Want, Fear, & Grace -A Review of Teach Us To Want

 

Jen Pollock Michel. Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014. 221 pp

 

“But, I just love THINGS!” A beautiful woman married to a missionary pastor stood, laughing in our house, recounting a conversation she had had with her husband. She was describing the struggle between wanting and going without – leaving their comfortable life with a house and jobs and heading into a ministry, giving up luxuries and items that might be considered “extras.”

This quote often comes to my mind when I hear conversations about desire versus denial. Many of us struggle to reconcile our wants with what we believe God requires of us – death to self and therefore, to all that we want. Whether it is materialism, tangibles, ambition, self-gratification, or spiritual pride, each of us grapples with putting our loves and wants in order.

Jen Pollock Michel has plunged into the theology of desire and emerged with the masterfully written, Teach Us To Want: Longing, Ambition & the Life of Faith.

I started the book, intrigued by the title alone, given my own experiences of ambitious longing and wilderness exile. I was not disappointed as I delved into the beautifully crafted paragraphs.

With engaging narrative, Jen Pollock Michel weaves an incredible blend of personal experience, Scriptural lessons, and literary, philosophical, and theological concepts. With clear but enticing artistry, she unfurls for the reader a verbal image of the complex state of our human hearts and the lavish grace of God. Using the Lord’s Prayer as a frame, she sketches the natural human bent toward desires that pursue fleeting pleasure and push against trusting the goodness of God. She creates colorful narrations of conversion, temptations, loss, and gain. The images she builds are descriptions in which readers can find themselves mirrored, no matter how differently individual circumstances may have fallen.

Taking on our natural human desires, Pollock Michel shows Christ’s grace that pulls us from the fear and complacency found rooted in sin’s curse, transforming it to a brave pursuit of our God given desires. She writes,

And here is how desire becomes corrupt: wanting derails into selfishness, greed and demanding ingratitude when we’ve failed to recognize and receive the good that God has already given. Trust is at the center of holy desire: trust that God is good and wills good for His people…When we refuse God’s good, when we mistrust God’s intentions, when we clamor for self-rule, we exact the cruel price of suffering.” (pp 84-5)

 Just as Eve and Adam failed to trust God’s good plan and exacted a cruel price of suffering, so we wrestle with the same tension in our desires – we want and yet distrust the Giver. We want the wrong things – the fruit that looms ahead, looking lovely and shiny, rather than the intangible communion with a God whom we must trust. And only by God’s gentle goodness and grace, as our lives unfold, do we learn to trust that what He gives is enough for our desires.

The pages are rife with references and allusions to a diverse set of writers, theologians, and thinkers from St Augustine, NT Wright, and Tim Keller, to Madeleine L’Engle, CS Lewis, Edith Wharton, and Annie Dillard and many more. Rich with thought, the book is a synthesis of beauty, goodness, and truth; beautiful theological truths, stated in flowing and captivating phrases.

Jen Pollock Michel is able to diffuse our common thought about desire. She makes a compelling case against the fear of want and the negative connotations of desire and ambition. She writes, powerfully convincing her readers that God desires His children to want, but rather than wanting the temporary fruit, we must want Him, to desire His grace, His good will. She encourages her readers to want, to desire fully, the life of faith found in a lavishly generous Father.

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Nine

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Nine years ago I stood in a church, with uncontrollable tears, pouring from my eyes. Tears of nerves and terror and joy and excitement. I cried through my entire wedding ceremony in a way I have never cried before or after. I am not a person who likes commitment or being inextricably tied to something. I need exits and escape routes and the ability to breath.  And so, agreeing to marry someone, getting down to the end of the aisle to meet my match, literally and figuratively- the one strong personality who didn’t bore me or infuriate me-was so exhausting and exhilarating that I shook and cried through the entire ceremony.

Saying “I love you” to someone when I knew so little about life seemed incredibly superficial. How did I know I would love him the rest of my life?  How did I know this was going to work? How did I know I could keep this covenant vow that was coming out of my mouth?

And nine years later I sometimes wonder how I could say that then. But not because it hasn’t worked, but because I know now what I suspected then. That our love was untried and untested. That I would someday understand what it meant to love, after great challenges had come in life and pounded against the fortress of love, trying to topple and destroy it. When you say “I do” you often don’t know what you are agreeing to.  Which is better that you do not, because you make a covenant, a committed promise to want the best for someone else, without knowing really how vulnerable you are going to make yourself with that promise.

