To want something badly is a characteristic human experience. Some things we want so badly that we go to extremes to get them, which can lead to wrongdoing. This is why, of the seven deadly sins, four of them are sins of wanting: gluttony wants food, lust wants sex, greed wants wealth, and envy wants what others have. The other three can also be about wanting: pride often is putting your wants before others, anger is so often striking out against others who do not give you what you want, and sloth is the sin of wanting to keep your time and energy for yourself.
Wanting something too much can take away our freedom: our life becomes about the thing we want, and we are no longer free to be ourselves. Anyone who has experienced addiction knows how this feels. Addicts do terrible things to feed their addictions. I do not just mean junkies robbing people or selling themselves for drugs, I mean also the things we do when we sacrifice who we love for what we want in many different areas of life. To hurt others to advance a career, or pursue an affair, to win a fight or to pursue a momentary pleasure, are all examples of wanting something too much and doing something wrong to get it.
Jesus, too, wrestled with wanting, and overcame it: the extreme hunger of forty days of fasting could not make him do something wrong to feed himself, and even the extreme fear of suffering and dying on the cross, fear that caused him to sweat blood, could not make him act wrongly to save himself. He embraced the suffering and died on the cross, knowing it was right.
Jesus’ answer to wanting is to want something else more. Each time Jesus faced a powerful want, he mastered it by bringing to mind what he wanted most. Jesus wanted to do what God the Father had sent him to do. In remembering this, he was able to overcome his wanting. When facing imminent condemnation and crucifixion, a terrible “cup of suffering” that he must drink, Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane prayed to his Father, saying, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” [Mark 14:36] This is profoundly simple and profoundly difficult at the same time: it means to choose something greater over something you want, and to willingly pay the price for it, to suffer whatever it takes to make your choice.
I believe pretty much all human beings face “Gethsemane” moments in their lives, when we are faced with choosing between something we really want for ourselves, and something else we want even more, something we know is right, not just for ourselves, but for God and others. Those who have overcome addictions know this moment, the long preamble of knowing what you need to do but not quite doing it, then the moment of choosing what is right over what is easy, knowing it is going to be hell to see it through, and then the agony and suffering of making that choice stick, day after day.
Yes, we can have help. Jesus, too, wanted help: he asked his friends to stay with him at Gethsemane, but they couldn’t stay awake with him: he had to face his moment of decision alone. But even if we do have friends accompanying us, our choice cannot be made for us. The choice is made in our own heart, and it is made by us alone, without defenses and barriers, with only God as witness. It is a choice to acknowledge the overwhelming want, yet to want something else, something better, something more and choose it instead. This is what freedom really is, not to be able to pick from a wide array of choices, but to be able to choose what is right when it would be far easier, more comfortable and pleasant to choose something else. Jesus wants this true freedom for us, he has shown us how, and he calls us to want most what is true and right.