Editor’s Note: We have all experienced unmet desires or feelings of deep longing at some point in our lives. We have wanted things and wondered if those wants really could be reconciled with our faith in Christ. Jen Pollock Michel understands what it means to want. She also has struggled to connect her desires to the life of faith. In her new book, Teach us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith, Jen takes her readers on a journey through Scripture and longing, and helps us see that our desires have a place in our life. I talked with her about desire, her book, and how she hopes to see the church strengthened through it.
You talk a lot about how you struggled to believe that a desire was good if it was something you wanted to do or didn’t cost you something. How do you see this understanding of desire manifest itself in our current evangelical culture and how can we help women better understand their desires?
In evangelical culture, it’s easy to elevate certain callings (and desires) above others. Often we do that based on measure of “difficulty.” Or at least I do. Here’s a really small example: I was recently speaking at a dinner, and the women attending the dinner represented a variety of vocational callings. At my table alone, there was a woman involved in historical preservation in her city, a woman running a group foster home, and a woman who worked in health care. Then there was me, the writer. Almost subconsciously, I was “ranking” our callings based on difficulty, and of course, as a writer, I ranked last. I’ve written against the notion that difficulty and struggle proves that something is good—but I am still fighting it!
We have to grant ourselves permission to think in more Biblical ways about desire. Desire is not always bad. In fact, Jesus went to the cross for the joy that was set before him (cf. Heb. 12:2). Jesus delighted to do the will of his Father (cf. Heb. 10:5-7). Yes, there was the agonizing moment in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus faced an incredible struggle, but that doesn’t represent the whole picture. Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t ultimately the begrudging duty he offered to God—it was his desire. In the Bible, there is both a caution and call in the context of desire.
Each chapter ends with study questions and you include an additional study guide at the end of the book. How do you envision churches and individuals using this book?
I love this question because there was a deliberate effort to make this book something useful for the church. I don’t think we make any real spiritual progress without participation in holy community.
The reflection questions at the end of each chapter are pretty vulnerable, and those would probably best be used with a group that has an established intimacy (or is willing to take those risks). Groups could read a chapter a week and discuss the questions together. The discussion guide at the end of the book is better suited for a group that meets more infrequently. Maybe it’s a book club, and they are less interested in personal reflection/disclosure and more interested in the big theological ideas of desire. But there’s also a 6-week Bible study I’ve written, which is free online. I’m really excited to offer it to groups as an additional in-depth resource.
As I say in the book, “Brave is she who owns her story of desire.” I hope these resources we’ve provided help women to engage very personally with the book. It’s easy to abstract our theology, but real change involves the examination, not just of Scripture, but of our own hearts. I hope women will take that risk with one another.
Many struggle with desire and wanting in the aftermath of tremendous loss. You touch on this in your book, namely through your own painful losses. How would you counsel a woman who was afraid to want from God in the wake of tragic circumstances?
I don’t think there are easy answers for loss, and I try not to offer them, especially when grief is most acute. I want to be present with people first. But as people look for answers to reconcile their pain and God’s goodness, I remind them, first of all, that lament is an important Biblical response to brokenness. We can feel deeply sad and even angry about things, which have gone devastatingly wrong.
But we need a long-term view. Christ has died and is risen, but he’s not yet come again. We’re waiting. We’re anticipating the day when tears will be dried and brokenness healed. We’re not there yet, but we can trust that our good God is hastening the day when the world will be put to rights.
Trusting God’s goodness is always an act of faith, especially when life hurts. There’s no getting around that. So I try to pray faithfully for people in their seasons of loss, just as Jesus did for Peter. “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail,” (Luke 22:32).
As I already mentioned, your life plays a role in this book. How did your own journey with wanting shape the concept of this book?
The book is very human because I think desire is very human. At the very early stage of writing, I resisted my most natural impulse, which was to design a very systematic, linear approach to the topic. I could have spent years researching how the church has historically thought about desire, years studying every Biblical passage relating to desire. And while I wanted the book to be both Biblically and intellectually credible, as I wrote and studied in pursuit of my own curiosities, I kept returning to my stories of desire and loss. Somehow that began to feel necessary.
I hope it serves up an invitation to readers to probe into their own hearts and examine their desires. And most of all, I hope it helps them to behold the compelling beauty of the gospel. We are reckless sinners, but God is faithful, and though we love wrong things, God, through Christ, persists in loving us still.
What would you say to someone who was stuck with their feelings of desire and ambition? How would you encourage them to wrestle biblically through these feelings?
I’d say first: you’re normal! To be human is to want. In a very real way, all of us feel “stuck” with our longings. Our spiritual formation is less about ridding ourselves of desire and ambition and more about growing into better desires and more holy ambitions. We don’t need to abandon our desires insomuch as we need to seek their transformation.
The biggest habit for me personally, in terms of re-forming my desires and ambitions, has been meditation and study of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s probably the writer in me that feels hungry for a vocabulary of holy desire. What are God’s desires? What is God ambitious to do? The Lord’s Prayer answers those questions and affirms, for example, not that I shouldn’t be ambitious, but that I should be ambitious for the right things. I should want the glory and fame of God to spread. I should want and work to see his kingdom established. And I should even want, from God, the satisfaction of my creaturely needs.
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