Christianity has suffered a long history of distrusting passion and desire. This is ironic, since Jesus declared the greatest commandment was loving the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Our Protestant Work Ethic confirmed the value of loving God with our strength. The Enlightmentment celebrated worshipping God with our intellect. However, Jesus’ followers have been reticent to value the breath of our emotional desires way of understanding God’s will. Our desires, meanwhile, are seated in our limbic brain, the region of our mind that has no capacity for language. Desire, then, is primal and mysterious. Moreover, the Prophet Jeremiah declared that “the heart is deceitful of all things, who can really know it?” However, Jen Pollock Michel invites us to believe that God is capable of not only saving us from our sins, but he is also capable of saving our desires as well.
Her book, Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, & the Life of Faith, is a beautifully written practical theology of the place of human desire. She offers us the opportunity to rescue our faith from the false belief that the Christian life that Jesus prescribed is bitter medicine that we must choke down because it is good for us. Taking a cue from Aquinas, she insists that virtue is not about being drawn to the Difficult, but to the Good. Pursuing holiness isn’t about white-knuckling our way through some ethical obstacle course. It’s allowing the Author of all virtue to transform our hearts so we begin to want what God wants out of second nature.
However, Jen is a realist. She rejects the notion that our desires cannot be trusted. But she also understands that our desires have been damaged by the Fall. We don’t always want what God want’s for us. We suffer from selfishness and a limited perspective. It does us no good to reject our wants as unspiritual, but it’s equally dangerous deify our emotions. Fudging the books in order to enlist God as wanting what we want is a form of idolatry.
She finds the solution in the Lord’s Prayer which, she suggests, is the intersection of God’s desires and ours. Jesus teaches us to pray for God’s will to be done and for his kingdom to be formed on earth. But in the same breath, we are to present God with our wants: Give us this day our daily bread and deliver us from evil. The Lord’s prayer teaches us to live in the tension between God’s want and our own. Over time, as we make Jesus’s pray our own, we find our desires slowly being aligned with God’s.
Teach Us to Want is an immaculately researched book. Jen offers us an accessible survey of theological and philosophical reflections on the topic of human desire. But this is not a dry academic book. She risks telling her own stories of imperfect desires. She discloses marital temptation and a reluctance to fully embrace motherhood, a role that she worried might cripple her ability to write. It’s only this last point that Michel got it wrong. Teach Us to Want is a beautifully written book, filled with intelligence and intimacy. I’m certain that it won’t be her last.