. 55:1
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” . . .
Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and
whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life. —Rev. 22:17
Our journey with Christ is an invitation to desire. Yet, when measuring spiritual health, we usually ask questions about duty and doctrine: Am I doing the right things? Am I willing to sign this statement of faith? I am not opposed to duty or doctrine, but we should also ask questions about desire: Am I hungry for God? Am I craving His Word? Do I yearn to be like Jesus? The answers to these questions are also indications of spiritual maturity.
Increasing Our Thirst
If desire is the fuel for spiritual growth, then we need a plan for increasing it. The Bible points us to a number of spiritual practices that can help.
Embrace repentance. Repentance—the act of facing and confessing our sin—is the first step toward increasing our thirst for God. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Mt. 4:17) were some of Jesus’ first words recorded in the gospels. Our ancient brothers and sisters in Christ called this repentance “compunction,” which literally means to be punctured or pierced by sorrow over our sin (see Acts 2:37, where the crowds at Pentecost were “cut to the heart” after hearing Peter’s sermon). Repentance does two things in us: First, it keeps us honest about our hearts’ true condition—our anemic desire for God and our deep attachment to sin. Second, it creates a deeper thirst for God because we realize how desperately we need Him. God uses repentance to hollow us out so that He can fill us with a hunger for Him.
Once, in frustration and anger, my son blurted out, “Dad, you never listen to me. You’re always thinking about something else when I’m trying to talk to you.” Naturally, I defended myself. “Well, you don’t talk loud enough, and I’m hard of hearing” (both lies). But as I let his words penetrate my defenses, I knew that my son was right: I am often distracted when others are talking to me. I needed some basic lessons in loving others. God used my son’s words to pierce my heart and hollow out the pride and selfishness. That process caused me to thirst more than ever for God’s love to fill me more completely.
Stand in community. Left to ourselves, our desire for God will wane and drift. Other desires will come in and choke out God’s Word (Mk. 4:19). That’s why the New Testament writers exhort us to seek God in community. “Encourage one another daily,” warns the author of Hebrews, “so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (3:13). In Christian community, we create a safe place to share our struggles, and we intentionally spur one another on toward love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24-25). As we do, God softens our hearts and reawakens a hunger for Him. A few months ago, I was feeling depleted and passionless. My wife and I had decided to help a troubled young woman in our community. Unfortunately, the issues proved much more complicated than we imagined. Rather than appreciate our efforts to help, her family lashed out in anger. The experience was crowding desire for God and ministry right out of my heart. As I headed to our regular small-group gathering, I resolved to take care of the situation my way: by myself. But when it came time for me to share with my group, I dumped the entire load of pain, anger, and discouragement. Bob, our group leader, gently asked, “What can we do for you?” Then he and the rest of this small band of believers loved on my wife and me, shared our burdens, and encouraged us so that our hearts became soft and open to God rather than hardened by sin and discouragement. By the end of the meeting, something had shifted in my soul: God had reignited my passion for Him.
Pray the Psalms. I have found no better way to increase my desire for God than by meditating on, memorizing, and praying the psalms. Believers have recognized the benefits of this practice for thousands of years. Athanasius, a theologian and religious leader who lived nearly 1,700 years ago, wrote that the psalms not only contain information about God, but they also train us in the language of desire.
Consider the following desire-drenched prayers from the Psalms:
My soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. —63:1
My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. —84:2
My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times. . . . My soul faints with longing for your salvation. —119:20,81
I spread out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. —143:6
Can you hear the longing in these ancient, God-inspired prayers? Engaging with these Psalms will change us, molding our desires until we really do pant and thirst for God. That’s why, for the past 10 years, I have tried to read—lovingly, attentively, slowly—one psalm a day. I meditate on it and then use it as a prayer to God.
Focus on God’s goodness. In our efforts to increase our hunger for God, most of us focus on the intensity of our desire: Do we have enough? If not, we have to try to get more. We have to pump it up. And when our desire seems to wane, we panic and fret.
But 1 Pet. 2:2-3 proposes a different approach. We will crave God’s Word, the passage tells us, if we “have tasted the kindness of the Lord” (NASB). There is a connection between experiencing God’s goodness and hungering for Him. Think of your favorite food—lasagna, salmon, chocolate mousse, cheesecake, fresh strawberries. As you take that first bite and the flavor hits your taste buds, you crave more. In the same way, when we taste God’s goodness—when His grace, kindness, and love intersect with our hearts—we will crave more of it.
This goes beyond feeling “pumped” about God. Feelings come and go. In fact, according to some of the masters of the Christian faith, God will remove our shallow, feeling-based desire so that He can plant in our hearts a deeper, God-fed stream of desire—a bold, unquenchable prompting to keep seeking His face even when He seems absent. This desire doesn’t arise from mere human effort; it is a gift from God. And it comes primarily as we take our eyes off ourselves and focus on God’s goodness and grace.
Ask for it. When someone questioned novelist Walker Percy about why he had faith and others didn’t, he replied, “The only answer I can find is that I asked for it; in fact, I demanded it.”
We’re often ashamed of our struggle to desire God as we should. Because we’re ashamed, we hesitate to ask God for help. But Jesus commanded us to ask, seek, and knock (Mt. 7:7). This verse can be literally translated “ask and keep asking, seek and keep seeking, knock and keep knocking.”
We need to keep asking—insistently and passionately—for holy desire. Why? Because God is unbelievably generous; He wants to give us good gifts (Mt. 7:11). And He has already promised to answer:
I will give you a new heart with new and right desires, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony heart of sin and give you a new, obedient heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so you will obey my laws and do whatever I command.—Ezk. 36:26-27, NLT
God desires for us to desire Him, and He works in us “to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13, NASB).
If The Hammer could give our team the “want to” for basketball, surely God can fill us with a greater desire for Him. We just need to find enough “want to” to ask for it.
MATHEW WOODLEY was senior pastor of The Three Village Church when this was written. Today, he is the managing editor for PreachingToday.com, a ministry of Christianity Today.
Originally published in issue 152 of Discipleship Journal.