I was 13 when I first learned that I needed to move to Ethiopia to be a real Christian. There was no single sermon or eye-opening book, just enough talk about selflessness and changing the world to nudge me away from what I wanted—to write and teach—and toward what God wanted: to become a doctor who cured malaria, or a missionary who taught the Bible, or a saint who built an orphanage. I thought that's what God wanted from all Christians, because those were the people held up as examples in church—people who gave away all they had, shunned the praise of the world, and embraced the will of God.
Imagine my surprise several years later when, in college, I read Gerald Sittser's book The Will of God as a Way of Life. Its premise is that God's will has less to do with our circumstances than with our character and who we become amid life's changes. I began to understand, bit by bit, that the God who had given me gifts in communicating simply wanted me to use them, whatever the setting. My life felt much less like a choose-your-own-adventure story that I was scared of messing up.
In Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith (InterVarsity Press), Toronto-based writer Jen Pollock Michel challenges conventional Christian notions about heeding desire. She helps us understand that what we want isn't our enemy, but one of God's most powerful tools for shaping and directing us. We might easily think of desire as all bad, but Michel argues that desire, rightly understood, should be followed.
"[H]ere is how desire becomes corrupt," Michel writes of the human impulse enacted in Adam and Eve's eating the forbidden fruit. "Wanting derails into selfishness, greed, and demanding ingratitude when we've failed to recognize and receive the good that God has already given. Trust is at the center of holy desire: trust that God is good and wills good for his people."
The notion of "holy desire" is at the very heart of the book, as Michel distinguishes between desire aligned with God and desire aligned with self. The latter is the kind of "wanting" that churches rightly rebuke, but we must be careful not to dismiss wanting altogether. The book's title is a kind of prayer: Michel wants to show us a right understanding of desire, a holy wanting, an effortless orientation of our own wills with the will of God. We need a full redemption of our small and selfish desires. When that happens, when we become aware of God's presence in our daily habits, our desires are actually good cues to follow. That is the whole aim of spiritual formation, after all: to recognize God in every moment of our lives so that God might orient us toward himself.
The sad corollary to desire is disappointment. If we, as humans, are beings who want, we are also beings who do not always get what we want. Michel quotes novelist Joan Didion on the death of her husband: "You sit down for dinner, and life as you know it ends." Michel's father died when she was only 18 and he, 49. Her brother committed suicide five years later. The question of desire hangs heavy over loss: Where were you, God? Why did you take away this good thing you had given me? How can we want in such a cruel world?