August 10, 2020

I Can’t Get No…

Ravine VG

Les Peiroulets Ravine (detail), Van Gogh

I was perusing the IM Archives the other day and came across a post I wrote two years ago. It was simple and short, based on a sentence by Dallas Willard I had read in a book on spiritual formation. I didn’t know what to make of it then, but it arrested me.

Well, the sentence got my attention again today, and I would like for us to discuss it.

Here are Willard’s words:

“It is spiritually formative to be dissatisfied and unable to resolve it.”

Hmm. Read that again. Slowly. Again.

Now let’s talk.

My first thought is, I am not sure I have ever been anything other than “dissatisfied.” How about you? For people my age, dissatisfaction, restlessness, and ennui came as natural as breathing. Were these ingredients in the bottles our mothers fed us, we members of the Baby Boom generation?

The Stones sang our generation’s chorus back in the early 1960’s — “I can’t get no… I can’t get no…” No satisfaction. The thought still reverberates within me some fifty years later.

Realistically, could anyone with half a brain look back on the tumultuous twentieth century and not be dissatisfied? Those of us born in the post-war era wondered how in the hell the shallow peace and prosperity of suburbia (which we nevertheless enjoyed, by the way — we are hypocrites just like everyone else) could blind us to the record of interminable blood lust, injustice, and corruption that was presented as a “century of progress.” Idealists all, we could see through those who called us to settle for the kind of satisfaction you could buy in a store or receive from an “authority.” We wore our dissatisfaction as a badge of honor, a mark of authenticity. We knew how to get real, man.

On a personal level, as a sinner-saint, a Christian who views the cross and Jesus’ call to carry it seriously, I’ve never been “satisfied.” Instead, I feel a sense of wanderlust, a hunger, what I hope is a “holy” dissatisfaction, a sign of burgeoning life within. I’m not content to be where I am; I want to go forward, to “follow” in response to grace’s invitation and provision.

At some times, moreover, as an introvert and a pessimist prone to depression, my dissatisfaction is pervasive, touching the prosaic details of my utterly human life. I am not happy when I’m alone. I am not happy with my family. Food doesn’t satisfy. There’s nothing to watch on TV. I don’t feel like reading anything. Nothing sounds fun or inviting. I just don’t like life in those moments and I may or may not be able to tell you why. Those are the times when I’m glad Jesus loves unhappy grouches, but even that is not a thought that brings much relief or satisfaction. I’m stuck in a querulous rut.

Most of my dissatisfaction is about me. I can’t stop “shoulding” on myself. I should lose weight. I should take more walks. I should use my time better. I should order my daily life and schedule more wisely. I should pay more attention to my wife. I should have a more disciplined prayer life. I should remember birthdays and anniversaries. I should eat healthier. I should clean up my clutter. The list is endless.

I should…

I should…

I should…

I envy those souls that seem to be content, their hearts and minds at rest, peacefully enjoying ordered lives. I have moments like that. Then my alarm goes off.

Some people just seem so damn responsible and fulfilled. They planned their lives, and somehow it’s working out. They built the nest egg, paid for the kids’ college, have the cabin at the lake or in the mountains, go away to the beach on Spring Break and come back all tanned, send out the glowing Christmas letter. They seem to have safely and successfully negotiated whatever minefields they faced with little trouble. Life is good.

It’s almost like they don’t even need Jesus. [Editor’s note: joke]

I can hear some of them saying, “Well of course we went through some tough times when we didn’t have much. But we worked hard and stuck to it and, with God’s help, it panned out.”

But it’s difficult for me to imagine any of them saying, “Yes, it’s good to be hungry. It’s good to be dissatisfied. It’s good to be at a place where you don’t have the answers, where you can’t solve your problems and satisfy the longing within.” Or if they do, they say it as a prelude to some subtle prosperity gospel message that proclaims (by faith) these negative experiences are good because they teach us to trust God, and when we do that, he blesses us.

