A Holy Discontent

by Diane Eaton, RF Board member

Discontent can be a destructive energy that harms us physically, emotionally, and relationally. It may be a symptom of ingratitude or an inability to accept one’s lot in life – never having “learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Phil. 4:11 NIV). At its root, one is shaking an angry fist at God, accusing Him of failing to satisfy one’s expectations. This kind of discontent is self-centered, cynical, and can become vengeful. It turns its back on God. It pushes others away from God. It’s unholy discontent. There’s also a holy kind of discontent, as author, W. Willimon suggests:

“A holy kind of discontent seems to be fertile ground for God’s prophets.”*

What makes it holy? I say: It keeps facing God. It empathizes with God’s heart for humanity. It sees human fallenness from God’s perspective. It refuses to discount or deny anything that assaults God’s character. It yearns for God’s mercy on fallen humanity. It is expressed in prayerful weeping and pleading with God, even while resting contentedly in His promises.

Unholy discontent lacks mercy. It refuses to cooperate with God’s lavish grace towards sinners. It leaves nothing but cold dead emptiness. Unholy discontent may be the driving force behind pushy and noisy evangelistic zeal. It’s a turn-off. It produces infertile and passionless Christianity.

Conversely, holy discontent ignites spiritual passion. It is propelled by divine love, which energizes people to partner with God in the formation of true and vibrant Christian living.

Do you see why holy discontent is “fertile ground”? It is life-producing! It flows out of Life itself – God’s life. It refuses to give up on God’s enduring promises, even when circumstances look bleak, and sin seems unabated. It allows one to stand firm, with spiritual eyes watchful and fixed on the bigger hope. This holy kind of discontent is seen in the prophetic writings. That’s why the Biblical prophets can still inspire us today, as they did in the early church.

The apostle Peter underscored the value of the prophet writings in scripture, saying:

“We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Peter 1: 19 NIV)

We may not be prophets. Yet like them, we will find ourselves distressed over the effects of injustice and evil – whether through civil authorities, social peers, church, family, or other. Discontent is natural. Yet it is also natural to react out of strong emotions. Fear or anger may arouse our fight-or-flight instincts; and we become driven by grievance and a sense of moral superiority. Discontent is not our problem. It’s the inability to see from the perspective of God’s heart. We must learn to wait on the Lord, allowing Him to transform our reactionary tendencies into mature patience and restful trust. Those qualities will guide us towards wise choices.
When affronted by human sinfulness the question is, “Which kind of discontent will rule my life: holy or unholy discontent?”

May the following be our own personal prayer: Lord, purge any root of unholy discontent in my heart and replace it with a holy kind of discontent. Work within me so that, even if You should require me to confront injustice and wrong, I will always be shining the beautiful light of Your Son into the brokenness.

* William H. Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002, page 60.