Moving Into the Greater Desires: An Interview with Jen Pollock Michel

JPM For the Missio Lent series, TWI’s Laura Fabrycky spoke recently with Jen Pollock Michel about her book, Teach Us to Want (IVP, 2014). Jen Pollock Michael is a writer, speaker, and mother of five. She writes regularly for Her.meneutics.com and Today in the World.

(Read the rest of the #MissioLent series here.)

The Washington Institute: To begin, congratulations to you on Teach Us to Want being awarded Christianity Today’s Book of the Year for 2015. Quite an accomplishment for your first book!

When this book was in its infancy—when it was just you, typing on your computer—what did you want for this book? What was your desire for it?

Jen Pollock Michel: When I first started writing, it wasn’t a book that I thought anyone would read. A lot of people write their first book because they are searching out their own curiosity and questions. My initial dream was to understand desire and its place in the life of faith. I wanted to ask if it was always wrong to want. Trying to amputate all desire from my life didn’t seem to be working, and it didn’t reflect what the gospel seemed to say, and the breadth of what it wants to do in the human heart. I wanted to understand it for myself.

Once it became a book, my prayer was that it would be true and beautiful, because the gospel is true and beautiful. There are a lot of Christian books out there that might be true but are not very beautiful, and there’s a lot of beautiful writing that isn’t really true or theologically rich. I wanted this book to do both.

TWI: How has the reality of putting a book out and doing things like this—interviews, speaking, marketing, etc.—been for you?

JPM: It’s been up and down. Right before the book came out, I did a few sessions with a spiritual director, which was a good place for me to talk about the fears of publishing. I had fears of reactions from “both sides” of what was possible. What if people hated the book? But what if people loved it? I didn’t know if I could be trusted with either response!

It was so critical for me confront my own demons in the publishing process. I was afraid of people’s criticism and also afraid of people’s praise. Since the book has done well—that is, in the sense of receiving the award, not because tens of thousands of people are buying it!—it has proven challenging to my own spiritual formation at times. But to me, the award says that desire is a topic that the church needs to be talking about.

When I do an interview like this, I sense God saying to me that I don’t have to be anybody else; to just be myself. “You yourself are weak and fragile and human, and so don’t pretend that you are anything other those things. Continue to live out of a vital center of connection with Jesus Christ.” I try to maintain spiritual practices that remind me that the only things I have to give are the things that I have received.

TWI: You and I are talking before Lent begins, but we’ll post this interview during our Missio Lent series, so let’s talk about Lent. You’ve written that tamping down desire isn’t necessarily what God wants, but that’s often how Lent is framed. It’s the season of “giving up chocolate.” How has what you’ve explored about desire and how God sees desire forming, informing, or transforming your understanding of Lent and your practices in the season of Lent?

JPM: Recently, our pastor preached on Mark 8. It’s the classic passage about the denial of desire. “If any man come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” For me, that has always sounded as though that everything that one wants is bad, anything that is desirable is suspect. All denial. In writing the book, obviously, I was searching for some sort of redemption of desire, which I think the gospel offers. Mark 8 is both about desire and denial. “If you would come after me”—that’s about desire! When we desire Christ, when we want to follow him, we are moving toward something and we are also moving away. There is something to be denied. But we have to tell the whole story. We have to tell a desire story and a denial story as well. That’s true in Lent. It’s not that God is out there ready to fulfill all our wishes, or to deny them all either. It’s understanding what denials are necessary to move into the greater desires.

I haven’t fasted in several years for Lent, but this Lent, I’m sensing an invitation to do so, to move toward wanting to come after Christ. If I would come after him—if that’s my heart’s desire—then what must be denied? So I’m going to take an internet fast. I do still have to check my email for work purposes. But I’ll turn the wifi off at home and take the data off my phone. It’ll be a deliberate exercise. When I have to check-in, I’ll walk to my local café, and then I’ll come home. Again, it’s not just about denial; it’s about moving toward the desire for greater presence. To be present with God and “constant in prayer,” as it says in Romans 12—that’s what I want. I don’t want to be constantly distracted.

I want to also be present to the people in my life. I don’t dare go out to speak to crowds if I don’t love the people in immediate proximity to me.

TUTWTWI: You follow the structure of the Lord’s Prayer to explore desire. When did you make that connection between desire and prayer? How do you see desire and prayer—the Lord’s Prayer, in particular—connected?

