September 15, 2013
 Welcome Guidance
From Unwelcome
Circumstances

Reaping the Benefits of
Inspirational Dissatisfaction
    
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In the mid-1970s, I served as a pastor on a church staff for several years. The experience was a milestone for me. The senior pastor and congregation were highly supportive to me, and I grew in many important ways.

Yet I was often frustrated by the nature of pastoral work itself. Pastors are expected to be generalists--wearing many hats and responding to many emergencies. Many pastors thrive on this multifaceted aspect of church work and love the adventure of countless responsibilities, and I’m grateful for their natural devotion to this vital role. I found myself wanting to concentrate more on certain areas of ministry that utilized my gifts, and was often discouraged at how little time I had for these activities. The experience brought me face to face with the fact that, while I greatly enjoy challenging work, I prefer to focus on a few things and do them well.

That insight was invaluable, and it led me to begin an independent ministry. My work since then as a "resource pastor," with its focus on teaching and writing, has fit me amazingly well, and I’ve never regretted making this change. Yet I can’t imagine I would have found the insight to do it, nor the motivation, had I not experienced some significant frustration as a pastor, which convinced me I was trying too hard to fit myself into an unnatural role. God, I believe, used the unwelcome aspects of pastoral work as much as the enjoyable ones to clarify this new direction I should take.

This positive role of frustration in my decision to launch Nehemiah Ministries is a good example of what human potential writer W. Clement Stone terms “inspirational dissatisfaction.” Stone presents this concept in The Success System That Never Fails, which I read about ten years ago.* This book, ironically, had sat on my shelf ignored for more than thirty years, and it would have helped me if I had read it when I was a pastor. Someone gave it to me in the late 1960s--so long ago that I can’t remember who, nor whether it was a gift or a loan (undoubtedly the latter). I shied away from reading it all that time due to its title, which seemed audacious.

Then one afternoon in the summer of 2000, I had some free time and wanted to read something upbeat. I decided to give Stone’s book a chance. It was, well, better than I expected. I found his notion of inspirational dissatisfaction, which he discusses throughout the book, remarkably helpful, and I marveled that I’d never encountered it before.

Inspirational dissatisfaction, as Stone uses the term, is the positive role that our experiences of frustration play--both in helping us understand important steps we should take with our life, and in finding the motivation to take them. We may be unhappy in our job, for instance, because the work doesn’t fit us well, or because coworkers are not supportive or have unreasonable expectations of us. Frustration can be our ally in such cases--a red-alert that we need to seek a change.

I love this concept, as simple as it is, for it provides us a basis for seeing a silver lining in adverse circumstances, which we can easily miss. Some Christians view all frustrating situations fatalistically and hopelessly. They assume that God is punishing them through these circumstances and that they shouldn’t strive to change them.

On a more healthy level, we may recognize how such situations help us grow, but we assume the silver lining comes only if we stay in them and allow God to stretch us there. That conclusion is often justified, and we can be too quick to run away from challenges, to say the least. Yet Scripture gives about equal weight to the other possibility--that God may use our frustration in such cases to enlighten us to the fact that we’re not where we should be. Healthy thinking requires that we give fair consideration to both possibilities, and feel permission to think in both directions.

Unfortunately, our Christian teaching usually gives far more attention to the former possibility than the latter. We also have elaborate vocabulary for talking about the one (“pick up your cross,” “accept your lot,” “be a living sacrifice,” “lose your life in order to find it”), and little in the way of convenient language to speak of the possibility that an unwelcome situation simply isn’t right for us.

"Inspirational dissatisfaction" fills this gap wonderfully well and can make a redemptive contribution to our Christian vocabulary. We shouldn’t underestimate the role that language plays in our ability to reason effectively and make sound decisions, given the extraordinary level of “self-talk” that we engage in constantly. I agonized over the question of whether to leave conventional church work for a specialized ministry far more than I should have, due especially to guilt-ridden self-talk. Simply knowing it was permissible to think in terms of inspirational dissatisfaction, and having that term available, would have made a big difference.

Turning Failure into Success

Stone notes another way in which inspirational dissatisfaction can function to our benefit. The discontent we feel over our own poor performance or behavior in some area can provide potent motivation to improve. Here again I find the concept helpful. Our tendency, when we’re disappointed with ourselves, is to beat ourselves up and grow even more discouraged. Yet this discontent can provide the most powerful incentive we ever experience for positive change.

The most important turning point of my teenage years occurred when, one afternoon, alone in my father’s home office, I suddenly felt such disgust over my poor performance in high school that I resolved to do better from that point forward. Surprisingly, that resolution stuck, and I worked hard at my coursework for the rest of my senior year, then throughout college and two graduate programs. The reason this resolution was so effective, while many others I had made failed, was due, I’m certain, to the degree of frustration I felt with myself at the time that I made it.