On the other hand, when someone who is struggling with life says it’s good to be in the place of disorientation and dissatisfaction, it sounds like he is playing the victim card, like he’s making excuses for having little to show for the slipshod life he has lived, and claiming helplessness when it’s really just that he’s not willing to give proper attention and put forth the effort.

That’s the conservative, common-sense Midwest moralist in me speaking. That part of me continues to insist that everyone can and should seek satisfaction, that it is achievable, that we can do something to make it happen. Is not “the pursuit of happiness” in our very DNA?

Ravine 2 VG

Les Peiroulets Ravine (detail), Van Gogh

But if you read Willard’s sentence again — “It is spiritually formative to be dissatisfied and unable to resolve it.” — you will find that he is suggesting something as countercultural as the wisdom of the Desert Fathers.

He is not saying dissatisfaction is a good place to be because of how it helps you in the long run, or because of the lessons you learn from it, or because God will use it to bring you to a better place. No, he is saying it’s good to be there and to stay there, being unable to figure it out or change it. 

It’s not good to be in the darkness because it leads you to the light. It’s good to be in the dark. Period.

It’s not good to be in the wilderness because that’s how God leads you to the Promised Land. No, it’s just good to be in the wilderness! It’s good to make your bed on the desert sand night after night and wake up to the same old manna next day.

What forms us is not discovering the “answer.” What forms us is living wholly within the questions.

Qoheleth is a biblical character who gained wisdom by facing dissatisfaction and realizing he could not resolve it:

All things are wearisome;
more than one can express
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.

– Ecclesiastes 1:8

But many Christians avoid Ecclesiastes, not grasping how important it is to stare life squarely in the face and see it as it really is. Despite appearances, we cannot master or control it, and whatever “success” we experience (a blessing of God for which to be grateful, to be sure) is only temporary.

Regardless of how we live, we all end up six feet under and, within the relatively short span of a few generations, largely forgotten.

The work we do just gets passed on to others when we’re gone, and who knows what they will make of it?

None of us can ever truly see the “big picture” accurately and figure out “what it all means.” We may think there are transcendent reasons for the things that happen, but these are never clear to us and always subject to a variety of interpretations.

“It is spiritually formative to be dissatisfied and unable to resolve it.” Not only does living in the questions and refusing to insist upon answers form us, it also gives us credibility among others who don’t share the faith. We don’t defend Jesus or improve his reputation with those around us by making air-tight arguments, but by showing them that a person can be okay in a wilderness without satisfaction.

Peter Rollins says this will increasingly need to be the Church’s stance in a post-Christian, post-modern world. I think he says it well:

In short, the emerging community must endeavor to be a question rather than an answer and an aroma rather than food. It must seek to offer an approach that enables the people of God to become the parable, aroma and salt of God in the world, helping to form a space where God can give of God. For too long the Church has been seen as an oasis in the desert — offering water to those who are thirsty. In contrast, the emerging community appears more as a desert in the oasis of life, offering silence, space and desolation amidst the sickly nourishment of Western capitalism. It is in this desert, as we wander together as nomads, that God is to be found. For it is here that we are nourished by our hunger.

How (Not) to Speak of God

Comments

  1. Funny – Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books in the OT because it can’t be used by either pastors or theologians to blow so much smoke up our butts. It tells us no matter what the circumstances, time and chance happen to them all (Hmmm – want to tell me that bit about *everything* being covered by predestination?)

    The truly spiritually mature person can hold a paradox in their mind and not try to force a resolution of their liking.

    Great post, CM – I *like* it 🙂

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books in the OT

      Ditto. It is one of the texts I go to most often. I have no doubt that without Ecclesiastes and Job I’d have abandoned this ‘Christianity’ thing rather than just leaving Evangelicalism.

      My soul cries out: “Please – for one moment – can you people stop being shiney-happy!!!” But I can go to “the teacher” in Ecclesiastes.

      How can I care for down trodden and oppressed, show compassion for the ill, speak for the voiceless, etc… if I have to be happy? It is depressing. It makes me angry. It is frustrating.

      >The truly spiritually mature person can hold a paradox in their mind and not try to force a resolution

      I don’t know if that is ‘spiritual maturity’, it is certainly intellectual integrity.

  2. If that’s where it’s good to be then I’m in a great place; I even find the idea that dissatisfaction is a good place to reside unsatisfying.

    • CM,
      Have you ever heard the Replacement’s song “Unsatisfied”? If not, you owe yourself a listen; you can find it on youtube. I’d provide the link myself but I’m a techno-idiot and don’t know how. It’s one of my top ten favorite rock songs of all time, and is about just this subject and so satisfyingly heartrending. Give it a listen.

      • And this is one of the reasons I love IM so much….I absolutely love that song, & can hear it running through my brain now.

  3. Rob Grayson says

    Mike, I don’t know what you’re on lately, but I sure like what you’re writing. Keep ’em coming!

  4. Adam Tauno Williams says

    >None of us can ever truly see the “big picture” accurately and figure out “what it all means.”

    Is it ‘unchristian’ to just not believe in a “big picture”? Not that there isn’t meaning or redemption, but “the big picture” is something else.

    There is my neighbors happiness at getting their dream job or just that their favorite soccer team won. And there is my neighbors grief at the death of this wife. Those are real. Big Picture thinking says those things are small.

    I feel naturally prone to Big Picture world-view, but increasingly I find it suspect.

    • I understand the need for epistemological modesty, but if what you’re saying is that there is no such thing as a true meta-narrative, you are actually asserting a meta-narrative of your own.

  5. “Some people just seem so damn responsible and fulfilled.” Yes, I notice this too, Chaplain Mike, and wonder what is wrong with me. I will try to remember ““It is spiritually formative to be dissatisfied and unable to resolve it.” After all, Job didn’t really get answers as to why things happened to him, but he was fortunate enough just to find out that God truly exists. I say “just,” but knowing that God exists is a REALLY big deal. Sometimes when I think about the age of the universe and how it came to be I wonder WHY things happened the way they did. I wonder why things continue to happen they way they do. I have no answers so I just have to give up.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > Sometimes when I think about the age of the universe and how it came to be I
      > wonder WHY things happened the way they did.

      In a vast empty lifeless tract of space, uninhabited, and unobserved by any sentient being – what does “WHY?” even mean. I can’t help but think that without any people [human or not] to participate or at least observe, there just isn’t a story.

      > I say “just,” but knowing that God exists is a REALLY big deal.

      Yea. God coming to me in a storm would be “just” a visitation. 🙂

      > I wonder why things continue to happen they way they do

      I don’t, at least no with human affairs. They continue to happen the way they do because we, or at least many many of us, want them to continue as they are. We like the *idea* of change. But greed, fear, and suspicion paralyzes us.

      • Random thoughts:
        Mule made the comment last week that Michael Spencer “was a fractal guy in an asymptotic world.” Is there a correlation/analogy with “reconciling” the “… neighbor’s happiness at getting their new dream job…” and “my neighbor’s grief at the death of his wife. These are real. Big Picture thinking says they are small.”

        P.S. Mule – thanks. After spending a few hours searching the web I think I understand about 10% of what you meant. Still struggling with it, but time well spent.

        P.P.S. CM – I am always amazed how pastors can have a Baptism in the morning, funeral in the afternoon and wedding in the evening. It seems like dealing with Adam’s neighbor’s happiness/grief simultaneously.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > P.P.S. CM – I am always amazed how pastors can have a Baptism in the morning,
          > funeral in the afternoon and wedding in the evening. It seems like dealing with Adam’s
          > neighbor’s happiness/grief simultaneously.

          Indeed. I imagine that is one of the factors contributing to how pastors / priests can (a) come across as ‘phoney’ [even if they are genuine] and (b) run the risk of actually becoming ‘phoney’. Emotional distance would be a constant temptation, over against emotional break-down. This must contribute to the “burn out” people talk about.

