Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of FaithWritten by Jen Pollock Michel Reviewed By Drew Hunter
Teach Us to Want is an engaging exploration of the role of desire in the Christian life. Michel seeks to make “a biblical case for wanting, and wanting well” (p. 200). The key question is this: Is there a nuanced alternative to uncritically embracing of all our desires on the one hand, and fearfully rejecting them on the other? Michel argues yes. Yet this is not a systematic treatise. It is part personal narrative, part biblical reflection, and part general rumination on the topic of desire in the Christian life.
Michel lays the book’s theological foundation in the first three chapters. Chapter 1 addresses our hesitations about desire by arguing that desire, as a category, is good. Yet as chapter 2 argues, the doctrine of sin reminds us that our desires can be corrupted. Chapter 3 demonstrates God’s commitment to renewing our desires by transforming our hearts. The logic of these first three chapters implicitly follows the biblical story line of creation, fall, and redemption. In other words, desire is good, desire can be bad, and God transforms our desires.
It is here that the book’s agenda opens up. Michel introduces the role the Lord’s Prayer serves in transforming our desires. By immersing ourselves in the Lord’s Prayer, “we learn to love what God loves and to make his desires our own. Teach us to pray, Jesus’ disciples asked. And teach me to want” (p. 63). Here we see the title’s connection between desire and the Lord’s Prayer. Chapters 4–10 then take various topics related to the Lord’s Prayer as starting points for reflections, including Scripture, prayer, confession, and community.
I offer several observations about Michel’s excellent book, highlighting three enjoyable strengths and one potential weakness.
First, this is an engaging book. The prose is masterful and beautiful and, as a result, enjoyable at every turn. For example, there are several examples in stories from her role as a mother. Recalling an attempt at gaining a confession from her children with sternness, she admits, “My owl eyes coerce no confessions” (p. 33). Regarding another challenge of bringing her son to confession, she observes, “Truth is a big fish. A mother must be strong at the reel” (p. 147).
Second, this is an insightful book. Michel demonstrates throughout that the best way forward is a nuanced “both-and,” rather than a simplistic “either-or” mindset. Should we choose happiness or holiness (pp. 26–28)? Should we focus on personal salvation or earthy engagement (pp. 76–77)? Should we devote ourselves to proclaiming the gospel or blessing the world in everyday ways (p. 88)? And, most pertinently, should we reject desire or embrace it (p. 42)? “Is it possible to be fully alive to the world of pleasure and at the same time remain fully devoted to God?” (p. 25). In each case, where a healthy, nuanced, both-and approach is needed, she provides it.
She also shares rich insight in her reflections on biblical texts and life experiences. For example, she observes that the prayer for “daily bread … reminds us that we are bodies, with bodily needs, and invites us to begin believing that those needs matter to God … [it] forces us back into our bodies and explodes the way we try and elevate the spiritual over and above the earthly” (p. 132).
Third, this is a grace-centered book. Grace is the thread woven throughout the entirety of Michel’s work. We may expect a book about desire to be about our desires, but Michel ensures that we not miss how our very desires are shaped by seeing God’s desires and, in particular, God’s desires for us. Though a healthy theology of sin is essential for understanding our desires’ corruption, she reminds us that the storyline of Scripture moves toward God’s gracious transformation of our hearts. “The renewal of our desires is indeed the bold promise of the new covenant” (p. 29). Beyond this biblical-theological observation, God’s gracious nature is highlighted throughout. “Jesus is tireless in his love.… Jesus is an eternally patient man” (p. 119). She often writes of God’s “reflexive” character: “As if by reflex of character, God blesses” (p. 81), and “his reflexive impulse is to bless” (p. 119). Similarly, as she speaks of God’s desire for his people, she often includes the notion of “friendship” with God, a biblical theme that highlights the scandal of God’s graciousness toward sinners. One doesn’t often say things like this unless the penny of grace has dropped deep.
Fourth—and here is where I offer my criticism—this is a meandering book. While a clear strength is how well Teach Us to Want is written, that is true at a micro level. There is hardly a page that is not enjoyable, with sentences and phrases crafted with skill and beauty. However, at a macro-level, the book lacked a clear sense of direction and movement. There was no clear indication of the destination from the beginning, nor were there clear road-markers along the way. And what is true with the book as a whole is also true at the chapter level. The chapters occasionally lacked a clear sense of development, with sections often moving from biblical reflection to personal experience to topical rumination without a clear sense of connection between the parts. This lack of focus and clarity of direction may prove to be a distraction for readers.
This is an important and enjoyable work. In the end, Michel shows that desires are a divine gift—corrupted by sin, to be sure, but to be embraced as we seek their transformation by grace. Especially for those who consider happiness and holiness at odds, Michael wants to prove they have been friends all along. This is a book for anyone looking for an enjoyable and insightful read on a nuanced perspective of our desires and longings.
Drew Hunter is the teaching pastor of Zionsville Fellowship in Zionsville, Indiana.
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