The dynamics of desire

A book exploring the theology of desire, Jen Pollock Michel begins Teach Us to Want with a story. When she was 16 years old, God spoke to her while at a Baptist summer camp. Despite having grown up in the church, it was this moment that turned her life around and began her on a journey of faith and seeking God’s kingdom.

This was also the moment that developed within her a deep fear: what if she fell again? It was this fear, Michel says, that drove her: “I stripped from my vocabulary the language of desire. It was, of course, what I had to blame for all the trouble I had gotten myself into in the first place.” 

Michel points out that a fear of desire seems to drive a lot of Christians. We are taught that Christianity, virtue, true faith, looks a lot like hard work and giving up life’s pleasures. Desire tends to become synonymous with sexual sin. To desire is to be discontent. To desire is to covet.

Eventually, however, Michel became less and less convinced that desire was a thing to be ignored. A wife and mother of five, she sometimes wishes for a quieter life. She once prayed specifically for a house with a playroom and enough bathrooms for her growing family. She and her husband gave up homeschooling in order to put their kids in a French immersion program. She has always desired more space to write. Could these prayers, these decisions, these wants be a bad thing?

Not necessarily, says Michel. Desire is part of human nature. Desire is what drives us to be who we are. What’s more important, however, is what drives our desires – are they in line with the desires of God?

Michel makes her case through a variety of vehicles. She tells personal stories about motherhood, her struggles with raising five children, and her desire to write. She also retells Bible stories and dissects the Lord’s Prayer, using it as an organizing structure of sorts. Finally, she quotes everyone from Augustine to Ann Voskamp, using their words to display differing views on desire, the Kingdom and the ever-present struggle against dualism.

She is shockingly honest about her personal life, deftly weaving bits of her story throughout the entire book, and she is clearly incredibly well-read. She speaks with authority about Scripture, and moves smoothly from quotation to analysis. Her writing is fine. Her content is comprehensive.

However, perhaps due to the bulk of her content or the scope of her ideas, the organization of sections and chapters becomes confusing. While her thoughts on prayer are helpful, and the use of the Lord’s Prayer as a framework is a good strategy, she does not introduce this strategy well. She begins speaking about prayer somewhere in the third chapter, and rather than walk us through the Lord’s Prayer, she begins with the last line. Somewhere in the next chapter, she jumps the beginning. At the end of the following chapter, she says only, “Our Father.” 

Similarly, it is at times unclear how her Biblical passages connect within each chapter, and her personal anecdotes become distracting. Those that run throughout the book become repetitive, and by the end, we realize she has never told the whole story. The book feels, at times, like a collection of short thoughts and sections, rather than a well-organized exploration of a theme with neatly packaged chapters, each able to tell a story on its own. We are left wanting.

Despite its organizational flaws however, and despite having said almost everything she was going to say in the first two chapters, Michel’s work has merit. Each section calls for thought and reflection on the part of the reader – whether it be “I wonder why she told that story here?” or answering the Reflection Questions at the end of each chapter or the Discussion Guide at the end of the book.

Michel challenges long-standing ideas about virtue and calls for us to desire more of God’s kingdom. She gives us permission to pray specifically and to let ourselves want. She challenges the idea that desire is selfish and there is virtue in contentment: “ignoring our desires may serve as the convenient way we remain ignorant and resist change.” 

It’s nothing new, exactly, but there’s nothing wrong, either, with asking once again that God’s will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. Our Father, teach us to want.

  • Anna Visser graduated from Dordt College in May and got married in July. She is currently living in Los Angeles and pursuing adventure with her husband while working as a barista and freelance editor.

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