But “many waters cannot quench love” and covenants are made to be kept, not dissolved like faulty business deals or superficial friendships.  Tim Keller in The Meaning of Marriage says, “When over the years someone has seen you at your worst, and knows you with all your strengths and flaws, yet commits him- or herself to you wholly, it is a consummate experience. To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”

And this, in a paragraph, is what makes me grateful for the opportunity to love and be loved. I am humbled to be given the chance to understand God’s love through this channel. And this understanding only comes when challenges and hard times in life come hurling toward us. It is easy to be twenty-four and dressed in diamond white silk and a black tuxedo with pink roses and white candles and say “I love you” and want the best for the other person. It is hard to manage work stress, and life disappointments, and deaths of loved ones, and critical pregnancies, and sickness, and everyday aggravations and boring things like bills and car repairs and schedule juggling and bad moods and hurts and wrongs we feel from each other and to say, “I love you no matter how hard today was and I want to continue loving you and wishing for your best and pointing you to God.”

I never regretted being married young.  Because, in reality, love is a covenant, not a whim. A covenant that meant no matter what we encountered, we would look for the best for each other.  At times, we fail on that covenant.  But, to quote Keller once more,

“In any relationship, there will be frightening spells in which your feelings of love dry up. And when that happens you must remember that the essence of marriage is that it is a covenant, a commitment, a promise of future love. So what do you do? You do the acts of love, despite your lack of feeling. You may not feel tender, sympathetic, and eager to please, but in your actions you must BE tender, understanding, forgiving and helpful. And, if you do that, as time goes on you will not only get through the dry spells, but they will become less frequent and deep, and you will become more constant in your feelings. This is what can happen if you decide to love.”

And that, a covenant, a commitment, and a promise of future love, is the love of Christ for us.  And through His love, we know what true love is.  Whether there are roses and silk and candles, or everyday aggravation, or deep pain, His love helps us to vow our love and live out our love.

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Photo credit: Sabrina Scolari, Scolari Photography

Best Laid Plans

I wake up in the mornings, with highly ambitious thoughts and plans for my day. Our world buzzes with expertly pitched noise about successful planning, accomplishing goals, being intentional, and failing to plan being a recipe for failure. So I plan. And I write lists. And occasionally, when I feel as if I am falling behind and need to be a little more on the dominating end of my goals I set my alarm a little earlier. But guess what happens? The earlier I set my alarm, the earlier my children wake up. And the hungrier they are.  And the needier they are.  And the plans that I so carefully crafted before I left the asylum of my bed sheets have been masterfully destroyed like a preschooler with scissors and a piece of paper. So I grapple with re-planning and detours, and I become the master of new, creative routes that wind me through each day. I remind myself that God is not derailed from the plans He has crafted for our lives.

My daughter had her first ballet lesson this past week. She was excited when she tried on her ballet outfit. She talked about it before bed the night before. But when the morning came and it was time to walk out the door, she suddenly decided that she no longer wanted to go to her first lesson. Thankfully, (because I am the same way) I knew she was just having a last minute panic attack and I managed to drag her away from the known comfort of the PBS screen and onto the unknown dance floor.

We make plans for our children. I am not talking about Tiger Mother- school- them -at -the -gates of Harvard kind of plans. I mean things like swimming lessons, music lessons, ballet lessons, soccer practice, story hours, and various outings. We plan for their education and their nutrition and other details that give them a satisfactory existence. We make good plans. We do not pencil in struggles. We do not schedule pain (aside from shots at the pediatrician, of course). We sometimes insist on discomfort by default when we encourage something we know to be good for them. We are wise enough to make beneficial and loving plans for the ultimate good of our children’s lives and quality of said lives.

We may have an idea of how our plans should unroll, but there is a tension between heavily obsessive planning and loosely held desires that may disintegrate before our eyes. I assure my daughter that I will never make a plan that would bring her harm. I will never force her to do something that would knowingly cause her injury or distress. When I think about the plans God holds for our lives, it is comforting to know that He controls good and evil, whereas I cannot. I cannot prevent bad from happening to her, but I would never offer her on the altar of harm. A loving God will never sacrifice His own children to the evil one. He always has a wise plan, a larger plan in which we can trust.

God ordains our day to days, with our good in mind. But beyond the everyday, is the plan established before time and no chaos from His creation can derail it. His plan is to rescue us through the cross, to give us the sight of His glory one day, to lavish us with everlasting life. A plan that can never be derailed, re-routed, or demolished. Included is the plan that the news of His good care will spread through the world without being silenced. His truth and His word remain. Good will prevail. Evil will perish. This is the plan that the cross delivers to us. This is plan He has for us, to prosper us and not to harm us, to give us a hope and a future. In the every day routines, on the good days and hard days, on the smooth days and bumpy days, God’s plan for us is fixed.  And in this we can take joy, even when our plans do not go as smoothly as we hope.

 

 

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