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.