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Is it OK to want? Book delves into tricky subject of ambition and longing

For some, desire or wanting is seen as innately sinful—a carnal attitude that falls outside the life of faith. For others, desire is a common and acceptable attitude in our modern age.

In Jen Pollock Michel’s new book, “Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith,” Michel tackles what she describes as a “real tension” between societal attitudes toward desire and a biblical perspective.

Teach us to Want“Part of the motivation [for writing the book] was definitely just my own curiosity,” Michel said. “I feel like as a Christian I haven’t often heard a lot about desire, although as a human being I certainly feel it very acutely that desire is just part of the everyday life of being human. Part of it was just a misunderstanding or maybe a curiosity or just a lack of understanding and ignorance really. What does it mean to want in the life of faith? Is my wanting always hostile to God’s wanting for me?”

Michel writes a very personal book, drawing on her own experiences and using them to look at Scripture and see the boundaries or biblical perspectives on want and desire. Is it OK to desire something? What does the Bible say about my desire for a certain job, or to be married, or for the direction of my vocation? These are the types of questions Michel explores in “Teach Us to Want.”

Those desires, however, form in our hearts, which are described as deceitful.

“I think there’s a real tension,” Michel said. “I hope the book maintains kind of a both/and perspective on desire. That something that’s really true that we know from Scripture—Jeremiah 17:9—that our hearts are deceitful, that we can’t rely necessarily on our desires at first glance. We should be suspicious because we’re fallen creatures, and sinfully we want the things that make our lives easy and convenient and comfortable.”

At the same time, we shouldn’t completely disregard desire by believing it’s always rooted in something sinful. Michel looks at the Lord’s Prayer “as an invitation into holy desire.”

“While we can’t trust our own hearts, we’re invited to pray and we’re invited to pray this bold prayer of desire and we’re invited to be shaped into the desires of God,” she said.

One of the most important components of Michel’s book is its direction to examine our desires based on several things: prayer, Scripture, community, worship and a willingness to listen.

“God never says is it right or is it wrong to want to buy a house in Toronto, for example [where Michel lives],” she said. “Is it a right desire to want to stay in Toronto and to buy a house? Is it a wrong desire? I think it’s a really complicated thing. So we need spiritual practices. We need Scripture, first of all. We need community. We need to be in community with other people, examining our hearts’ desires, making concessions, letting other people reflect back to us what they see. Obviously we need prayer; we need corporate worship.”

“Teach Us to Want” is an important book for those who struggle with the idea of want and desire and want to know the best ways to discover God’s leading in their lives. Michel doesn’t give pat answers; she writes personally and with a sense of vulnerability about the challenges she has faced and how those can help teach others. She is a strong writer, and many readers will be immediately drawn in by her personal stories.

While not giving readers a roadmap when it comes to understanding desire, Michel wants readers to see that desires can be good as well.

“I want [readers] to see the goodness of desire,” she said. “Culturally, we hear the message that ‘Whatever you want is right and good,’ and the church counteracts that by saying ‘Never trust your heart. If it feels good, don’t ever do it.’ I want people to wrestle with the tension that, ‘Wait, yes, I should be suspicious about my desires and about wanting, but why is it necessary?’ It’s necessary for praying, it’s necessary for mission. It’s just important to be transparent about desire because whether or not I admit it, there it is, simmering below the surface.”

“Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith,” IVP Books, © 2014, $16, 221 pages. Learn more at www.ivpress.com or visit a local LifeWay Christian store.

— by Scott Noble