I first heard the phrase “holy discontent” on a Bill Hybels (pastor of Willow Creek Community Church) cassette tape on church leadership as I was driving home from Southern Seminary one evening. This was back in the day when you had to drive on your day off to get a master’s degree instead of taking online classes… Oh, if I had only been born ten years later! Some of my classmates at Southern would not have approved of my drive-time listening, but I was in learning mode and enjoyed studying theology in the day and listening to local church leaders on the way home at night.
Hybels, and others as well, spoke passionately about holy discontent. The phrase is used to describe frustration with the status quo, and the frustration is holy because the status quo is filled with brokenness and unreached people. A holy discontent comes from a deep belief that there must be something done to right a wrong with the world or to do all one can to ensure the gospel is brought to hurting people. As a biblical example of holy discontent, the apostle Paul described his “unceasing anguish” for his own people who had not received the grace of God (Romans 9:2). The Lord has used holy discontent in my life to nudge me to action, to bless me with a burden for people, or to give me a vision for an assignment.
I have also learned there is an unholy discontent, a discontentment with what the Lord has given and the season He has purposed for you. The apostle Paul told Timothy, “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6), and he described how he learned to be content in Christ regardless of the situation, whether well fed or hungry (Philippians 4:l2). When my heart wanders from Him, discontentment is assured because only He can make me content.
So how do you distinguish between the two? Here are three questions to help you discern if your discontentment is the holy or the unholy kind.
1. What is the source of your discontentment?
There is a major difference between a burden for others and frustration with your lot in life. In Psalm 16, David prayed that the Lord was his portion (verse 5), and that “the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places” (verse 6). Because the Lord was David’s portion, his lot in life was fine—because he was not looking for the boundary lines to satisfy him. The Lord already had. If the discontent is about you or your situation, it is likely unholy. If the discontent is about others, it is possibly holy… but you still need to ask some other questions of yourself.
2. When the problem is resolved, who gets the glory?
It is quite possible to do the work of the Lord for one’s own glory, to do good things for the wrong reasons. If the problem is resolved and you imagine yourself getting the credit, then the burden is really your unholy ambition masked in spiritual language.
3. What happens to your discontentment when you spend time with Him?
If your frustration grows when you spend time with the Lord, He has likely given you a holy burden. If your frustration wanes when you spend time with Him, your frustration was likely born in the flesh and not given by Him. And as you spend time with Him, you are more fascinated with Him and less driven by your own unholy ambition. Spending time with the Lord sanctifies our ambitions.