JPM: Before my twins were born, I did a neighborhood women’s Bible study on the Lord’s Prayer, which I wrote. My first interest was the Lord’s Prayer, but I unearthed all these questions I had about desire along the way. I was able to see that the Lord’s Prayer is a framework for holy desire. Once I started to ask if desires were all wrong, I also began looking for language for learning to want in the ways that God wants. The disciples said to Jesus, “Teach us to pray”; that was their desire. My desire was, “Teach me to want.” The two came together.

Even in the publishing process, we went back and forth about whether this was a “desire” book or a “prayer” book. We finally settled on it being a “desire” book. I didn’t want to write a prayer book because I didn’t feel like a good prayer. If you write a prayer book, then you better be better at it than I am.

TWI: You also write about wrestling with your own sense of ambition. It seems to me that, among Christian women in our generation, there’s been a real uptick in this kind of conversation. We are trying to make sense of our longings to do work outside of our home—or at least beyond our home—while also caring for children and keeping a home running. We have ambitions in life; how do we make sense of them? Without necessarily taking “sides,” how you see the state of that conversation right now?

JPM: I tend to be a conciliatory person; I can hear both sides. On the one hand, when I was growing up in my context, it was just assumed that women would stay home with their kids, and that if you desired something more than that, it was very greedy. Ambition was simply self-serving. I think that doesn’t tell the whole story, or the whole story of family life. Women aren’t the only ones responsible for the care of the home. I don’t see that in Scripture. Even kids have their own responsibilities! It’s not selfish of me to ask my middle-school-aged kids to pack their lunches. That’s a good responsibility to give them. Does it free me up to write? Yes, and that’s a good thing.

On the other hand, I feel like there are a lot of women who say that we’ve been so restricted, and isn’t it great now that we can have ambitions and work outside the home. And to them I want to say, let’s not forget about our children, and I think there are a lot of creative ways to do that.

I thank God that this book came after many years of raising little ones. I see a lot of women writers struggling to get a book out there, and their kids are really young, and they wonder why they feel really stressed and fragmented. I would never tell someone that they shouldn’t do that. Rather I would tell them that, hopefully, Lord willing, there’s going to be time yet.

I didn’t know that as I know it now. When I learned I was pregnant with the twins—our numbers 4 and 5—I thought, It’s over for me! There probably won’t be any space for any other desires or ambitions apart from family life. But now I realize that there is time still. I’m glad that I had those years to invest in them.

Again, I don’t think that my way is the only way. I’ve often returned to an article called “No Happy Harmony,” in First Things (October 2013), written by Elizabeth Corey, a professor of political science at Baylor. In it she argued, simply, that we can’t have it all because we are embodied. As an embodied creature, you are limited by your composition. You are a body. I think women should consider that within the conversation about ambition.

We can’t do it all, but we also don’t have to try to do it all now. It’s a question of priorities, and putting first things first. Again, that will look different for every family.

So, I guess I push back on both sides of that conversation.

TWI: It seems too that there are more women—bloggers, writers, speakers—who are doing what I would describe as public theology. Whether or not they claim the title “theologian,” I hear them “doing theology” from what you just described—from a very embodied place. They are wrestling with Scripture, trying to make sense of life, of their own vocations, and doing it in a very public way: on blogs, in books, in front of audiences—for a public. I hear you doing that in this book too, in stunningly vulnerable ways, but with a lot of heavy theological lifting. Do you see yourself in that role—as a public theologian?

JPM: I do. Right now, I’m reading a book about the medieval theologians, back when theology was thought of as the primary discipline—

TWI: —the queen of the sciences—

JPM: —exactly. Theology is a way of making sense of the world. It’s a different way, obviously, than the sciences take. I’m grateful for the opportunities and experiences that I’ve had, like my education at Wheaton College, which gave me theological tools and frameworks—church history, studies in the Old and New Testaments, and the like, where I learned how to approach various sources with enough understanding to begin to crack the code.

I have a master’s degree in literature, so I’m naturally very interested in texts. As a Christian, my primary text is scripture, so these are things that make sense to me. Whether that’s “doing public theology,” I don’t know, but I definitely feel that as a writer, whatever “that” is, I want to keep doing that.

