Learn to Want What Is Best

(This article originated from an email sent by Randy to a group of men he was meeting with who were studying through Dallas Willard’s book, The Spirit of the Disciplines.)

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me [not “wants to lose his life”] will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? Luke 9:24-25

What strikes me about this passage is that Jesus recognizes our tendency to want the wrong thing. Or, rather, to want the right thing (saving our lives), but believing in the wrong way to obtain what we want.

Notice He doesn’t first appeal to us to want to “lose” our lives. He just tells us to go ahead and lose them, in acts of obedience.

However, once we do that, we will see the rewards, the outcomes of this obedience. These positive outcomes, which bring us joy and freedom, will move our hearts and heads to start wanting to do the right thing. In other words, acts of obedience can transform our desires, so we start wanting what we didn’t want before, and (except in moments of temptation), stop wanting what we used to want.

There is great hope in knowing that what we want can really change. We can actually learn to want to do what is right because it is such a better way to live (not only for God’s glory but for our good). We will realize how insane it was to live the way we used to. For instance, what man in his right mind would not want to spend daily time with God, be faithful to his wife, give generously to the needy and share his faith in Christ? Only a fool wouldn’t want these things, because once you’ve tasted the joy in them, once you’ve come to realize what God wants for you is always best for you, how can you settle for less?

Now, how do you learn to want what is best for you? By doing it. Again, Jesus doesn’t expect us to begin with wishing to lose our lives. But he expects us to lose them anyway, in obedience, for his sake. But once we do this and learn this path we discover its benefits, that it actually saves our lives rather than losing or forfeiting them.

Then we learn a new desire, to desire the very thing he has commanded, so that we then truly want to lose our lives for his sake, so we can find them. This is the discovery: that our loving Father always commands us to do what is truly in our best interests, even if it seems a sacrifice at the time.

So our ultimate goal should be to retrain ourselves, by God’s grace and with His empowerment, to want to do what is best. Our goal is to be the kind of men who can learn to want what we should want, and then live the way we want to live.

But we cannot sit around and wait to want what is best. If we wait, our desires—which relate to our habits, as Willard says, what we do with our bodies—won’t change. Rather, we step out in faith and obedience and lose our lives, denying ourselves. And then we discover the joy of that life, the freedom and release, the finding of ourselves that we thought we were losing. And we discover that when we said no to the temptation we were saying yes to what our regenerate self really wants.

So we could say that we should, “Do what you want, provided you want what is best.”

Or, “Learn to want what is best, then do what you want.”

This is in stark contrast to the alternatives:

1) Do whatever you want, even if it’s wrong (the world’s way),  OR

2) You’ll never really want to do what you should do, but you should just keep doing it anyway, going against your desires.

This second way is often the church’s approach; and notice how poorly it has worked!

So when we follow Christ, denying ourselves and taking up the cross and losing ourselves, the sacrifice is real, and yet...in another way it isn’t. It’s like the man who sells everything he has to buy the treasure in the field. His sacrifice was real, yet what he gained through it was vastly greater than what he gave for it. And hence, in the long run, the sacrifice was only temporary, not permanent. In the larger sense, it was not a sacrifice at all...for who could call it “sacrifice” when what is gained is so much greater than what was lost?

God’s alternative is to do what you may not at first want to do, and do it out of faith and obedience and dependence, and then what you want will be changed, as you see that what you wanted will bring death and what you chose instead is bringing you life.

Now, your wants get transformed, so you can say with Augustine, “Love God and do as you please.” Because if you really love God, you will want what He wants; what pleases Him will please you; and what displeases him will make you miserable. And no one wants what makes him miserable, as long as he knows it will make him miserable. (Except when, as in addictions, our bodies have become so trained to do what makes us miserable, we think we cannot resist them.)

So our right choices bring with them positive reinforcement. Temptation will then consist of those things which we want but have not yet learned that they will kill us. They will rob us of peace and joy, and if we were in our right minds, we would not want to do them. As we learn to want what is really good for us, we will begin to see through those temptations, realizing them for the lies they are. This will not eliminate temptation, but it will certainly reduce it.

The following are some additional thoughts that relate from my book The Treasure Principle.

This story is captured by Jesus in a single verse: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field” (Matthew 13:44).

Consider what the man must have thought upon discovering the treasure:  What a find! Unbelievable! I’ve got to have that treasure! But I can’t just take it—that would be stealing. Whoever owns the field owns what’s in it. But how can I afford it? I’ll sell my farm...and crops...all my tools...my prize oxen. Yes, if I sell everything, that should be enough.

From the moment of discovery, his life changes. The treasure captures his imagination, becomes the stuff of his dreams. It’s his reference point, his new center of gravity. Our traveler takes every new step with this treasure in mind. He experiences a radical paradigm shift.

Contrast this with the rich young man who pressed Jesus about how to gain eternal life. Jesus told him, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). The man was obsessed with earthly treasures. Jesus called him to something higher—heavenly treasures.

Jesus knew money and possessions were the man’s god. He realized the man wouldn’t serve him unless he dethroned his money idol. But the man considered the price too great. Sadly, he walked away from real treasures.

This young man wasn’t willing to give up everything for a greater treasure. But go back to our traveler who found the treasure in the field, who was eager to give up all he had. Why? Because he clearly saw what it would gain him.

Do you feel sorry for the traveler? After all, his discovery cost him everything! But we aren’t to pity this man—we’re to envy him! His sacrifice pales in comparison to his reward. Consider the costs/benefits ratio. The benefits far outweighed the costs.

The travelers made short-term sacrifices to obtain long-term rewards. “It cost him everything he owned, someone might lament.” Yes—but it gained him everything that mattered.

If we miss the phrase “in his joy,” we miss everything. The man wasn’t exchanging lesser treasures for greater treasures out of dutiful drudgery but out of joyful exhilaration. He’d have been a fool not to do exactly what he did.

Christ’s story about treasure in the field is an object lesson concerning heavenly treasure. Of course, no matter how great the value of that earthly fortune, it would be worthless in eternity. In fact, it’s exactly this kind of treasure that people waste their lives pursuing. But Jesus is appealing to what we do value—temporary, earthly treasure—in order to make an analogy to what we should value—eternal, heavenly treasure.

When we see things clearly, with an eternal perspective, what we value and what we want radically changes.

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries