Several months ago, I spent a total of 28 hours in the driver’s seat as I followed a Penske moving truck from the northwest suburbs of Atlanta to the rugged deserts of Arizona.
I suppose you could say it was a modern-day version of a pioneers’ wagon train — our family trekking west for new adventures; you know, minus the horses, not-built-for-comfort wagon bed, and cornmeal pancakes. (Although, one of our stops did involve Cracker Barrel. Perhaps we should have shared a stack of flapjacks instead of an order of fries.)
Even though our caravan didn’t include any livestock, we did have our two cats in tow. They did surprisingly well, considering I’ve been told felines and road trips don’t mix. But, when they were unhappy, they weren’t shy about serenading me with their discontentment.
During our cross-country drive, I had a lot of time to ponder discontentment. This “restless desire or craving for something one does not have” is an interesting and complex emotion.
Many of us construe it as gloomy, pessimistic and generally unfavorable. As Christ followers, we often try to banish the feeling completely. We believe that, as the apostle Paul wrote, we must “be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11). After all, “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6).
Over the last few years, though, I’ve been challenged in the assumption that discontentment is always unhealthy in the life of a believer. I’ve begun to see how God can use a craving for something we don’t have to propel us to make changes we may not have considered otherwise.
Is God in your discontentment?
If you’ve relocated before — whether to start college or a career in a new city — you know moving is no joke. It’s hard, and pretty much turns your life upside down. So why did we decide to go west after almost a decade in Atlanta?
It started with one word: discontentment.
Two years ago, I began to feel frustrated about living almost 1,800 miles away from my parents and sisters. It wasn’t easy or cheap to see each other. And because of some financial challenges my husband Ted and I were experiencing at the time, our visits had been less and less frequent. I began to ponder whether we should close the geographical gap by moving closer.
Then COVID-19 hit. As we navigated lockdown, my frustration quickly became a “restless desire or craving” for something I didn’t have — that proximity to family.
As that two-year time period tells you, we didn’t high-tail it outta Georgia at those initial feelings of discontentment. Why not? Because we wanted to be confident that God was behind it. The truth is that we all feel dissatisfied and restless at times. And even though discontentment doesn’t deserve banishment to the “naughty list” of emotions, it can often lead us to make sinful or selfish decisions if we don’t slow down and vet it first.
So how did we determine God was using discontentment to propel us to move? And how can you discern if you’re supposed to dig in and be faithful where you are — whether it’s a job, a church, or some other situation — or if God’s prompting you to make a change? Here are a few practical suggestions.
1. See what Scripture says
The first place I went with my discontentment was Scripture. I wanted the plans that were slowly forming in my heart to be the ones that aligned with God’s purposes. And I knew that my emotions weren’t always trustworthy (Jeremiah 17:9).
You and I can feel restless in plenty of situations that Scripture clearly addresses. Some verses let us know when discontentment is good and when it’s not so good.
For example, before my husband Ted and I met, he started to feel dissatisfied with his single status. The verse, “It’s not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), kept coming to his mind. In this situation, God was using discontentment to start orchestrating the events that would bring us together.
But when it comes to our marriage now, if we’re feeling dissatisfied with it, it’s not OK for us to look elsewhere for fulfillment. The same is true for premarital sex. The longing may be there during the single years, but God gave us specific boundaries for our protection and well-being. These are areas where discontentment, if followed, can wreak havoc on our lives.
In our situation, there wasn’t a verse that said, “Yes, you should move,” or “No, you need to stay put.” One choice wasn’t godlier than the other. And maybe that’s true for you too. It could be that you’re in a good job, but it’s not personally fulfilling. Or perhaps there are some issues in your home church, but you aren’t sure whether to stick it out or not. Maybe you’ve been working toward a particular degree, and now you’re not so sure you want to study that area anymore. In these situations, do you stay put or do you make a change?
What I found in Scripture were the familiar verses like Paul’s statement in Philippians about learning to be content. As I reread it, I noticed two things.
One, it doesn’t seem like this is an “instructive” or “prescriptive” passage. I don’t think Paul was telling his readers that willing themselves to be content was “the answer” each and every time they felt discontentment. Instead, it appears Paul was reassuring the people at this church in Philippi that he knew he was in the center of God’s will. And, because of that, he was satisfied no matter what circumstance he found himself in.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you and I could always feel as confident as Paul? For us, it doesn’t feel so simple when Scripture doesn’t give us a cut-and-dry answer to what God’s will is in a particular situation. It certainly didn’t give me clarity on whether I needed to learn to be content or not. But what it did do was give me action steps I could take — which brings me to the second thing I noticed.
Paul didn’t let his situation dictate his emotions. Just because something was hard or didn’t make him happy, it didn’t mean it wasn’t in God’s will for him. And I knew that might be the case for me as well. Perhaps God wanted to teach me true contentment living far away from my family. So I made it my goal to surrender my feelings to God rather than act on them.
2. Pray for wisdom and direction
One of my favorite quotes is from British author G.K. Chesterton. He wrote, “Being ‘contented’ ought not to mean in English, as it does in French, being pleased. Being content with an attic ought not to mean being unable to move from it and resigned to living in it; it ought to mean appreciating all there is in such a position.” And I think this goes back to what Paul was saying in his letter to the Philippian church.
Because Scripture didn’t have a cut-and-dry answer on whether we should move, I started asking God to remove the discontentment if it wasn’t from Him — and instead to replace it with an appreciation for where I currently was. I found myself also echoing the words of Moses when he told God, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here” (Exodus 33:15). I didn’t want to pack one box without Him.
But, as I did, my discontentment didn’t decrease over time. It slowly increased. Ted and I gained clarity as our circumstances started to shift outside of our control. He went from being a “company man” to being self-employed, for example. For the first time in our 18 years of marriage, he could work from anywhere in the country. God had brought us to a place where his job was no longer tied to a location.
So, if you’re feeling discontent and unsure what the next right thing is, start praying for wisdom and direction. Ask God to either increase or decrease your discontentment. Then, be sensitive to how He starts working in your heart and your circumstances.
3. Ask trusted people in your life
As my discontentment grew and Ted’s job status changed, we also confided in people we trusted. This included our parents, life group leaders, and close friends who had consistently encouraged and challenged us in our spiritual lives. We realized that “in the abundance of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14).
We shared with them our potential plans and listened to their honest feedback. Many of them helped us consider both the pros and cons of such a big move. But ultimately, they all affirmed that if we sensed God leading us, we needed to be obedient.
When I write about marriage, I stress the importance of picking confidants who won’t just tell you what you want to hear. That’s important here too. As you’re trying to determine the motivation behind your discontentment, those who know you well are invaluable.
Sometimes when we feel stuck or unhappy, our first instinct is to escape or run away; so it’s beneficial to have others who may be able to see the situation more objectively come alongside us and offer input. They may be able to point out blind spots and help you better evaluate your emotions.
Pulling the trigger
As you already know from my whole modern wagon-train tale, after studying Scripture, praying, and seeking wise counsel, we determined that God was behind the discontentment I felt. He used it to propel us into a new season in a new place.
Does that mean the change has been easy? Absolutely not. But, as we face the ups and downs of living in God’s perfect plan for us, we’re grateful that He faithfully treks alongside us in every adventure.
Copyright 2021 Ashleigh Slater. All rights reserved.