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July 15, 2014

The Necessary Conversion of Desire

By Jen Pollock Michel

Three pastors figure in the acknowledgments of my recent book, Teach Us to Want. There’s Tom: years ago, when we lived in Ohio, he agreed to let me write a hundred-day devotional for our congregation. And there’s Dan and Kyle: their substantive preaching at our church in Toronto has shaped and informed my theological thinking. I owe these men my gratitude.

There is another pastor mentioned in my book. Unfavorably, I’m afraid. He was a visiting preacher, years ago, and the sermon he preached is one I’ve never forgotten.

“Have you ever heard anyone pray,” the pastor asked, “God, help me to love you more”? How many of you have ever asked that of your husband or wife? Who asks their husband or wife for help like this? No, you don’t go to your husband or wife and say, “Help me to love you more.” That’s your job. And when we go to God asking, “Help me to love you more,” we’re praying the wrong kind of thing. Instead, we should pray, “Help me to know you more.” Because when we grow to know God more, when we read our Bibles and learn more about God, it will automatically be true that we will love God more. (Teach Us to Want, p. 46)

Maybe I bristled because I had learned to depend on the kind of prayers he was suggesting were wrong. At sixteen, I lived the return of the Prodigal Son, and there was nothing more fearful to me then than my own heart’s delinquency. God, help me to love you more. That prayer was a life raft, those words buoyant with hope. At sixteen, though daily Bible reading was commended to me as an important spiritual discipline, I never felt fully assured that my devotional diligence would keep me spiritually afloat. I needed a greater conversion—and would survive only by greater grace.

I’ve come to understand more recently, reading ancient thinkers like Augustine and newer ones like James K. A. Smith, that converted desire is at the heart of Christian formation. Discipleship, perceived as the transmission of information for the purpose of changing our beliefs and behaviors, is an inadequate model. We aren’t nearly as rational as think. We are worshiping beings, homo liturgicus, as Smith describes in Desiring the Kingdom, and we do well to pray, “God, help me to love you more.” “The church has been trying to counter the consumer formation of the heart by focusing on the head and missing the target,” Smith argues. “It’s as if the church is pouring water on our head to put out a fire in our heart.”

Our best question, for ourselves and for those we nurture in the faith, may not be, “What do you believe?” but rather, “What and whom do you love?” It sounds a clarion call for contrition. It solicits repentance from self-assured theology. And it nudges us to embrace the kind of exegesis that Eugene Peterson describes as permission for the Scriptures to “read us.” “The word of God is living and active … discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of whom we must give account” (Heb 4:12-13 ESV). What if, in reading the Word of God, we shed our inner Pharisee and remembered ourselves to be the chief of sinners?

Oh God, help me to love you more.

This prayer isn’t wrong. It is necessary, and indeed it is a line all of us cast for grace. “He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25 ESV).

MichelOP.jpgJen Pollock Michel lives in Toronto with her husband and five children. She is a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s her.meneutics blog and has recently published Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith (IVP). She is the Director of Children’s Ministry at Grace Toronto Church.

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