The Gift of Dissatisfaction

There is a gift from God that we do not want. If we’re honest with ourselves, I suspect there are many gifts from God that we don’t want. We enjoy both sin and comfort too much to value all of God’s gifts; we are indicted by our lacklustre enthusiasm for the things of God.

The gift I’d like to focus on is dissatisfaction. There is a spiritual gift of dissatisfaction. And in our comfortable, western, industrialised world we dearly need it.

There’s also something that looks like the spiritual gift of dissatisfaction but is actually the infernal curse of cynicism. I have this one in spades.

Let me flesh out what I mean: if we believe that our world is passing away, that it is in fact groaning in the birth pangs of a better world (Romans 8) then we should compare our lives, our churches, and our societies, with what we understand is coming.

If we believe that the old creation is gone and the new come in Christ’s resurrection (John 20-21), but that the kingdom—the new creation—is also not yet here; that we live in what theologians call realised eschatology and I call the Between, then we must expect to see partial fulfilments of what the world will be like after she is reborn in fire. And we must expect to not see total fulfilments of that pregnant promise.

There’s a sense in which a Christian’s life is orientated towards a future that we only see through a glass, darkly (1 Corinthians 13). Or it’s supposed to be, anyway.

We also desire to see our hearts, our churches, and our cultures, changed and shaped in the direction of the Kingdom here and now before we die. That’s a good desire, and we should expect to see some fulfilments as the Spirit acts on us. As always, God changes churches by changing people. Typically I think he also changes cultures by changing churches—in Leithart’s language “the heavenly city resurrects the cities of men.”

These are good desires. It is good to ask what God requires of us in order to do as we ask. I think there are two criteria for a move of God, one for us and one for him. The requirement that sits with us is found in the logic of baptism in the Spirit. In John 7 Jesus gives one requirement for us to be changed: thirst.

In other words, we must want it. Want requires a precondition: dissatisfaction. If we were all satisfied all the time, then consumer-driven societies would fall over. Instead, advertisers work to make us dissatisfied and help us to covet so that we will buy. It’s a counterfeit version of what God does with a spiritual gift of dissatisfaction. The primary difference is its object. In Godly dissatisfaction I am unhappy with the state of the world, the church, and myself, and therefore want God. My problem is internal, my solution external. In ungodly dissatisfaction my problem is external—my lack of x, which could sound ‘internal’ but sits outside of my self—and the solution internal, or at least within my power: buy the thing.

The first requirement is thirst. It’s dissatisfaction. The second requirement is entirely out of our control, it’s the will of God. Which is important because we can dearly want to change, or for our churches or cities to change, and nothing seems to happen.

There are two things to say here. Firstly, sometimes we have to wait on the timing of God. We cannot understand this, though we can learn to read something of its contours. Secondly, I think God is working through our thirst when nothing seems to happen. In these trying situations, God is refining our thirsts to ensure they are aimed the right way, and he is slowly shifting our hearts.

As T. S. Eliot puts it in East Coker:

Our only health is the disease,

If we obey the dying nurse

Whose constant care is not to please

But to remind of our, and Adam’s, curse

And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse

Our only health is the disease… our sickness must grow worse. The dissatisfaction is a sign of our health. The thirst is a sign of our health.

We must distinguish between this sort of heavy-hearted dissatisfaction that drives us in thirst to God in prayer and then as we change into appropriate action to reform the world around us, from a sort of cynicism that scoffs at problems without being driven to God at all. The first gives life, the second kills it.

We must also learn to hear it in others, their criticism may not be cynical at all but instead informed by a deep-seated thirst for the things of God. Church leaders have to learn to hear the difference. Of course, because we’re confused sin-marred bizarre beings, most of us do both at the same time. Parsing the difference can require careful wisdom.

There’s a bigger problem though than confusing dissatisfaction and cynicism: We’re much too satisfied.

Here in our comfortable, industrialised, peaceful machine-world that we call ‘the West’ it’s easy to be satisfied. Especially if life has generally dealt us a decent enough hand that we’re getting by, which most UK Christians are—which is a statement about the lack of those who are struggling in our churches more than a statement about the country at large.

As Solomon put it, our eyes never have enough of seeing, nor our ears of hearing (Ecclesiastes 1). We are preoccupied. We are contented with our entertainment. We are concerned with our mundane worries.

I think we all understand how and why that happens. I am certainly not exempt from it. But we are largely unconcerned about the state of our hearts, our churches, or our communities.

We need God to unsettle us, to make us dissatisfied with anything but Jesus, and with anything but the age of come. This unsettled longing for an age to come is what the Bible calls joy. It, strangely enough, tends to make contented people, because God satisfies.

Photo by Jonathan Greenaway on Unsplash

To subscribe and receive email notifications for future posts, scroll all the way to the bottom of the page.

Would you like to support my work? The best thing you can do is share this post with your friends. Why not consider also joining my Patreon to keep my writing free for everyone. You can see other ways to support me here.