What is it you want, right now?

No, seriously—take a moment and listen to yourself. What is it you want?

When you quiet yourself long enough to listen to what’s happening in your body and in your heart, what do you hear?

If you aren’t in the regular habit of introspection, then this practice may scare you a little. There are a lot of desires rolling around inside of us, things we want and things we want desperately to avoid, and if we don’t attend to these desires by bringing them out into the open, they will drive us without us really knowing why. I’m a fairly practiced hand at introspection, but sometimes I can still be taken by surprise by desires that I didn’t know I had but that were nonetheless operating on my mood and controlling the shape of my day.

This is one of the reasons why solitude and silence is such an important practice for Christians. It gives us the regular space and time to sit with ourselves and to observe the unexamined thoughts, hurts, aspirations, and ambitions that exert their hidden influence over our will. This requires us to be quiet long enough in order to hear our own thoughts. Solitude provides the space for this quietness to develop. If we choose not to do this, then we are choosing to enslave ourselves to forces we know nothing about. The person who doesn’t know what drives him is a ship tossed before a storm, lacking any ability to determine his future. A life that we don’t possess can’t be given to God.

So we listen in order to observe and understand the desires that drive us. Some of our desires will be well-known and easy to identify: desire for food and sleep, for example, or for friendship, love, and accomplishment. We were made for food and rest, for human relationships, and for meaningful work; desire for these things is good and healthy. We gather up these desires without judgment, holding them loosely before God and ask for his help in sorting through what we should do with them.

Other desires will take a little more digging; we may find nameless dissatisfaction, discontentment, or listlessness. We will need to work patiently through the tangled webs of our interior life to understand the desires that lie beneath such feelings. Keeping a spiritual formation journal can be immensely helpful in seeing the larger patterns of these emotional movements, allowing us to look back over the events that have slipped our minds but that are still reverberating in our hearts. We offer up these nameless, formless desires, asking for God’s help to bring them to light.

And, while we are listening and observing, we will come across desires we know are wrong: the desire to take revenge and hurt the people that have hurt us, to take what doesn’t belong to us, to buy things that are vain and useless and beyond our financial reach, to court love and physical intimacy with people who belong to others, and many more. Let it be said that listening to our desires is not the same thing as giving in to them. We listen and observe, not judging ourselves harshly for having such desires (they are simply part of life in a fallen world that waits for its full redemption). These desires will need to be faced honestly, brought up into the light to be seen for what they are, and then laid down at the foot of the cross, where the price for following through on such desires was paid long ago.

Most of all, we listen and observe our heart’s desire for God himself and the life that he offers. Sometimes we will find ourselves full of a holy longing that draws us easily into God’s presence, where our desire is fulfilled without being quenched, caught up in gratitude and love and joy. Other times, our desire for God may feel like just that—an unfulfilled desire because God seems distant and unreachable. And still other times, our hearts may be cool or dry, not wanting much of anything at all, not least of which is God. Again, we listen and observe without judgment in order to plumb the deep well of our hearts and draw forth what is there.

Whatever we find, we give to God.

This is a large part of the first of the spiritual formation movements: listening with God for where I am right now. Knowing our desires by listening to what the Holy Spirit finds there as we open ourselves up to be known by him—this is a powerful journey into God’s grace. There is nothing inside of us that will surprise or shock God. God has known us all along and loves us thoroughly and completely. In spite of any wayward or dark desire he finds, he still desires us with a holy longing. There is no heart that, once turned over to him, is beyond his power to heal and to purify and to make whole.

There is more to come on the subject of desire, specifically around how we form and re-form our desires, which involve taking the next two steps of the spiritual formation movement—to where is God calling me, and what is my part in the process.

Does this sound difficult or daunting? As always, start small. God is with us every step of the way and if we persist, we will find our love for God grows as he continues to remind us of his love. If you are unused to the practice of listening for the desires that drive you, you might try taking a few moments at the end of your day to listen to your heart. Begin with a word of prayer, and then wait in silence in a quiet part of your home. Let the voices in your head chatter and simply observe them. Let them pass, offering each to God, knowing he is there with you, sorting through your thoughts with you. There is no condemnation here no matter what we observe, only patient observation with the help of the Holy Spirit. After five minutes or so of allowing your thoughts to settle, what themes and desires did you notice running through your thoughts? What desires seem to be behind them? What is it that you want? End with a prayer that reminds you of God’s love and then remain there for a few moments. You might jot down a few notes and share them with a trusted spiritual director.

If you want to go deeper, you might consider ending your day with the more structured prayer of Examen or by starting a spiritual formation journal. Such tools are instrumental in making the discernment of your desires a regular part of your spiritual formation disciplines.

Know your desires. Know what drives you. And, by the power of the Holy Spirit, be transformed! You will find your desires aligning with the kingdom—and that is where the good life is to be found.