Jen Pollock Michel is an outstanding writer. I knew this before I picked up her book Teach Us to Want because I have had the pleasure of working with her a couple of times in my role as an editor. So I’m glad she’s done us all a favor and written a book for us to enjoy. But not just any book–a book that addresses our misconceptions and questions about the role of desire, longing, and ambition in the life of faith.
This is an important topic. As Christians we don’t often discuss desire except in its most destructive forms, yet desire is an inevitable and integral part of being human. To some degree, desire is behind every decision we make, every action we take, every experience of frustration or fulfillment.
The subject of this book is interesting to me because I’m human–and even more interesting because I’m a coach. I spend a significant portion of my time listening to people express their desires and often giving them permission to do so. It’s amazing how many of us are terrified to admit to what we want. Many people are convinced the only proper response to desire is denial, even when our desires may lead us straight into knowing God more, living as we were made to live, embracing the good and the beautiful, and blessing the world.
Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition & the Life of Faith by Jen Pollock Michel
(Published by InterVarsity Press, 2014)
What this book offers
Addressing the subject of desire, it’s tempting to swing to either repression or permissiveness. This book does neither. Michel acknowledges the powerful role desire plays in our lives and the futility of ignoring or denying it. At the same time she explores Christians’ discomfort with desire without belittling it. In fact, she takes it quite seriously. After all, desire lurks behind all of humanity’s most socially harmful and self-destructive behaviors. “How can we allow ourselves to want,” she asks, “especially when we’re so infinitely adept at sin? How do we ever decide that our desires are anything other than the sin-sick expression of our inner corruption? Can we trust our desires if we ourselves can be so untrustworthy?” (p. 37)
But as Michel points out, desire also stands behind our loving, giving, and pure-hearted actions. And even the desire that might lead down a path to destruction can be redeemed. We are transformable people, and our desires can be transformed as well. “Desire is the powerful subtext of our lives. It determines our decisions. This is why we need to pay attention to it. If we are to change, desire must change” (p. 60).
After exploring the nature of desire and the need for our desires to be driven by what God wants, Michel uses The Lord’s Prayer as a framework for exploring how redemption and refinement take place and how our desires are shaped by our relationships with God and others. There is tremendous hope here. Our desires are good–and they become very good when constrained, shaped, and channeled by God.
What I liked about this book
As I suggested earlier, I respect Michel’s writing skill and appreciate her use of it here. But not only her words are excellent; her thoughts are too. She has considered this subject deeply and consulted other wise writers and philosophers, and the result is a thorough treatment of the subject that refuses to either condemn desire or concede to despair in a “humans will be humans” sort of sighing shrug.
I finished this book with an appreciation of our need for temperance along with a sense of hope that this is possible. Thanks to Christ’s work on our behalf, we simply don’t need to play slave to corrupt desires.
I also enjoyed reading the stories in this book. Michel is honest about her own struggles with desire and stories of grief, and every one of them is relatable. She is open without nakedness and repentant without self-flagellation. She gently leads readers to her conclusion about “the nature of holy desire, which is both the will to want and the willingness to surrender” (p. 191).
What I would change about this book
Michel, a mother of five, understandably shares many illustrations from her experience of motherhood. These are good stories and relevant pictures, and I can relate in many ways to what she describes. For those of us with fewer (or no) children, or who find ourselves in a different stage of life, it would be helpful to read illustrations and anecdotes from a broader set of life’s experiences as well, and I found myself wishing for these.
Who should read it
I recommend this book to any follower of Christ. We need its affirmation of desire along with its rigorous consideration of what makes our desires good and beautiful–and even holy.
© 2015 Amy Simpson.