          Of course, this isn’t limited to pastors / priests. There are many emotional topsy turvy jobs: doctors/nurses, firefighters, cops, foreign aid workers, etc…. way up then way down. I’ve heard some journalists and war correspondents talk about this – and the additional (c) risk that one becomes a high-drama junkie, and what you do ceases to be about what is around you and primarily about getting your next emotional fix.

          It is a rough business, caring.

  6. Spiritual dissatisfaction is formative alright. It’s formed me into quite a grump in my old age. It’s quite hard not to get cynical and bitter at times. The big challenge, for me, is to somehow remain remotely pleasant in the wilderness.

    • Miguel,

      A grump in your “old age”? Come on, bro, I have the impression you’re HALF my age…. ;o)

    • I get that one, Miguel. The idea of living maybe another let’s say 30 years=another 30 years of having pop culture crap shoved in my face, missing good people I don’t see anymore, regretting mistakes I keep having to pay for, wishing I could be as optimistic as I was in my 20’s before I saw my dreams not come true, or come true but turn out not to be worth the paper they were printed on–ugh.

    • David Cornwell says

      Wait till you’re really old!

      Actually in some ways getting old isn’t so bad. But as will f. says, there are some people I terribly miss and think about every single day of my life. And regrets for bad decisions that at the time seemed reasonable.

      However I do like having being able to look back at the history I’ve lived through and attempt to make some sense of it. And to realize that events that at times seem momentous, after a while take on a new less important perspective in the long run of things. And the reverse.

    • Ok, ok, I was a little tongue-in-cheek with the age comment. But I feel like a grumpy old man sometimes. I understand that unresolved tensions and other trials build character and are good for our maturity, but I just don’t respond well to it. Perhaps I feel I’ve encountered more than my fair share, but who doesn’t? It seems that the only “growth” I’ve experienced is in cynicism and bitterness. Negativity doesn’t really help much, but most days I just don’t have the energy to muster up an optimistic outlook.
      Tom, my avatar is a bit dated, it’s from my wedding and I should probably update it with something more recent.
      Will, I can handle ignoring pop culture. Heck, I can survive having to mimic moderate amounts of it myself. But I am in my 20’s and have no optimism left.
      David, I guess there’s some things to look forward to about aging. Hopefully it comes with the ability to grow a beard, or I want my money back.

      • Miguel,

        I had a great beard in my 20’s-early 40’s; Mennonite style, dark and full. Now in my late 50’s I keep it mowed close or all the kids think I’m Santa…

        “Fallor ergo sum.”

        Augustine

      • Miquel,

        The beard thing could be genetic.. so you may always look like a patchwork my friend….

        I too once had a long beard back in my 20’s… now if I try to grow one it seems it ill come in white as snow… and my wife does not want to look like she’s got a sugar daddy for a husband (she’s 49 and pretty much devoid of grey unlike me).

  7. We must die. And it happens in so many ways in life. The ‘little deaths’. The “little nails” as Luther called them.

    But He constantly raises us…with Him.

    Dying and rising. Repentance and forgiveness. A picture of Baptism. And that Baptism carries us all throughout our lives. Like a ship in the ocean.

  8. I find it interesting that CM ends by quoting from Rollins. I enjoyed reading How (not) To Speak of God. What that quote reminds me of is Capon’s continual assertion that the church is meant to be a “sacrament” of the Kingdom of God on Earth at the present time. A sacrament doesn’t give us the Whole Enchilada, but rather a taste/foretaste of the Fullness to come–constantly calls us to the One Person who ask us, “Just trust me.”

    Faith is not satisfying, yet it does move us to Hope and expectation.

  9. Favorite Stones songs;

    Paint It Black
    Satisfaction
    Gimme Shelter

    • Gimme Shelter
      can you see your mother baby standing in the shadows
      Can’t you hear me knockin
      Anything off of Exile on Main Street

      OK… off point

  10. Some will say this is escapist thinking, but an old song springs to mind:

    This world is not my home,
    I’m just a-passing through.
    If Heaven is not my home,
    then, Lord, what will I do?
    The angels beckon me
    From Heaven’s open door
    And I can’t feel at home
    In this world any more.”

