Teach Us to Want: An Interview with Jen Pollock Michel

Jen Pollock Michel has written a book that I wish I'd read a long time ago. It's called Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith. A review at The Gospel Coalition says that the book "is an excavator for the heart; it digs into our foundations and helps us plant new roots." I'm finding the book to be both helpful and enjoyable.

I'm grateful that Jen was willing to answer some questions about the book and about her ministry.

Desire is at the heart of Christian formation, but we tend to focus on belief and behavior more than desire. Why do you think we tend to do this?

We owe our emphasis on rationality to the Enlightenment. When Descartes introduced the idea, “I think, therefore I am,” we began putting cognition at the center of human personality. This philosophical shift affected our theology, and the project of spiritual formation became something very rational. Certainly there are many Scriptures about belief (Romans 10:9, for example), so it’s not unimportant that we believe in Jesus. It’s just that belief must be held in proper balance with what Jesus named as the two most important commandments: love God and love neighbor. These commands make desire central to spiritual formation.

Behaviorism, of course, has long been a part of humans’ attempts at religion. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were the ones who measured virtue by externals. They were fastidious about their rule-keeping: washing hands before meals, observing the Sabbath traditions, etc.  As long as they could keep their “behaviors” in check, they assumed all was well. But Jesus disagreed, as we know. He called them “whitewashed tombs.”

Maybe we all prefer to emphasize belief and behavior in spiritual formation because these suggest something we can more handily manage. We feel in control of our beliefs and behaviors. But the moment we mention desire, suddenly, we’re aware of the deep work of transformation needed.  When we talk about desire, it’s as if we put our finger on an exposed spiritual nerve.  Do I want Jesus? Is he my greatest treasure? Those are challenging questions we would sometimes prefer to avoid.

Churches that value truth tend to focus on cognitive models of change. Why is this approach insufficient?

I was raised in a church that emphasized Biblical knowledge, and I currently attend a church that emphasizes good theology. I’m grateful for both! But as you’ve said, Biblical knowledge and theology, when viewed as ends rather than means, will prove to be insufficient. We need to know God’s word, and we need to develop good theology. But we need to do both of these in order than our desires for Christ and his kingdom may be formed. Otherwise, we’re on the way toward becoming Pharisees ourselves. Their example reminds us that we can know a lot, even obey very carefully, and somehow miss the divinely intended point. We can strain gnats and swallow camels (cf. Mt. 23:24). 
 
We don't usually think of The Lord's Prayer as having much to say about our desires. What made you choose that as your guide?

It’s been many years now that I’ve been studying—and praying!—the Lord’s Prayer. This is funny, I guess. I grew up Baptist, and we certainly did not make it a practice to pray the Lord’s Prayer together! But in my own spiritual life, I’ve loved the prayer for its simplicity. So often, I make things more complicated for myself than they need to be. I tend to get tangled up in my own thoughts. The Lord’s Prayer has been an invitation into what’s most elemental about God’s desires for me and for the world. It’s a prayer I find myself praying a lot, especially when words and understanding fail for a particular situation. When I don’t know how to pray, I remember that Jesus said, “Pray like this!”

But I have to credit Ben Jolliffe, who was an intern at our church for a couple of years, for really shaping the book’s use of the Lord’s Prayer. We were studying the Lord’s Prayer together as a church, and he preached that what we so often get wrong about prayer (and I think, desire) is the tension between, Our Father, and Hallowed by your name. First, there’s this beautiful invitation towards God’s generosity and love when we call him our Father. Jesus is saying, “Ask! You can’t believe how much God wants to give!” But right on the heels of this invitation is this necessary caution: God’s name must be made holy. Don’t ask thinking God owes you your wildest dreams.

When I heard that sermon, I had been working on the book already, but it gave me really clear language for the tension of human desire in the context of faith. We should want from God because he is so unbelievably good. And yet, we should want very soberly, knowing that God isn’t dedicated to the project of making our lives easy and convenient. Instead, he’s committed to his kingdom, his own glory. 

How has a deeper understanding of desire changed your approach to your own spiritual growth?

I use the question, “ What do I want?” as a way forward into understanding my own heart. Here’s an example: maybe I’ve been irritable with the kids. It’s easy enough to confess that irritability. But maybe there’s something worthwhile about digging into the desires, which promote that irritability. Maybe there are good desires that are being obstructed. Maybe one of my children is being persistently disobedient, and God is calling me into greater courage and consistency in my parenting. But maybe I have disordered desires, which need to be confessed. Maybe it’s my insane craving for quiet and order that makes me irritable, and I need to embrace that my children are children and not adults! As I understand what I want, for good or for bad, it informs the way I pray and then act.

