In a culture where our wants and needs often become indistinguishable, God spends a lot of time listening to people who only talk about themselves – protect me, comfort me, heal or fix me, give me, etc. Sometimes this gets folded right into our faith lives like onions and green pepper into an omelet. On the other hand, deep distrust of human desire is an iron strand of Christian faith for many. If we want it for ourselves, God probably doesn’t. Or we go the other way. Unless a purple hippopotamus drops out of the sky singing Sondheim in Farsi (the majority language of Iraq), I’m going to assume God wants what I want and I’m going for it. Anyone buying this last line would not get much support from the new book Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith, by Jen Pollock Michel.
“Desire” leaves too much elastic for misinterpretation. Psalm 37:4 says,”Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Our framing of “desire” often come off as both shabby and shallow, things to make us happy now. Part of the problem shows its ugly head in that we delight in our desires, attaching the answers to deep questions and needs to things transient and temporary. Right on the book’s cover, the author taps into something deeper with the idea of “longing”. What about the things that keep rising out of our hearts and minds, unbidden, with a seeming life of their own? Some of these run across the grain of the transient and trivial things that nag us for attention and across the grain of our personalities. Sometimes these longings call to us from place we never thought we would care about or imagined. But these longings often pull us in directions we never anticipated; they pull us Godward.
And Pollock Michel discusses this with both style and depth. I imagine she scooped some of this from the family gene pool. Her father played a word/thought game with the kids that was cool. You have to read it for yourself. But in their family, serious (and quick) thinking was encouraged. She is a fine writer and I don’t mean a word-slinger who impresses with Olympic adverbs. (I used to write like this, writing to dazzle and it was dog drool.) She writes with work-polished style that is pleasurable to read. She paints pictures we can walk around in. She shares herself with honesty, telling enough to be genuinely vulnerable without feeding gawkers. The person that Jesus is making her is someone you will enjoy spending time with. She also handles Scripture well in two ways. She writes about it well that is not easy for Christian writers to do. We’ve heard too many sermons. A good writer rolling along through lively language and scintillating thought will begin a passage of Scripture and it’s often like a sled whistling down a snowy hillside only to grind full speed across dry pavement.
Pollock Michel also interprets Scripture well. Chapter five, “Visions of Sugarplums”, is not only a good example but could be reworked as a stand alone monograph. She discusses awakening to the transforming power of Scripture in her life evident in these awakening longings that rose, and still rise, in her life. She comes to see that all that Scripture read for years was doing something by slow degrees. It shaped the deep places in her, taking her pre-emptively in the direction God wanted her life to go. “…it is God Who works in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Phil 2:13) These longings wrap around a living center – the Kingdom of God. “…seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33). In a world where many can’t imagine happiness outside the gratification of their own desires, Pollock Michel zeroes in on both the flaming center and the working drive wheels of the Christian life. We find our life by losing it, by being swallowed alive by something bigger than we are that has no complete fulfillment in time and space.
Each chapter concludes with discussion questions. In many books, discussion questions are both lame and ignorable. Not here. To read the book without engaging the questions at the end of each chapter cheats the reader. Pollock Michel asks questions that penetrate without kicking in the door of the reader’s life. Not only do the chapter questions draw us out well but the book concludes with a finely done discussion guide that will benefit both individual readers and group study.
Jen Pollock Michel has another book shaking around inside her. I hope it’s as good as this one. She engages this thing of following Jesus with vigor, humor, humility and hunger of her own. The Scripture on her website homepage comes from Isaiah: “The sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.” (Isaiah 50:4) If we would enjoy a few hours with someone like that or maybe have some longings ourselves to be someone like that, Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith, is a good place to start.
Read an excerpt of Teach Us To Want at the Patheos Book Club here!
David Swartz pastors Bethel Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan. He thinks that jazz is sacred music, that books are better company than most people, and that university towns rock. He blogs at geezeronthequad.com.