July 22, 2018

Another Look: I can’t get no…

Desert Path

Dallas Willard once wrote:

“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.

Or maybe we were just self-absorbed and our prosperity gave us enough freedom to wallow in a kind of self-pity.

But 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, the stretching and discomfort 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?


Desert Path 2But 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 the transient puff of opaqueness 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.

At some point, my friends, we have to trust.

“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. Trusting.

Peter Rollins once wrote:

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

Perhaps the world we live in today calls for a new kind of desert monasticism, a society of holy fools who stand, not against the roiling world, but against a self-assured Church, not against doubt but against certainty, not against questions but against easy, quantifiable answers.

Perhaps this is about coming to a table empty-handed and waiting until someone puts bread and wine in your hand and says, “Take and eat.”

Perhaps this is about Jesus after all, and an open-ended call: “Follow me…”


  1. Robert F says:
    • Robert F says:

      The imminent rain,
      that roiled the sky with gray clouds
      last night, never fell.

      • Mike Bizon says:

        May I share this poem citing you as author?

      • StuartB says:

        In the howling wind
        Comes a stinging rain
        See it driving nails
        Into souls on the tree of pain
        From the firefly a red orange glow
        See the face of fear
        Running scared in the valley below

      • What a gift. Thank you

      • Danielle says:

        I’m glad to see that the haiku are still with us. 🙂

        • Robert F says:

          I will try to keep them related to the topic of the day, as I hope it’s clear this one is, except on Saturday Ramblings.

  2. Good words.

    “Trust”. I think many try to trust in their specific systematic theology, or in their expectations of what things should be included to provide certainty in various secondary details.

    When we speak of faith (ie Trust), it should not necessarily be about a certain systematic theology, or about the unproven religious realm v. science. Rather, it should be about the trust we have in Christ and all that means.

  3. Thank you…this is often where I live. Thank you for helping me not feel alone.

    • Christiane says:

      Hi SCOTT,
      perhaps we all live here at some point and it may be a part of our shared human condition from time immemorial:

      “You, God, are my God,
      earnestly I seek you;
      I thirst for you,
      my whole being longs for you,
      in a dry and parched land
      where there is no water.”
      (from a Psalm of David)

  4. Open-ended. At both ends. Folks my age and older weren’t allowed to acknowledge personal dissatisfaction, except possibly in context of a book or a movie, someone else. I have always been intensely dissatisfied with folks my age and older, while recognizing that they gave us the means to figure this out for ourselves. How are we doing so far? I’m not anywhere near satisfied with our progress, but I have more hope than ever, by far.

    I believe we are on the verge of the biggest world-wide Awakening in our recorded history, and perhaps before. I see signs of this picking up steam daily. This is not particularly identifiable as a spiritual awakening, tho I believe it is exactly that underneath all the drama. In my view, the church at large seems to be the last to wake up and smell the coffee as to what is going on. The church seems to be more concerned with seeing how many cement blocks it can tie to itself with ropes and still keep trudging forward, however forward might be viewed in particular. Possibly seen as a big circle from above.

    Is there an answer for Mr. Willard and our good Chaplain and me? Perhaps the answer is that we are asking the wrong questions. There are flowers appearing here and there. If someone wanted to invest the time and effort, I would say that studying the teachings of Richard Rohr with discernment would do as well as any I know. Contemplation. If you were looking for a shorter answer, Robert F’s haiku above sums it up pretty well and doesn’t cost as much.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I believe we are on the verge of the biggest world-wide Awakening in our recorded history, and perhaps before. I see signs of this picking up steam daily.


      In my view, the church at large seems to be the last to wake up and smell the coffee as to what is going on.

      Christians have the rep of being notoriously late adopters.

      • >>Trump?

        A smallish but loud indicator. Certainly one of the more entertaining ones. Stay tuned.

        • StuartB says:

          An Awakening…like Star Wars? lol

          There may be an awakening. But will it be of the Spirit? Trump seems to lead to no. The only awakening then would be a Counter-Awakening. The last few awakenings have decimated America, the world, the church…maybe this awakening will be a final nail in the coffin.

          • >>There may be an awakening. But will it be of the Spirit?