  11. All of human existence is marked by “dissatisfaction”. It is THE hallmark of BEING human. Our lives are pitifully short, even though as youngsters we act as though we are eternal. The years fly by in their dreary and monotonous track, our wants and desires, unfulfilled, rule our passing while our bodies, and the bodies of those around us, decay and degenerate into dysfunction.

    And, most importantly, our faith takes a battering. Even though we have a “certainty” as to our eventual fate we STILL have to pass through the ignominious portal of death, the one thing that no one can guide us through with certainty. Sure, we have “great and precious promises” in our bible, but they are just THAT, PROMISES, and NOT certitudes! Of COURSE we are dissatisfied, even in our faith! Our relationship with our Creator is FAR from certain, we struggle with the questions, “Does Gos even HEAR me?”, or “Am I just fooling myself into a mindset that smooths over the one great certainty: DEATH?”.

    The self satisfied are only fooling themselves, just as they say WE are in clinging to a faith based on uncertainty. YEAH, I’m dissatisfied! Isn’t ANY normal person?

    • Preach it! Very well put, Oscar.

    • Josh in FW says

      Well said.

      Unfortunately I’m still at such a point of immaturity that I too often wish that I could just fool myself into satisfaction. But, no matter what I try, it quickly wears off. LORD, have mercy.

    • ya know… upon thinking about it… the only time I am completely satisfied spiritually (and these are only moments in time – short and sweet) is when:

      I am on a silent retreat, spending time in contemplation, usually in a chapel, eyes closed after reading a paragraph from “The Cloud of Unknowing”, completely open and mindless….

      After receiving communion….

      and sometimes after a really fruitfull confession experience….

      Aside from that I have to be shaken out of my busy-ness to even think about it…..

  12. Dissatisfaction– spent a lot of time here until I finally made the choice to become more of an observer of things and not worry about those things I am too little to have any effect on.

    Shiny happy people…. in my faith tradition…if you are deeper spirtually then we learn to expect more suffering as we get closer to God ’cause Satan doesn’t like it’…if we are more cultural (IE… in it because Mom and Dad raised me to be there) then guilt is the thing… so no shiny happy people here…

    I am not so much dissatisfied but I do go into plateau or “dry” periods where I am either distracted or I am “blah” about my faith.

    Born in 63 I didn’t go through the hippy movement and so was not as Idealistic as some here, though I do remember the teary indian commercial about pollution. I am surrounded by Love of a wife and lots of kids… when my job sends me over the edge I go swing a hammer and break or build something and I have learned (kicking and screaming at times) to listen to my wife and go sit in front of the tabernacle when all hell seems to be breaking loose in my own little bubble.

    If you were to ask me today if I was dissatisfied I’d say no, not dissatisfied, but scared… scared that some tragedy will occur in my family, scared that I will get to a point where I can’t swing a hammer, run a mile, read a book because my eyes are failing, or remember….

    I don’t seem to be supporting the main point of this post but that’s how I am feeling… today.

    • Josh in FW says

      Too bad you don’t live in Fort Worth. I think I could learn a lot about being a man and a Dad from you. Of course, I’ve already learned a lot from your IM comments.

  13. “Not only does living in the questions and refusing to insist upon answers form us, it also gives us credibility among others who don’t share the faith. We don’t defend Jesus or improve his reputation with those around us by making air-tight arguments, but by showing them that a person can be okay in a wilderness without satisfaction.”

    This is key. None of us has all the answers, and what I’ve read of Michael Spencer’s Mere Churchianity (which seems to say many of the same things that Dallas Willard does, for example, in Divine Conspiracy) has led me to take a fresh look at the Gospels and see that, indeed, being a ‘good’ Christian, to put it in American middle class parlance, is not there. This is in contrast to what I was told by evangelical church leaders for most of my life; those who have easily taken up the mantle of satisfaction with the (their) answers. As you say, CM, this will not endear the Jesus we seek to represent to those we encounter.

