|In the 1970s I served on the staff of
a Presbyterian church in St. Louis for several years. The
experience was a milestone for me. The senior pastor and the
congregation were highly supportive, and I grew in many
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 having numerous responsibilities, and I'm
grateful for their natural devotion to this extremely
important role. I found myself
wanting to concentrate more on certain areas of ministry that
reflected my gifts and was often discouraged at how little
time I had for them. 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 led me to begin the
resource ministry Iíve served for the past twenty-three
years. My work now, with its focus on teaching and writing,
fits me amazingly well, and Iíve never regretted making the
change. Yet I canít imagine I would have found the insight
to do it, or 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
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 just a year and a half ago.* The
book, ironically, had sat on my shelf ignored for more than
thirty years and would have helped me if I had read it in St.
Louis. Someone gave it to me in the late 1960s--so long ago
that I canít remember who, nor whether it was a gift or a
loan (undoubtedly the latter). I shied away from reading it
all this time, due to its title, which I was sure promised
more than the book could deliver.
Then, one afternoon in the summer of 2000 I had some free
time and wanted to read something upbeat. I decided to give
Stoneís 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 marveled
that Iíd never encountered it before.
Inspirational dissatisfaction, as Stone uses the term, is
the positive role 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 doesnít
fit us well, or the environment is unaffirming, or others 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
that we easily miss. Some Christians view all frustrating
situations fatalistically and hopelessly. They assume God is
punishing them through them and that they shouldnít fight
More typically, we see the benefits for our growth in such
situations but assume that if thereís a silver lining, it
will only come 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 from challenges, to say the least. Yet Scripture
gives about equal weight to the other possibility--that God
may use our frustration on such occasions to enlighten us
that weíre not where we should be. Healthy thinking requires
that we give fair consideration to both alternatives 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 isnít right for us.
Inspirational dissatisfaction fills the gap wonderfully
well and can make a redemptive contribution to our Christian
vocabulary. We shouldnít underestimate the role that
vocabulary plays in our ability to reason effectively and make
sound decisions, given the extraordinary degree of self-talk
in which we constantly engage. I agonized over the question of
whether to leave conventional church ministry for a
specialized role far more than I should have, and much of the
problem was guilt-ridden self-talk. Simply knowing it was
permissible to think in terms of inspirational
dissatisfaction, and having the 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 weíre disappointed
with ourselves, is to beat ourselves up and grow even more
discouraged. Yet this discontentment 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 fatherís 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 made failed,
was due, Iím certain, to the degree of frustration I
felt with myself at the time that I made it.
Itís in this sense that psychologists often talk about
the value of "hitting bottom" as a stimulus for
change. Our discouragement doesnít have to reach this
level to provide useful inspirational dissatisfaction. It can
happen anytime weíre disappointed with ourselves, if weíre
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. Weíre 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. Iím more likely
to find the heart to apologize to this person as well.
Inspirational Dissatisfaction in Scripture
Itís in weighing the significance of our frustration in
unwelcome situations where weíre likely to find the
concept of inspirational dissatisfaction helpful most often,
though, for our confusion over Godís will is often greatest
then. Itís 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 situation is 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
Elisha responds to them, "Go."
They press him further, "Wonít you please come with
your servants," and he replies, "I will," and
goes with them.
Whatís reassuring about this incident is that Elisha
validates the frustration his disciples feel. He doesnít
imply they are selfish for feeling it, nor suggest they should
simply learn to live with their cramped quarters and make the
best of them. Instead, he agrees to help them make a
The passage is refreshing to consider in any circumstance
of life--be it employment, living situation, ministry
involvement--where weíre frustrated over factors that work
against our using our gifts effectively. Weíre shown that
God may be alerting us through our frustration to seek
improvements or a new venue. Weíre freed from our natural
tendency to think that the Christian response must be solely
to accept our lot and are given permission--even
encouraged--to weigh other possibilities.