Here’s another example: in my marriage, maybe I want greater intimacy with my husband. But maybe I also want to avoid the real work of participating in that growth. Maybe in asking myself the question, “What do I want?” I recognize that at the end of the day, I’m most interested in crawling into bed with a good book! 

When I pray, considering my desires, I can see my heart’s contradictions and bring these before God for healing. I don’t ever trust myself to change my desires. I simply look for God’s grace to be active in their transformation. I ask him to help me want and will what he wants and wills. 

How can we pray for you?

Thank you for this question! Right now, I’m feeling a strong sense that there are important “nos” I must say in order to be faithful to God. Often, we think of calling as the “yeses” we commit to God. But as I’m learning, every “yes” requires many more “nos.” I’d love to have the courage for the “nos.” I confess to wanting to please people, and this often leads me to agree to do things I have no business committing to. Also, I love feeling very indispensable to God’s plans, and there’s nothing that feeds my pride more than that kind of self-importance. Please pray that my desires will be formed for the approval of Christ alone!

Thanks, Jen!

Check out Jen's excellent blog, and read more about her book at Amazon.com and Amazon.ca.

I Need to Be Reminded Often

Every once in a while, I need to pick up Everyday Church: Gospel Communities on Mission and reread the first chapter to remind myself what is true about our context.

Let me confess: I am prone to think about effective ministry in all the wrong categories. I tend to forget an important truth: that “the Christian gospel has moved from the center of our culture to the margins” (p.13). As I look around, I still see churches using familiar methods, and it seems to "work." I forget that those methods are reaching a declining number of people. “People can be attracted to a church by what it offers,” says Jim Petersen, “but . .  . increase of this sort isn’t church growth at all. It’s just a reshuffling of the same fifty-two cards” (p.18). I agree with the thesis of the authors:

We want to suggest that most of our current dominant models of church and evangelism are Christendom models. This needs to change as we move to a post-Christendom and post-Christian context. (p.23)

So here are some quotes I need to read that give you a taste of why I need to read this chapter regularly to remind myself of what is now true. If they’re right, and I think they are, then the implications are profound.

We have the opportunity to become communities focused on Jesus and his mission…What is fast disappearing is the opportunity to reach notionally religious people through church activities.  (p.13)

Merely opening our doors each Sunday is no longer sufficient. Offering a good product is not enough. (p.15)

What is clear is that great swathes of America will not be reached through Sunday morning services. (p.15)

Seventy percent of the United Kingdom population have no intention of ever attending a church service. That means new styles of worship will not reach them. That means fresh expressions of church will not reach them. That means Alpha and Christianity Explored evangelistic courses will not reach them. That means guest services will not reach them. That means churches meeting in pubs will not reach them. That means toddler churches meeting at the end of the school day will not reach them. The vast majority of unchurched and de-churched people would not turn to the church even if faced with difficult personal circumstances or in the event of national tragedies. It is not a question of “improving the product” of church meetings and evangelistic events. It means reaching people apart from meetings and events. (p.17)

We cannot claim to be faithfully proclaiming the gospel to the lost through our Sunday preaching when most of the lost do not attend church. (p.27)

We cannot rely on business as usual. It cannot mean more of the same. It must involve a qualitative change rather than simply a quantitative change. (p.27)

I know these things. I just forget them as I default to old mental models. It's why I find this chapter helpful every time I read it.

Rethinking Failure

Some quotes from the chapter on failure in Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration that apply to life and ministry as well as business:

Be careful! when you don’t face problems. “It’s really strange,” I told him. “We haven’t had a single big problem on this film.” Many people would have been happy with this news. Not Steve [Jobs]. “Watch out,” he said. “That’s a dangerous place to be.” (Kindle Locations 1697-1699)

Reframe mistakes. “Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality).” (Kindle Locations 1717-1718)

Fail early, fail fast. Quoting Andrew Stanton: “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.” (Kindle Location 1723)

Avoiding failure is failure. “Failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy— trying to avoid failure by out-thinking it— dooms you to fail.” (Kindle Locations 1733-1735)

Leaders set the pace. “If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we make it safe for others.” (Kindle Locations 1757-1758).

Playing it safe leads to death. "Being too risk-averse causes many companies to stop innovating and to reject new ideas, which is the first step on the path to irrelevance…To be a truly creative company, you must start things that might fail." (Kindle Locations 1870-1873).

