I had never even heard of a “theology of desire” until IVP Books sent me a copy of Jen Pollock Michel’s Teach Us To Want: longing, ambition and the life of faith (2014). Curious, I started reading and discovered a beautifully written and deeply personal book focused on desire–part personal confession by the author who is also the mother of five children; part meditation on Scripture both Old and New Testaments; part theological reflection with references to Thomas Aquinas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Madeleine L’Engle, Kathleen Norris, and many other writers.
Is it wrong to want something? Given two options, is the least desirable option always the most holy? Can we ever trust our desires? What is the role of confession, prayer, and Christian community?
To explore these and related questions, the author shares stories from her own life–her conversion at the age of 16, her marriage and later encounter with a flirtatious co-worker, her difficult pregnancies. She draws on the Lord’s Prayer as a framework to talk about desire, and how it relates to our bodies, to holiness, to neighbours, to community.
I would have loved to see more on the tension between desire and self-sacrifice; between wanting-and-gaining-the-whole-world and carrying the cross (Matthew 16:24-26); between the Lord’s prayer as desire and Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). I wish the book had a Scripture index, so I could go back and check for these and other references.
Still, my paperback copy is studded with book marks, and Teach Us To Want has given me a great deal to think about. Here is just one of my many book-marked passages (180):
We need church. But we don’t need it like medicine. We don’t swallow it down for good health, and we don’t grin and bear our togetherness–although, in the wake of grievance, I understand how it can feel like that. In spite of our experiences of the church’s betrayal this side of heaven, the Bible insists church is meant for our good.
When I say church (or biblical community), for my purposes here, I mean the local congregation of believers. Certainly that is not the only biblical meaning of the word. Church, as the Bible uses the word, is both universal and local. However, it is always assumed in the Scriptures that a believer belongs to both.
“A local or individual church,” writes Thomas Oden, “is a company of those who are united in any given place in faith in Jesus Christ for worship, proclamation, and service in Christ.” Local church, as place and company, implies that people must be physically present in order to belong.
We aren’t part of the local church in any meaningful way if our name only figures on a membership roll and we deliberately choose not to participate in its gatherings. We aren’t part of the church if, sitting in our living rooms in Omaha, we’re tuning into a podcast of a local church in LA. We’re part of a church (local) when we’ve lost some of our anonymity and begin to know and be known. And by that definition, local church is the generous invitation to belong. It’s an antidote for alienation, isolation and the unbearable loneliness of believing no one knows us or cares to. We’re closer to understanding God’s unconditional love for us as we find it in the company of God’s people.
Each chapter ends with a few discussion questions, and the book itself concludes with a discussion guide and notes. A six-part Bible study supplement may be downloaded for free at IVP Books.
Here’s more from the author speaking about desire:
Jen Pollock Michel, author of Teach Us To Want, On Desire from InterVarsity Press on Vimeo.
To Think About or Leave a Comment: Have you felt that wanting something is wrong? Do you trust your own desires? Have you experienced the church as “an antidote for alienation”? Why or why not?
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from IVP Books, and as in all my reviews, the opinions expressed here are my own.
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