            For the first time in my life, I am hopeful of actually seeing this happen. Not for everyone, we all operate at different levels with different sets of eyes, but I am seeing signs of spiritual awakening in unexpected places, tho unfortunately not so much in the church. But do see the article above on Ten Things About New Charismatics for signs of life. I have been following alternative media and maverick thinking for forty years and have developed a pretty good sense for what’s real and what’s disinformation and fear porn. I have never seen the disparate and sometimes feuding workers of light putting aside their differences and joining together against powers of darkness and world domination such as is going on today. If only the church would take heed and do likewise. We’ll see. And some of it might actually have echoes of Star Wars. Life can get weird.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:


            (In my gamer days, the latter was commonly used as a War Song in contemporary adventure settings.)

    • David Cornwell says:

      “I believe we are on the verge of the biggest world-wide Awakening in our recorded history, and perhaps before. I see signs of this picking up steam daily. This is not particularly identifiable as a spiritual awakening, tho I believe it is exactly that underneath all the drama.”

      Charles, I fail to see where you are coming from with this statement. Perhaps its my lack of faith or spiritual insight. It seems to me that we are sinking into undefinable chaos without a clear path on the other side. My one clear thought of faith comes from the truth that new creation can come from chaos. But without the intervention of God I only see a pit on the other side.

      What does give me hope are these paragraphs at the end of Chaplain Mike’s piece:

      “Perhaps the world we live in today calls for a new kind of desert monasticism, a society of holy fools who stand, not against the roiling world, but against a self-assured Church, not against doubt but against certainty, not against questions but against easy, quantifiable answers.

      Perhaps this is about coming to a table empty-handed and waiting until someone puts bread and wine in your hand and says, “Take and eat.””

      Considering the personal side of life, there are circumstances right now that although quite devastating to dwell on, bring me a kind of deep satisfaction and peace in being here to just receive into my empty hands. But it involves a surrender to love, rather than despair. And the keeping of vows once made and the reality of the deepness of meaning.

      • StuartB says:

        We are overdue for prophets, for those who overturn the money tables, for those who stand against the church. The church, more than likely, has seen it’s time pass. It’s time for something new, the pattern to repeat itself as it has throughout history. And not in some small ‘we have the truth’ sectarian group or spin-off…but something utterly new and different. And perhaps…nothing.

        • Nothing, as in atheism? Or just no more institutions or formal Christianity?

          • StuartB says:

            Perhaps atheism. Perhaps post-Christianity. Perhaps the return of Christ. Perhaps a new religion all together.

          • StuartB says:

            Atheism, more and more, seems like the logical result of human thought and evolution throughout history. From many to one to none.

            I don’t know.

            God is love. And some days you can’t count the seconds til someone rebuffs that with “…and just.”

          • I hear you, especially about that last point. Which is why I think Christianity will, is, and ought to drift in direction of universalism as time goes on. Don’t be too discouraged about Christianity; it’s in a sorry state, no doubt, but that doesn’t mean we all have to give up on God / Theism, or even on Christ, or even on every form of Christianity. That was a big breakthrough for me, discovering that there are more options that Conservative Christianity and Atheism. I appreciate your thoughts, by the way; you remind me of myself in many ways (as I am currently 🙂 )

      • Dana Ames says:

        Dearest David,

        May Christ our God shower his mercy on you and Marge. He is with you, and you are in him, in all you are undergoing. It is his love undergirding and filling yours.

        Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.


      • >> It seems to me that we are sinking into undefinable chaos without a clear path on the other side.

        David, that notion seems to me exactly what effect the programming of mass media and of fear mongers is supposed to have on you. I refuse to participate. There is not only a clear path on the other side, that path extends right on thru the darkness and ends up at your feet. It is never too late to set out or get back on. All else can fall away into darkness and despair but that path is firm and sure and Jesus walked it first to make certain. Let the Methodists squabble. Let everyone squabble. Turn off your television and take a walk. Take some more photos of this beautiful world for the rest of us to enjoy. Thanks for your steadfastness. Jesus thanks you. Be of good courage and filled with God’s peace.

