Be Careful What You Wish For: The Responsibilities of Desire (Part II)

Jen Pollock Michel

We're delighted to be featuring a two-part series on "desire" by Jen Pollock Michel, author of Teach Us to Want, winner of Christianity Today's prestigious 2015 Book of the Year Award. Jump right into the conversation here, or head back to Jen's first post to read the series in order.

When Ellen was only twenty, her parents died within six months of each other. Soon after, her oldest sister, ten years her senior and executor of the estate, sold the family home. Refusing to share the proceeds, she severed contact with Ellen, and because their parents had left Eastern Europe decades earlier when they'd immigrated to Canada, Ellen was, in a very real sense, completely alone.

Ellen ran from the tragedy. She put herself through college. She made a respectable career as an accountant. In her early thirties, Ellen left Canada and took a job in Australia, hoping to find a husband and begin building the home she'd lost. She didn't marry, but by God's grace, she met Jesus and trusted her life to him.

That was ten years ago now.

We sat long after the Christmas dishes had been cleared, and I cupped the broken pieces of Ellen's story in my hand. I tried holding them with hope, believing in the God who binds up and heals, who redeems and restores. I wanted to counsel Ellen to pray with faith and wait expectantly, trusting the goodness of God's intentions towards her. I wanted to forecast that her return to Canada would bring the hoped-for reconciliation with her sister. Maybe even marriage. But I knew the risks of my advice — and the responsibilities attendant to all of Ellen's desires.

If my last essay described the risks of desire (disappointment, self-revelation, abandoned familiarity), today's essay explores the responsibilities of desire. I see in Ellen's story the risks of wanting from God: what if her sister chooses never to renew their relationship? What if Ellen never marries? Will God continue to be good in the midst of those disappointed desires?

I also see in Ellen's story the responsibilities of wanting from God. There is a cooperative role she must play in her desires, and while she's not ultimately in control of her circumstances, neither is she relieved of the responsibility to participate with God.

This brings us to this second part of examining desire in the context of faith. Desire not only exposes us to risk; it also inspires certain responsibilities. Because desire isn't only transactional, because God aspires to do more in us that he can do for us, desire has the potential for furthering our spiritual formation. The risks of desire help us grow greater courage and faith. Additionally, the responsibilities of desire can move us toward faithful obedience. Here then are four responsibilities attendant to holy desire:

1. Holy desire obligates us to pray.

In the context of faith, desire must always transition to prayer. Until desire becomes prayer, it's only half-formed, half-developed, and not nearly matured. In the psalms, for example, desires and petitions are used nearly synonymously. "Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart," (Ps. 37:4). "You have given him his heart's desire and have not withheld the request of his lips," (Ps. 21:2). "You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing," (Ps. 145:16). "He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them," (Ps. 145:19). Desire that becomes prayer has been baptized into the waters of faith and is formed by the qualities of trust and surrender.

But prayer isn't easy. In fact, holy desire is least like lobbing requests to God and relieving ourselves of the responsibility to act, to initiate, and to participate meaningfully in the activity of God. Prayer, as we see it in the Scripture, often requires persistent commitment (cf. Luke 18:1-8). It calls for tenacity, for gumption. Prayer (and desire) doesn't exempt us from responsibility. It is its own kind work.

2.  Holy desire obligates us to repent.

As we saw yesterday, desire is a self-revealing language. It surfaces what matters most in our lives. It exposes the values driving our choices and commitments. Sometimes, by the grace of God, our heart's affections are fixed upon Christ and his kingdom. Often, they are not.

As we examine our desires, one important responsibility we must carry is the willingness to allow the Holy Scriptures access to our hearts — and repent when sin is revealed. The Word of God, described in Hebrews 4:12, is powerful to penetrate our darkness. It reveals what's hidden. It illuminates intention and motivation. Until we read the Scripture and begin to gain God's vocabulary of holy desire, we will lack the necessary discernment required for desire. Moreover, until the Scriptures and the Spirit of God "circumcise our hearts," we will lack the will of renunciation.

An important responsibility in the process of examining desire is repentance — for every "immoderate urge towards those things which are at the bottom end of the scale of good, [when] we abandon the higher and supreme good that is you, Lord, God, and your truth and your law." (Augustine)

3. Holy desire obligates us to trust.

In this life, there are no guaranteed outcomes, and the Bible is clear that earthly existence is broken and battered as a result of sin. All of creation is in a state of chronic longing and constant groaning (cf. Rom. 8:18-22). Our desires for goodness, for justice, for righteousness — all of which are good and right — won't fully be satisfied before Christ's return. There are disappointments and suffering we should expect in this life, not because God stands idly by when we pray, not because he's always trying to teach us a cosmic lesson, but because we're made for a better world, when Christ returns—and heaven comes to earth.

When we pray and do not receive, our responsibility is surrender and trust. We don't have to pretend away grief. We don't have to defend God. We can even, at times, rail, like Job, against the way life seems to have turned out unfairly. But faith nudges us to a different kind of sight, a faith that is informed by the promises of God. Reassured of God's goodness, wisdom, and sovereign control, we can believe, as Tim Keller writes in his book, Prayer, "God will either give us what we ask or give us what we would have asked if we knew everything he knew."

4. Finally, holy desire obligates us to obey.

Stanley Hauerwas, professor at Duke Divinity School, has said, "When we pray, [God] makes us his prayer for the world." And Tim Keller, in his book, Prayer, advises that when we pray our desires, we must also "ask ourselves what we ourselves might need to do to implement answers to our prayers." Prayer isn't a magical incantation that changes the alignment of the stars. Prayer isn't about getting God to do what we want. And while no one is quite sure how exactly prayer works (although Scripture seems to indicate it effects real change), we can begin to understand that what is often on the heels of prayer is the divine command. Prayer doesn't only make us spectators to the work of God (although there is much to behold and worship about God's involvement in human affairs). Prayer also makes us participants in the work of God. As Eugene Peterson writes in his book, The Jesus Way, "God speaks vocationally; there is work to be done." Peterson describes the occasion of Isaiah being caught up in the celestial vision of God's throne room and argues that this experience (or any other divine encounter) isn't meant as an occasion "of sublimity that abstracts us from the world of work; it is an invitation to enter into what God is doing and intending to get done in the world." Holy desire will move us to pray — and then it will invite us to obey.

In a very real sense, we might all "be careful what we wish for." Desire is like a feral lion, and once sprung from the cage, we confront risks and assume responsibilities. But if Jesus thought it important to ask, "What do you want?" we, too, might engage the exploration of our desires as an important process of our discipleship.

Jen Pollock Michel is the author of Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith, Christianity Today's 2015 Book of the Year. Her forthcoming book, Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home, will release in May 2017. A wife and mother of five, Jen is an active member of Grace Toronto Church as well as an enthusiastic supporter of HOPE International and Safe Families Canada. She has written widely for print and digital publications and frequently speaks at churches and conferences. Jen lives with her family in Toronto.

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