Another biblical example of inspirational dissatisfaction
involves Abrahamís 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 reason to be
passive. Isaacís birth in itself, when Abraham and Sarah
were both very old, was testimony--and Isaacís life a
constant reminder--that God could solve the most impossible
problems supernaturally. Shouldnít Abraham assume that, if
God wanted Isaac married, he would provide for him without
special effort on Abrahamís part?
Yet 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 there.
Abraham clearly believed he was honoring God and had his
blessing in taking this step, for he spoke to his servant of
the help Godís angel would provide in the journey. The
mission was successful. The servant returned with Rebecca, who
became Isaacís wife, and, from all indications in Scripture,
an exemplary match for him.
The 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
work setting where the likelihood of meeting someone is poor,
or in a church or fellowship where youíve been stigmatized
as a perpetual single. Traditional Christian counsel is, donít
try to change these situations but trust that if God wants you
married, heíll make it happen in spite of your limiting
circumstances. If no one suitable comes along, assume God
wants you to stay single and pray that he will take away your
desire for marriage.
Abrahamís 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 to look for ones
that improve your prospects for finding a spouse.
Getting the Signals Straight
Simply knowing itís 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 a greatly reassuring one. It
deepens our alertness to a potential source of Godís
guidance, and increases the possibility that weíll recognize
action he wants us to take to solve problems.
It doesnít answer all the questions, though. We still
have the challenge of determining Godís 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
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 a counselor
persuaded me to stick with it. Be certain youíve given a
situation a reasonable opportunity to prove itself before
considering the possibility of leaving.
2. Take your temperament into account. Itís
particularly important to understand our own temperament in
weighing questions of 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 you had been 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 youíve
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 beyond a reasonable point,
perhaps out of stubbornness, perhaps because you feel guilty
leaving. You need to err on the side of cutting yourself some
rope. Go overboard a bit in considering the possibility of
inspirational dissatisfaction and 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 situation stems
from an unreasonable fear, we shouldnít bail out but ought
to confront our anxiety and get the best help available in
dealing with it. We shouldnít let it 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 doesnít match us well. If weíre being
treated unkindly, our gifts arenít being respected or others
constantly lay unreasonable expectations on us, we have good
reason to consider new options. Our frustration in such cases
may be the Lordís wake-up call to move on.
4. Weigh your positive alternatives. At the same
time, itís important to consider not only what weíre
reacting against, but what positive options are available for
us to respond to. We can be tempted to leave an imperfect
situation out of restlessness or a grass-is-greener mentality,
when in fact we donít have a better opportunity to take its
place. There are some cases--abusive ones definitely--when we
should bail out anyway. Yet in many cases itís better not to
leave unless we have a clear idea of where weíre going.
The point is strategically important in employment
situations, for weíre usually in the best position to
"market" ourselves for a new job while weíre still
employed. A good test of whether the Lord may be prompting us
to quit a job 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 lifeís
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 a positive alternative.
It can be a good litmus test in other frustrating
situations not to opt out until we know for certain where weíre
opting in. Responding is generally a more trustworthy impulse
5. Donít minimize the value of prayer and othersí
counsel. The time-worn principles forever apply.
Praying earnestly for Godís 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 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).
Counsel is nearly as important in the biblical view.
Throughout Scripture we 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 werenít
supporting him as fully as they should in his pastoral role.
Paul assured him that he shouldnít view this uncomfortable
situation as simply a cross to bear but should take steps to
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
In the same way God will use othersí counsel to help us
sort through both sides of the inspirational dissatisfaction
question and to decide whether to seek to change our circumstances or
ourselves. We ought to draw especially on the counsel of those
who see our life dynamically and desire Godís very best for
Seeing the Bigger Picture
The best news in what weíre saying is that, the most
challenging situations in our life--those where weíre
tempted to think Godís hand has turned against us--can be
settings where we gain treasured insight into our potential
and into Godís will for us, and 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 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 youíre tempted to think life has dealt you a rotten
hand in some area, think in terms of inspirational
dissatisfaction, and see if that makes a difference.