Our desires often conflict. We want a paycheck, but we also want to relax. We want to lose weight, but we also want to eat chocolate. In practice, how do we go about reconciling these competing desires? Jonathan Edwards answers, “Free moral agents always act according to the strongest inclination they have at the moment of choice.”
In other words, we always do what we most want to do. The real work, therefore, takes place not on the ground of our behaviors but in the soil of our desires.
Intricacy and Invitation
Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith by Jen Pollock Michel is an excavator for the heart; it digs into our foundations and helps us plant new roots. Not content to offer a rake when a shovel is needed, Michel is intricate in her examination of the human heart and its many facets―our fears to want, our disordered desires, our kingdom longings, our opportunities to surrender, our practical needs, and the boundaries that rein in our desires. By exposing our common temptations and offering visions of reoriented affections, she empowers us “to say 'No' to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12).
Yet there is not a hint of triumphalism in her writing. Blending personal story with teaching, the writer, speaker, and mother of five invites us into her struggles by revealing her own conflicting desires. For example, when talking about her own work as a writer, she says, “My real trouble as a writer isn't trying to mean the words that I write; it's living into the words that I mean. Nonfiction writing can feel like the high art of hypocrisy, and the act of fixing words to a page can be like an inglorious act of self-crucifixion, ink indelibly driving the nails in the space that lies between life as I live it and life as I wish it were lived.”
Beauty and Breadth
Not only does she write with intricacy and invitation, she also writes with beauty and breadth. Her writing is lovely. It is nonfiction that reads as easily as fiction because her word choices burst with imagery. For example, when telling a story about a playground scuffle between her son and another child, she writes, “But because 5-year-olds have memories like chalkboards, the injuries are quickly erased and forgotten.” Moreover, her literary style is incredibly artful. Some of her stories are so full of suspense that, if I were to mention them in this review, I would feel the need to include a spoiler alert.
The breadth of her source material is also impressive. Since I tend to distrust writers who do not read, I love that Michel quotes from a variety of authors―Mary Karr, Tim Keller, Augustine, and more. She also offers several biblical stories―Jacob and Esau, the Pharisee and the Publican, Jehoiakim and Jeremiah's scroll, and more. Yet she tells these familar stories with fresh language. For example, she writes:
It's in the next moment that we see the chasm between Saul and David. Both are guilty sinners. But David doesn't try to minimize or rationalize his sin as Saul had. When confronted by Nathan, he accepts full responsibility in a way in which Saul was never capable. “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam. 12:13). Confession requires few words: six to be exact.
Why talk about this in the context of desire? Because, Michel observes, “holy desire is paired best with confession.”
Courage and Inheritance
One of my favorite moments of the book is when Michel considers desires and contentment. I am a woman filled with longings; there are things that I want, but that―for whatever reason―the Lord has not yet given me. Concerning these things, I have often preached the gospel to myself, saying, “There is great gain in godliness with contentment” (1 Tim. 6:6). This is good and true, and it is important to fight for contentment in his provision. Yet my heart is prone to deception. Michel puts this point perfectly: “The failure to want may not be contentment at all. It may be cowardice. We could be profoundly afraid to place our bets on God.”
Where can I find courage to want again? In what can I ground my desires? Michel writes:
The Lord's Prayer has been our guide throughout the book. It commends to us ways for discerning our desires. It envisions our freedoms as well as recognizes our constraints. The prayer, at least for me, has served as a theological fence: its language corrals my wild horses of desire and restricts me from wandering off into dangerous woods. I find safety in the refuge of these words. But restriction is not the only purpose of a fence: it also encloses pasture. “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.” (Psalm 16:6)
I love the last lines of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” because they invite me to confess that I live in the tension between what I want and what I want to want. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; Prone to leave the God I love / Here's my heart, O, take and seal it; Seal it for Thy courts above.” Working in the soil of my desires is a difficult, but necessary, task. And I am thankful Michel has given me tools with which to excavate and garden.
Editor's Note: Teach Us to Want will be available for purchase at the TGCW14 bookstore. If you want to get your copy signed (and receive a complimentary companion Bible study guide), Jen will be doing an author signing on Saturday, June 28, at 10 am. Since there are limited quantities of each title at the bookstore, we recommend that you buy your copy early.