Make it less expensive to fail. “To be sure, failure can be expensive. Making a bad product or suffering a major public setback damages your company’s reputation and, often, your employees’ morale. So we try to make it less expensive to fail, thereby taking some of the onus off it.” (Kindle Locations 1822-1824).

People-Pleasing Pastors: An Interview with Charles Stone

Charles Stone is pastor of West Park Baptist Church in London, Ontario. He's also author of a new book called People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval-Motivated Leadership. I plan on reviewing this book soon.

I'm grateful that Charles was willing to answer some of my questions.

You found that a large majority of pastors have people-pleasing tendencies. Why do you think this is such an issue among pastors?

I think God gives pastors a heart for people. After all, we are called shepherds. The very nature of our being in the so called “people business” makes it easy be drawn into people pleasing patterns. However, it’s important to differentiate between healthy people pleasing (loving and caring for others which is pleasing) and the unhealthy kind that I write about in the book.

What made you tackle this topic? Did you struggle with this issue yourself?

When I entered ministry I was so eager to please that I began to develop subtle pleaser tendencies on top of the tendencies I took from my childhood. It took years of uneasiness and frustration before I began to realize my tendencies. I wondered if I were alone in my struggle, since so little was written on the subject. So I began to put my thoughts together on this subject. I then surveyed over 2200 pastors and found out that I wasn’t alone. 79% of pastors in one survey and 91% of pastors in another survey indicated that people pleasing affected their leadership at some level.

You tap into some helpful resources, such as family systems theory and mindfulness. What would you say to pastors who may be suspicious of these approaches?

I believe family systems, created in the 60’s and 70’s by a psychiatrist, Dr. Murray Bowen mirrors in many ways a biblical view of describing how we handle our emotions. And mindfulness, the practice of being present in the moment and being aware of our current thoughts, was modeled by Jesus’ life and teaching. He was always present in the moment. In Matthew 6 he used common illustrations of flowers and birds to make people aware of being in the moment. Brother Lawrence who wrote The Practice of the Presence of God provides a good example of a believer who practiced this moment-by-moment awareness of the Lord.

People-pleasing tendencies can be so deep-rooted that some may think it's impossible to change. Why are you hopeful that change is possible?

Jesus is in the business of changing our lives. He promises everything we need for life and godliness. The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 12.2 that we must renew our minds. As we do that in the power of the Holy Spirit, He will change our unhealthy pleaser tendencies.

Some churches may be threatened if a pastor stops leading in a people-pleasing way. How can pastors help their churches understand that moving away from people-pleasing is healthy for both pastors and the church?

Deeply rooted people pleasing tendencies can actually normalize these patterns in a church. If those cases, I encourage pastors to have their leadership read the book together. I include a team study guide at the end that can help them apply. I’d also encourage such pastors to teach some messages about people pleasing because the issue affects everyone, not just those in ministry.

Thanks, Charles!

Living with Fewer Books

I mentioned the other day that I've reduced my physical library from almost 3,000 books to approximately 100. I never thought that I would reduce my library so drastically, but I'm glad I did.

I once visited with a pastor who returned from a sabbatical with Eugene Peterson. Upon his return, he reduced his library to the essentials. I remember having very mixed feelings: I admired the simplicity of such an idea, but I couldn't bring myself to pursue it.

Two years ago, I left a large office and a small house and moved into a condo. I now have almost no room for books. I packed my library into 90 boxes, rented a U-Haul truck, and put them into storage. Two years later, I haven't missed most of them. My next step is to go through those books and get rid of most of them.

I was helped in thinking about this by a book called Clutterfree with Kids, of all things. The author writes:

When we choose to own fewer possessions, we find more time for the things we love, more money for things of true value, more energy for pursuits of lasting worth, more focus for things that bring real meaning, and more opportunity to pursue our greatest potential.

Intentionally or unintentionally, we are all minimizing something. Many people are choosing to live with less stuff because they realize physical possessions are not adding value to their lives. As a result, they open the doorway for far greater pursuits.

This even applies to books!

I've even used his two criteria. To keep a book, I either have to absolutely need it, or absolutely love it (sometimes both). Anything less than this, and it goes.

Honest confession: I'm still a little too trigger-happy with Kindle books, especially when they're on sale. I'm working on it.

I would encourage you to think about reducing your library too. Although this was forced on me, I'm enjoying the benefits.