|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 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 the
resource ministry I’ve served for the past twenty-eight years.
My work now, with its focus on teaching and writing, fits me
amazingly well, and I’ve never regretted making the 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 a few years ago.*
This 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 can’t remember who, nor whether it was a gift or a loan
(undoubtedly the latter). I shied away from reading it all of
this time, due to its title, which made it sound like the book
was promising more than any can deliver.
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 fight what they think God is doing.
On a more healthy level, we recognize how such situations can
help us grow, but we assume that if there’s a silver lining in
them, 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 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 alternatives and feel permission to think in both
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 the 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 degree of “self-talk” that we
engage in constantly. I agonized over the question of whether to
leave conventional church ministry for a specialized role 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 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 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 made had 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 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 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 it. Instead, he agrees to help them make a
The passage is refreshing to consider in any circumstance of
life--such as our job, living situation, or ministry
activity--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
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 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
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
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 work
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 your limiting
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 to 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 a counselor persuaded me to
stick with it. Be certain you’ve given a situation a reasonable
opportunity to prove itself before considering the possibility
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
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
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
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
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
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 all the