Jen Pollock Michel is the author of Teach Us to Want, named Christianity Today’s 2015 Book of the Year. We interviewed Jen to get her ideas on desire and contentment, which was the focus of her book. In this first part of the series, Jen shares why it’s important to help people get in touch with and evaluate their desires. And take a look at the second part of the series coming soon, where she applies these thoughts specifically to helping others change their desires and find contentment.
How would you define desire?
There are important distinctions between things like desire, longing, ambition, etc. So there are lots of different nuances to the word, even when you think about types of desire. I think of desire as the get-up-and-go of our lives. Desire is sort of like the gas we put in our engines. It’s like the oxygen that we put into our lungs. Desire moves us toward and away from things, toward and away from people, toward and away from God. Desire is very much that unconscious part of ourselves, a little bit instinctive, coming from the gut. And I think that’s really powerful for us. It comes from that unconscious, unreflective part of ourselves. And if we really want to see people transformed to the image of Christ, we have to get into desire and not just belief.
If we really want to see people transformed to the image of Christ, we have to get into desire and not just belief.
Why is it important for pastors to talk to their people about desire?
In James K. A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom, he talks about human beings not being primarily thinking creatures, but desiring creatures. That bears out in Scripture, but it also bears out in my own personal experience. And if that’s true, that our primary mode of being is desire, then of course we have to talk about it. I think we also have to reckon with the fact that the gospel is promising such a deep work of transformation in us—that God wants to not just change the way we think, and not just change the way we behave, but actually change the way we want. Because that want, that desire, is really the driving force behind action. Smith talks about the idea that so many churches, so many pastors, have a sort of rationalist approach to discipleship and preaching. Because we are operating under the assumption that people are thinking creatures, we seek to change their beliefs. Instead, because we are feeling creatures, we should also be seeking to change their desires.
How does a person go about becoming more aware of his or her desires?
Some people are very aware of their desires, while others are less aware. Much of the way that we live our lives is based on desire. It’s almost as basic as what Jesus said in Matthew 6:21, that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. How we spend our time, how we spend our money, what our thoughts are preoccupied by, these things are going to reveal to us the things we really want, really love, and really cherish.
So for instance, when you make a New Year’s resolution to go to the gym and then you fail because you hate going to the gym. If we were to inventory how we spent our time, how we spent our money, the company that we kept, it would tell us a lot about our desires. If you spend the majority of your waking hours after work watching television, you just have the desire to be entertained, to check out, to just be comfortable or not be bothered. Alternatively, if you serve at your church regularly, and you love and serve the poor, it could be said that you have a desire to love people who are on the margin. But, if you open up your credit card statement and you are spending the majority of your money on vacations and fancy dinners and beautiful clothes, that will tell you the things that you value.
How can people discern when their desires are pleasing to God or distractions from God’s kingdom agenda?
There is no way to do this apart from the Word of God, apart from the Scriptures, so pastors must start there. Because right desires are not instinctive to us as humans, as fallen human beings. This is what Jeremiah references in Jeremiah 17:9 when he says that the heart is deceitful above all things. Human beings are masters at convincing themselves that wrong things are right, so if we want to know what desires please God, what desires further His kingdom, those have to be revealed to us. To do that, we need to be in the Scriptures.
Further, when we are talking about the desires that honor God, it’s not just about what we desire, it can also be about how we desire. So for instance, a church leader can have a good desire to grow their church, to increase the influence of their church, but that desire has the potential to be corrupted, though, when it starts to get mixed up with their own personal vanity and ego. To avoid this, we need to be in Christian community, so people are reflecting back to us the kinds of things they see in our lives. They need to help us do the analysis of our desires. Not just what I want, but how do I want them and why do I want them?
Although people know God is wise and all-knowing, what is the difficulty people have with surrendering to what He says is best? Or with His not giving us what we want?
There is a sense that sometimes belief doesn’t really transform those deep, visceral instinctive places in us. So we can believe that God is wise and good, but until our desires are shaped around that, there is still more work to be done. Why do we not believe in God’s goodness and wisdom? God’s way with us so often is waiting. So it’s hard to acknowledge God’s goodness and wisdom when you are in the midst of waiting. We can think of Abraham, or Hannah, or a multitude of others in the Scriptures who seem to be waiting. Sometimes it’s hard to tangibly know God’s goodness when you are in a season of waiting.
Further, we are bombarded with this idea in our culture that we should do what we love. That what we desire, that whatever is most instinctive to us in terms of our wants, we should have. And the good life really has to be about having a comfortable, convenient life, it’s about having a materially prosperous life, and it’s about having the fulfillment of your sexual desires. If we’re going to say that we are desiring beings, and then again, this is a James K. A. Smith idea, that we’re pulled by our desires, we are not pushed by our beliefs, we are going to go most instinctively toward what we believe the good life is. If we aren’t reading our Bibles, in Christian community, having a regimen of spiritual practices, we can’t combat the messages of culture which shape and inform this idea of the good life.
In part 2 of this series, we’ll explore with Jen the nature of contentment as well as some practical strategies for pastors as they seek to help others change. There, you’ll also find some helpful questions to ask as well as some pertinent Scripture passages.