    If the faith of easy certainty is not in the Scriptures, yet has been taught by some church leaders, I have to ask myself who is right. Who, really, have I been apprenticed to all these years? (I don’t like the obvious answer). The great chapter on faith in Hebrews seems to make this point when it says that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Faith is not the satisfaction of a life fully planned out and under control.

  14. I left my mega-church early this year. I went to one church service since at a different church. Because I felt guilty. I haven’t been back. My life, in short, is full of unresolved questions. From the past, from the present and about the future – regarding everything from my relationships to my former church to my work.

    I’ve not been depressed but I haven’t been always joyful either. Some days I have great conversations with God. I get it. I see His work in me, my family and my life. And I rejoice even though the uncertainty remains. Other days, I am despondent. And I ask God a million questions. I rail. I cry. I plead. I yell. At God. Some days I worry that not being part of a “proper evangelical church” is going to mean that God won’t bless me. Then I remember that’s why I left in the first place. To get away from the prosperity gospel.

    There’s no happy ending to this comment. Just that I’m ok. God is still here with me and He still (to my happy surprise) loves me. I don’t know when I started to think that I had to do so much to keep the blessings flowing. But I’m glad I don’t anymore. Today wasn’t a great day. I just had an emotional talk with my husband. The hard stuff still isn’t resolved. But 2 things I remember:
    1. God has changed both of us to the point where the same conversation last year would have ended completely differently, in a bad way and
    2. God answers my questions at some point, in some way and it usually helps. Like this article. It doesn’t pack away my questions or doubts or uncertainties neatly but it helps. So….thanks =)

    Have a great rest of the day everyone.

    • Christiane says

      Hi CAROL,
      I hope that God responds to your doubts and questions with the same infinite patience and kindness that Our Lord showed to St. Thomas after the Resurrection. And I hope that other Christian people who come in contact with you will model Our Lord’s behavior in their own kindness towards your questing for answers.
      Doubt is a question that does not yet have an answer.

      We do know that all who seek and all who knock WILL have the door opened to them . . .
      after all, we know that Our Creator has planted within each of us a desire to understand much more than we have the capacity to grasp on this planet.

      ““Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith”
      (Paul Tillich)

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      >I worry that not being part of a “proper evangelical church” is going to mean that God won’t bless me.

      Bollocks! Carol, you are awesome.

    • Carol,

      Thanks for sharing that. I get it. You’re on a pilgrimage, so don’t fret the details unnecessarily, rather, enjoy and observe and respond.

      This statement from Robert Capon is a great help to me when guilt presses;

      “Everything that is not of faith is sin,” says Paul in Rom. 14:23. In the last analysis, what the New Testament sets up as the opposite of sin is not virtue; it is faith. And how lucky that is for us. Precisely because virtue is not an option for the likes of us—precisely because we can no more organize our lives on good principles than we can on bad ones, and even more precisely because all the really great acts of human wickedness (poneria) have always been done in the name of virtue—we are not to trust either in virtue or in our efforts to achieve it. All of that is just our life (psyche), and for us as for the Fool, life is not something we can guarantee.

      Capon, chapt. 9, Parables of Grace

  15. “No, he is saying it’s good to be there and to stay there”…..

    In essence, we should be satisfied with our dissatisfaction…..

  16. I think our dissatisfaction draws us closer. God give us just what we need, sometimes whispering to us so we have to be close to Him to hear.

  17. Interesting post & discussion. Very deep. I’ll try to keep up… Ecclesiastes is my “go to” when I’m feeling depressed. It helps me to feel better somehow, just knowing that life is pointless EXCEPT to fear God. That gives purpose to everything even if I don’t understand the big picture. I get overwhelmed with the state of affairs in this world and my lack of any control whatsoever. Trying to be thankful that as Christians, we know the end of the story, and He wins, has already won actually. So even though the journey to wherever He’s taking us is unknown and out of control and seemingly pointless at time, He is God and Has the victory. I have to focus there; otherwise, I find myself consumed by “what’s the point?” thinking and can’t seem to function at all.