An excerpt from Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith by Jen Pollock Michel (Christianity Today’s 2015 Book of the Year).
Is it true that the hardest, least desirable choice is the most obviously holy? Is it true that personal desire must never be trusted?
Many, like me, imagine desire and faith in a boxing ring, facing off like opponents. We don’t suppose both can be cheered at the same time. We easily dismiss desire, arguing that the goal of the Christian life is obedience. Why promote desire? Doesn’t that necessarily put us in the path of potential treachery? As my friend observed when I told her I was writing a book about a theology of desire: “Theology of desire? But isn’t that an oxymoron?”
Twenty years ago, as a newly reformed 16-year-old who had just spent prom night playing house, I had reasons for mistrusting desire. But teen pregnancy wasn’t my only reason. Didn’t desire keep Christians from the radical sacrifice required for following Jesus? Weren’t missionaries and their commitment to total relinquishment an example we all must follow? I surmised from my time as a college student in Africa that the harder and more undesirable life was, the more eternally worthwhile and valuable.
One doesn’t have to be a converted reprobate to recognize the inherent tensions of desire. How do we ever know when desire isn’t the apple of self-actualizing promise leading us far from God? Can it ever be possible to trust our own hearts?
We simply can’t ignore desire. Like a heartbeat, desire pulses steadily in the backdrop of our lives. We may not always be aware of the work desire is doing, and yet it provides much of the necessary energy on which we rely. We get out of bed, go to work, get to the gym, marry (or not), have babies (or not), write books—follow Jesus—because in some measure, we want to.
Desire is primal: to be human is to want. Consider that wanting is the earliest language we learn. As infants, when we’re yet incapable of forming words, we’re infinitely good at knowing what we want—and, for that matter, getting it. Wanting, as part of the human experience, is not to be rejected but embraced.
The gospel of Jesus Christ meets our holy hesitations about desire, without eliminating the tension or minimizing the dangers, yet suggesting it can be reformed. Though we can indeed want in ways that go tragically wrong, in the words of the apostle Paul, we are “buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Might not this newness of life include a newness of desire?
The renewal of our desires is indeed the bold promise of the new covenant: the law of God will be written on our hearts (see Jeremiah 31:33), and we will want God. What the Mosaic law was powerless to do—to change the human heart—the new covenant will achieve. It will finally grant us a real and obedient willingness to be God’s people. “I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them,” God promised the prophet Ezekiel. “I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statues and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (Ezekiel 11:19-20).
DECEMBER 15, 2014
Credit: Christianity Today