A Review of
Teach Us To Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith
Jen Pollock Michel
Reviewed by Bronwyn Lea
Once, I was hijacked by a bishop.
I was in London at a conference, and the bishop of my church at home was hosting a reception one evening for South African expats. One of his purposes was to raise awareness and funds for our small denominational seminary, where I was a student at the time, and so I agreed to an interview.
I was prepared for a plain sailing interview about the bible college. I was blindsided by the direction he took: asking detailed, personal questions about the personal trauma which had derailed me while I was a law student, and set me on a path of question-asking.
I cornered him afterwards, furious and exposed: “If I had known you would ask me those questions, I would not have done the interview,” I fumed. He was gentle and clear: “I know. That’s why I didn’t tell you. I’m preparing you for ministry, my girl.”
I left the conference hopelessly tangled. Why was I in seminary, anyway? I didn’t want to be in vocational ministry: I wanted to be in the work place! But was that what God wanted? I felt sure it wasn’t what I wanted, but then why did I also feel a sense of satisfaction that my words had made a difference that night? And was it sinful to feel a sense of accomplishment at the same time as feeling sideswiped?
What did I want, anyway? And what did God want? Would they ever be the same? And how would I know, since even on my most saintly days (not too many, and not too saintly – I should add), I carry a deep pocket of mixed and selfish motives?
As it turns out, those questions simmer beneath the surface for us all. I did land up in ministry (the bishop was prophetic), and in a decade of women’s and college ministry, have heard countless iterations of those same questions:
“Is it wrong to be ambitious?”
“I think I know what I want to do with my life, but how can I know if that’s what God wants?”
“Is it true that the hardest, least desirable choice is the most obviously holy? Is it true that personal desire must never be trusted?” (23)
“Can we trust our desires if we ourselves can be so untrustworthy?” (37)
I have stumbled through those conversations in the past, groping for something helpful and substantive to say. But I will stumble no longer. Instead, I will refer them to Jen Pollock Michel’s magnificent new book Teach Us To Want.
In it, Michel tackles the tangled intersection of longing, ambition and the life of faith. With breathtakingly beautiful prose, inviting stories, and disarming candor she dives deep into the Scriptures to search out how it is that God made us creatures who want things, desire things, aspire for things. She traces out how sin has made ruin of all our wants, for we want wrongly and idolatrously.
However, she reminds us that this is not where the story ends: the gospel is in the process of transforming not only our lives into ones of holiness in outward obedience, but also of transforming our inmost being and our desires themselves. “Newness of life includes a newness of desire,” writes Michel. “The renewal of our desires is indeed the bold promise of the new covenant: the law of God will be written on our hearts, and we will want God.” (29)