        • David Cornwell says:

          Charles, television is not something I pay any attention to. I’ve seen about 2 newscasts in the last four years. One of them was after the Boston bombing. I no longer watch any network tv. I don’t have the patience to sit through commercials and waste time. I cancelled satellite tv, as I refuse to pay for about 60 channels that are trying to sell me something. Marge & I do watch a movie in the evening from Netflix. I look at some news aggregates on Google, etc and read a local paper. I’m an ex-Methodist. I’d like to see them refrain from another split. But I have no expectations. They’ve been fighting over homosexuality since the 1970’s and have neither advanced nor retreated. And lost several million members, mostly through death! And still they are the second largest mainstream denomination in the USA, after the Southern Baptists (if they are mainstream that is.)

          Thanks for the encouragement to take photos. This I greatly enjoy.

      • Robert F says:

        God bless you, your wife and family, David.

        • David Cornwell says:

          Thank you Robert. By-the-way, I always appreciate your comments. You think before you write.

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

    You’ve begun a Wednesday study of the Epistle of James. Is Willard’s quote above an alternate translation of “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”?

    I’m reading The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (from the recommendation of someone here or over at TWW) and, when applied to dissatisfaction in one’s church, it’s important not to let yourself be damaged by an abusive situation. The final chapters discuss the “flight” or “fight” options.

    There are certainly different levels and layers of dissatisfaction—from mere boredom, to disagreement, to trials (as in James) and even to abuse. It can take a lot of time and prayer to identify what’s going on. Let any of this be formative, not destructive.

  6. LM (Lin) says:

    Thank you for putting words to what is inside of me. My doubt and uncertainty strangely are my faith. It pulls me to plead to the Holy Spirit and cling to Jesus.

  7. Jung said that some of life’s biggest conondrums never get resolved (this from someone who was paid to help people find resolution) but must simply be lived through. Rohr speaks much the same of holding the tension. In my experience the only resolution to a lack of resolution is the contemplative mind. Fostering a regular contemplative practice, or as Paul said, “pray always”, brings a peace to the unresolved chaos that makes it bearable. If only I could remember that when I need it most.

  8. Ronald Avra says:

    A very good post, Chaplain. I very much appreciate the effort it required of you composing it.

  9. Dana Ames says:

    Desert Fathers, yes.

    One of the best things about coming into the Orthodox Church has been realizing that my care for people does not have to have anything to do with “wretched urgency” – one of our most beloved saints said that if we ourselves acquire the Spirit of God (in all that means), thousands around us will be able to find God. I need to attend to my own focus on following Christ, and then the other things will fall into place; it’s not so important that I simply trust, but that I trust the God who is good and loves mankind. I don’t have to try to put a good face on the tragedies and suffering of life. I don’t have to drum up enough “faith” to make things happen. I don’t even have to be over-critical of myself; I don’t fully understand the depths of my being, and “it is not yet known what we shall be.” That has been a vast amount of fresh air in the life of this perfectionist.


    • Danielle says:

      Ah, Dana, I owe you a beer one day, perfectionist to perfectionist. Thanks for your hopeful words.

  10. Stephen says:

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

    The “divine discontent” has been the stimulus for most of the great art and philosophy of humankind. The cry of love, the ache for transcendence; could you ever really trust anyone who didn’t feel this way?

    • Rick Ro. says:

      Sixpence None the Richer’s best album is titled “Divine Discontent.” Definitely not your standard CCM fare. Highly recommend it.

  11. Rick Ro. says:

    Good post. Ecclesiastes-like, which you quote. Lots of truth in the meaninglessness of it all. My spiritual desert time shaped my spirituality tremendously, refining it for the future. So now, as I feel sort of adrift again, I’m not bothered or worried. Been there, done that. It’ll all be okay in the end.

  12. Rick Ro. says:

    This post reminds me a lot of U2’s album “Pop,” which several of us have been discussing on the iMonk Facebook area. The album is loaded with spiritual angst and hopelessness and a “where can I go for help when I’m not even sure about God?” At one time, it was my least favorite U2 album, but I’ve rediscovered it over the past three weeks. It is also very Ecclesiastes-like and I would almost say it should be required listening for any Christian who truly wants to know what a lost soul might feel.