TWI: Much of what you talk about in terms of desire deals with “desires dashed,” as Katelyn Beaty puts it in the foreword to your book. To quote you, how can “ignoring our desires serve as the convenient way we remain ignorant and resist change,” and how can there be redemption of “desires dashed”? What do we do with our desires, especially when we often feel such acute disappointment over them?

JPM: There’s risk in desire, and there’s responsibility in desire. Risk includes the possibility of disappointment. Take something that is a good, and take it to God in prayer. In the life of a Christian, desire will ultimately become prayer if you are living in the communion of the Holy Spirit and wanting greater intimacy with God. That’s how desire becomes prayer.

But God’s ways are inscrutable; they are higher than ours. We won’t always get what we want. We live in a world that’s broken and fallen, provisional and contingent. There’s huge risk in all of that. But the risk is good because it’s about discovering God’s wisdom and goodness, by faith not by sight.

When we ignore desire and resist change, it reveals what we might already know, even subconsciously, that as soon as we move into desire, God may ask us to move into greater participation. Tim Keller says that sometimes when we pray our desires, they become invitations to participation. We know that, but we often don’t want to step into that. If you pray for the salvation of someone you love, God might ask you to be the one to proclaim Christ to them. You may pray for the poor and the hungry, and find that God asks you to give your money, or your time, or your gifts. For me, alongside having the desire to write, God is also giving me more responsibilities to carry.

TWI: Like us talking now, and talking with other people about your book!

JPM: I sometimes want to hide in my house! I’m an extroverted person. I love talking to people, but it makes me nervous to assume the role of an expert. I’m not an expert; I’m just a fellow traveler, but I am leaning into what I feel God calling me to, his saying to me, “Trust that you are traveling. That whatever you are learning as you are traveling is something you have to give and to share.” In Romans 12, which I read today, Paul says whatever gifts you have been given by grace, use them. If God gives you something, it’s always by grace, and we are to steward it well.

TWI: There’s a real beauty—a kind of lovely symmetry—that we, as readers, get to participate in your risk of writing as we read your book, and in God using your desire to write as a means to explore desire. You’ve embraced that risk, and you are now shouldering some of its responsibility. How has that risk been for your family, and for the community of believers that you are a part of?

JPM: It’s been a learning curve. I had to assume a voice in my own family, as well as in my book, where I said, “Wait. Hold on! I think this desire is good, and I need your help to create space for it.” It’s been an on-going conversation with my husband and my kids, and it’s been very good for all of us. They want me to use whatever gifts and desires God has given me. But it’s also created some real boundaries. If this is a real calling, that means protecting it too. It’s hard to know when to say yes and no sometimes.

As a family and as a community, we’re learning that together. My husband gives me a lot of wisdom too, like, for example, in figuring out what speaking engagements to accept. I’m not going to lie; people aren’t exactly banging down my door! But I had two invitations come in, timed fairly close together. A lot of people would be able to do that, but my kids are still fairly young, and my husband is still busy with his job. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to say no out of fear, or because I was afraid of stepping into my own risk. My husband and I talked about it, and in the end, I just chose one, and turned down the other.

Also, I took a staff position at our church after I finished the book. I worked there as the book was released and through the fall. Increasingly, though, I felt as though I couldn’t sustain part-time church work and writing, and family responsibilities. I had been sensing this tension growing. The decision to step away came through praying over desire one morning. I was going through the Bible study of Teach Us to Want with a group. I was telling them to pray about their desires, but wondered if I was really doing that in my life on this issue. What did I want? What wasn’t I paying attention to? I realized that I didn’t want to be working for the church anymore. I love the church, but I really didn’t want to do both writing and church work. I felt like the Holy Spirit was saying, “You can say no.” So I did. They graciously accepted that; they’ve really been supportive.

TWI: What’s next for you? What do you want to write next?

JPM: I have another book that I’m working on—contracted with InterVarsity again—on home. The working title is called “Making It Home,” exploring the fundamental human desire for “home,” our desire to belong. I’m looking at the themes in scripture of emplacement and alienation and re-emplacement. Craig Bartholomew wrote a book called Where Mortals Dwell, examining the gospel arc of emplacement, displacement, and re-emplacement. This new book is traveling that arc too, as my own life has, with a lot of moving around and loss. I am excited that Jesus says that he and the Father will make their home with us.

TWI: Thank you for talking with me today, Jen.

JPM: Thank you.

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