It’s in this sense that psychologists often talk about the value of “hitting bottom” as a stimulus for change. Our discouragement doesn’t have to reach this level to provide useful inspirational dissatisfaction. It can happen anytime we’re disappointed with ourselves, if we’re open to the possibility. Simply being aware of how frustration with ourselves can inspire positive change--and having a term for this dynamic--greatly enhances our ability to think optimistically. We’re less likely to condemn ourselves for past mistakes and more likely to draw benefits from them.

Instead of wallowing in discouragement over how a thoughtless remark I made may have hurt someone, for instance, I can find the incentive to learn from the episode how to avoid such impulsive speaking in the future. I’m more likely to find the heart to apologize to this person as well.

Inspirational Dissatisfaction in Scripture

It’s in weighing the significance of our frustration in unwelcome situations where we’re likely to find the concept of inspirational dissatisfaction helpful most often, though, for our confusion over God’s will is often greatest then. It’s important to know that our discontent is sometimes his signal to seek a change. When we look for it in Scripture, we find many examples where this was the case.

One involves some disciples of Elisha, who find that their work and living conditions are too confining (2 Kings 6:1-7). They explain to him, “Look, the place where we meet with you is too small for us. Let us go to the Jordan, where each of us can get a pole; and let us build a place there for us to live.”

Elisha responds to them, “Go.”

They press him further, “Won’t you please come with your servants,” and he replies, “I will,” and goes with them.

What’s reassuring about this incident is that Elisha validates the frustration his disciples feel. He doesn’t imply that they’re selfish for feeling it, nor suggest that they should simply learn to live with their cramped quarters and make the best of them. Instead, he agrees to help them make a constructive change.

The passage is refreshing to consider in any circumstance of life--such as a job, living situation, or ministry--where we’re frustrated over factors that work against our using our gifts effectively. We’re shown that God may be alerting us through our frustration to seek improvements or even a new venue. We’re freed from our natural tendency to think that the Christian response must be solely to accept our lot, and we’re given permission--even encouraged--to weigh other possibilities.

Another biblical example of inspirational dissatisfaction involves Abraham’s inability to find a wife for Isaac among the women of Cana (Gen 24). Both he and Isaac were likely frustrated over this situation and had long been so.

Abraham, especially, had strong reason to think they should simply accept reality in this case and not try to change it. His uncanny experience of miracles gave him a reason to be passive. Isaac’s birth in itself, when Abraham and Sarah were both very old, was testimony--and Isaac’s life a constant reminder--that God could solve the most impossible problems supernaturally. Shouldn’t Abraham assume that, if God wanted Isaac married, God would provide a spouse for his son without special effort on Abraham’s part?

Yet in this case Abraham was spurred by his frustration to take initiative to solve the problem. He sent his servant to his hometown of Haran to search for a wife for Isaac. Abraham clearly believed he was honoring God and had his blessing in taking this step, for he spoke to his servant of the help God’s angel would provide in the journey. The mission was successful. The servant returned with Rebecca, who became Isaac’s wife, and, from all indications in Scripture, was an exemplary match for him.

This passage is deeply encouraging to consider if you want to be married but believe that factors in your life are hindering you from finding someone compatible. You may be in a job setting where the likelihood of meeting someone is poor, or in a church or fellowship where you’ve been stigmatized as a “perpetual single.” Traditional Christian counsel is, don’t try to change these situations but trust that if God wants you married, he’ll make it happen in spite of the limits of your circumstances. If no one suitable comes along, assume that God wants you to stay single, and pray that he will take away your desire for marriage.

Abraham’s example presents a different model. It shows that taking initiative to change your circumstances in such cases can be highly appropriate and honoring to Christ. And it suggests that God may be prompting you through your frustration to leave certain situations and look for ones that improve your prospects for finding a spouse.

Getting the Signals Straight

Simply knowing it’s okay to consider the possibility that God is moving us through our frustration to leave or change an unwelcome situation is encouraging in itself. The concept of inspirational dissatisfaction is greatly reassuring. It deepens our alertness to a potential source of God’s guidance, and increases the possibility that we’ll recognize action he wants us to take to solve problems.

It doesn’t answer all the questions, though. We still have the challenge of determining God’s will for us in a given instance. How can we know with confidence whether God wants us to leave a frustrating situation or stay? When does he want us to take initiative to change our circumstances, and when does he wish to change us so that we can learn to handle them better? Here are some steps that can help us reach the right conclusion.

1. Give each situation a fair chance. Every job, educational program, relationship, fellowship situation--you name it--has plenty of dry periods. We must be careful not to think that God is prompting us through the first sign of disenchantment to look for greener pastures. Some situations--degree programs especially--require plodding through much uninspiring time in order to reap the long-range benefits. I came close to bailing out of my doctoral program about halfway through but am forever grateful that an insightful counselor persuaded me to stick with it. Be certain you’ve given a situation a reasonable opportunity to prove itself before considering the possibility of leaving.

