Book Review: Teach Us to Want, by Jen Pollock Michel
Jen Pollock Michel, Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith. InterVarsity Press, 2014. 221 pps, $27.95.
Duty is a word most Christians know well. The faithful Christian speaks of his duty to God and his obligations to his brothers and sisters in Christ. She speaks of service in the church and to each other in terms of where needs exist. In counseling others on decision-making, we may speak of potential impact, opportunities for service, and spiritual growth, while any conversation about desire often falls low on the list. The topic of desire does come up when studying passages like James, where it’s the scapegoat for quarrels and disunity in the body of Christ. It may seem at times as though the church teaches that desire is something the world pursues while a good Christian is motivated by duty.
Teach Us to Want redeems the topic of desire in a Christian’s life in a helpful, beautiful, and hopeful way. Jen Pollock Michel explores the topic of desire in the same manner as one who drives through the forest taking in the fall foliage. She meanders through the topic in a picturesque way, often stopping to ponder more deeply about how desire relates to topics like grace, fear, loss, tragedy, material needs, sin, church, and community. The chapters of the book are saturated with the gospel in a way that allows the reader who might err on the side of duty to begin to see a God who has redeemed not only the Christian’s sinful heart, but also his or her desires.
While she corrects misplaced theology that teaches desire is inherently sinful, she also deliberately emphasizes that desires are easily led astray and corrupted because of our sin. As she helps to place the reader carefully on this tightrope between corrupt desires and God-given ones, she spends much of the book walking through how the Lord’s Prayer can be used as a filter.
She writes of the Lord’s Prayer, “It teaches us to re-enter our lives with a greater allegiance to Christ and his kingdom while allowing us to pray for everyday, earthly desires” (64). Through the next several chapters she explains phrase by phrase how the Lord’s Prayer invites God’s correction into our lives and his influence over our desires, while also teaching us to ask boldly of our Father for our desires. The Lord’s Prayer teaches the believer to pray for his Kingdom, thus rightly subordinating the creature’s desires to the creator. But we also learn to pray intimately to our Father. She writes, “In our bravest moments of unscripted, unedited prayer, we find ourselves telling God what we want, how we’re afraid to want this, how we fear he’ll withhold, how we fail to trust and to worship and to reverence. We allow ourselves to see—and be seen.” (113) In the foreword to the book, Christianity Today’s managing editor Katelyn Beaty writes, “She plants readers in the rich tradition of the Lord’s Prayer, which allows us to both name our desires and let them be reoriented by the love and holiness of Christ.”
Michel writes in a deeply personal manner, at times vulnerably exposing the pain of sinful, personal decisions. Her writing is also vivid, so that it often seems more like prose than a theological treatise, and it is made richer by her masterfully weaving in personal and biblical narratives. This leads the reader to think deeply about the topic of desire. She often reminds the reader that God’s redemption of sinful men includes the whole being, and that God has redeemed and made the Christian a new creation. As she saturates the reader with the gospel, she argues well that God-glorifying desires will be a part of the believer’s redemption. Support for her claims flows freely from her knowledge and careful application of the Word.
This book could be particularly helpful to the woman who lacks understanding of the joy God intends for her. It would be beneficial to the man or woman who believes duty is the highest obligation in following Christ, who feels that “being a Christian” has stifled his or her creativity or longings. I could not help but think of many Christian housewives who daily sacrifice their desires for the good of their husbands, children, churches, friends, family, and neighbors. The book does not pull these women away from those Christ-glorifying duties nor does it encourage a “me-time” kind of selfishness.
Instead Michel’s book provides a guide for the believer as they figure out what to do with those desires that did not die when placed on a shelf. The book served to wake me of my slumber that the Christian life is about putting one foot in front of the other in a faithful way, regardless of what’s down the road. She helpfully caused a stirring in me as to what desires God has given to me that I have been ignoring in the name of dutifully putting the needs of others above my own. In one sense, Michel wants to bring color to a greyscale world of drudgery, duty, and service, each with no foreseeable reward. I recommend this book to anyone who may have shelved their desires in favor of duties in a way in God never calls us to.
A WEAK POINT
If the book has a weakness, I think the author teeters on addressing decision-making based on desires, but she never fully crosses that line. In fairness, she never describes the book as a “how to” guide for decision-making; however, she often references decisions being swayed one way or another based on desire. She writes freely of her family’s decision to move to Canada in order to pursue her writing and language studies out of a desire to do so, but she does not give the reader a helpful grid for how to make a decision like that given the resources God has gifted to us.
She does comprehensively cover the topic of desire in decision-making, but she leaves out essential and practical components of the entire process such as looking to your church’s elders to help filter your desires through Scripture. After all, wisdom is found among a multitude of counselors. Because of this omission, a non-discerning reader might walk away from the book thinking individual desire is the only component in making a decision, instead of it simply playing a part in a larger process.
I will recommend this thoroughly thoughtful, interesting, and helpful book again and again. It is a worthy read—well-written and articulate. The ideas presented in it are not new, but they are fresh and at the same time thoroughly biblical. I’m grateful to have read it and been influenced in a positive way by it.