2. Take your temperament into account. It’s particularly important to understand our own temperament in weighing questions of God’s guidance. What is your track record for sticking with challenges? Do you tend to quit too easily? Do you instinctively fear commitment or feel anxious after committing to situations that at first you were convinced you needed and would enjoy? If so, you should be slow to read your uneasiness as guidance from God to move on. Be a good life-coach to yourself, and require that you stay committed to the challenging situation long enough that you can say you’ve given it a reasonable chance, before considering other options.

You may be at the other extreme. You stay in situations that are unpleasant or unfruitful well beyond a reasonable point, perhaps out of stubbornness, perhaps because you feel guilty about leaving. You need to err on the side of “cutting yourself some rope.” Go overboard a bit in considering inspirational dissatisfaction as a possibility, and in allowing yourself the freedom to act on it. For you, the concept can be an especially liberating one.

3. Understand why you feel uncomfortable. We may feel uneasy in certain situations due to anxiety problems we can overcome. We may be edgy about commitment itself. Two other common apprehensions, reaching phobic levels for many, are the fear of public speaking and the fear of air travel--and many jobs require both. The good news is that these fears can be conquered, and help in doing so is widely available. If our discomfort in a job or any circumstance stems from an unreasonable fear, we shouldn’t bail out but ought to confront our anxiety and get the best help available in dealing with it. We shouldn’t let our fear be a basis for turning away from an opportunity that otherwise fits us well.

Our discomfort, on the other hand, may result from the fact that a situation doesn’t match us well. If we’re being treated unkindly, our gifts aren’t being respected, or others are constantly laying unreasonable expectations on us, we have good reason to consider new options. Our frustration in such cases may be the Lord’s wake-up call to move on.

4. Weigh your positive alternatives. At the same time, it’s important to consider not only what we’re reacting against, but what positive options are available to us. We can be tempted to leave an imperfect situation out of restlessness or a grass-is-greener mentality, when in fact we don’t have something better to take its place. There are some instances-- abusive situations especially--when we should bail out anyway. Yet in many cases it’s better not to leave unless we have a clear idea of where we’re going.

The point is strategically important in employment situations, for we’re usually in the best position to “market” ourselves for a new job while we’re still employed. A good test of whether the Lord may be prompting us to quit a job that we dislike is whether we have a better opportunity available. There are exceptions. We might leave in order to take some intentional time off to re-assess our life’s direction, or to move to a region where our options are better, or to get further training that will improve our future prospects. The important thing is to have a clear strategy in mind that provides us with a positive alternative.

It can be a good litmus test in other frustrating situations not to opt out until we know for certain where we’re opting in. Responding is generally a more trustworthy impulse than reacting.

5. Don’t minimize the value of prayer and others’ counsel. The time-worn principles forever apply. Praying earnestly for God’s guidance and for openness to his will helps us in many ways--giving us clearer thinking, greater alertness to indications of his leading and a more natural inclination to do his will. Prayer is especially important when it comes to weighing the significance of our frustration, and can help us considerably in reaching the right conclusions about it. “Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray,” James counsels (Jas 5:13 RSV). While James obviously means we should pray for relief in an adverse situation, he certainly means we should ask for wisdom about what to do as well. He also assures us that such praying brings us great benefit: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him” (Jas 1:5 RSV).

Others’ counsel is nearly as important in the biblical view. Throughout Scripture we often see God using the insightful counsel of one person to clarify the thinking of another (Prov 27:17). I can only imagine the relief Timothy must have felt when Paul consoled him, “Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young” (1 Tim 4:12). Timothy was experiencing age discrimination; because of his youth, others weren’t supporting him as fully as they should have in his pastoral role. Paul assured him that he shouldn’t view this uncomfortable situation as simply a cross to bear but should take steps to correct it!

In other cases, Paul challenged Timothy to work on changing himself in order to accommodate the challenges of his work. “Rekindle the gift of God that is within you,” Paul exhorted him on one occasion (1 Tim 4:14), on another telling him, “Do not neglect the gift you have” (2 Tim 1:6 both RSV).

In the same way, God will use others’ counsel to help us sort through both sides of the inspirational dissatisfaction issue and to decide whether we should seek to change our circumstances or change ourselves. We ought to draw especially on the counsel of those who see our life dynamically and desire God’s very best for us.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

The best news in what we’re saying is that the most challenging situations we experience--those where we may be tempted to think that God’s hand has turned against us--can be settings where we gain treasured insight into our potential and God’s will for us, and where we gain motivation for change that may not come any other way. Realizing that our frustration can generate such inspiration and enlightenment strengthens our confidence that God has good purposes for us in unwelcome situations, and it deepens our hope that he has better things for us in the future. And it helps us find the courage to take important steps of faith.

Having a term to describe it really does help. The next time you’re tempted to think that life has dealt you a rotten hand in some area, try thinking in terms of inspirational dissatisfaction, and see if doing so makes a difference.

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