September 19, 2018

Another Look: I Can’t Get No…

Phoenix (2015)

Another Look: I Can’t Get No…

I was perusing the IM Archives the other day and came across a post I wrote a few years ago. It was simple and short, based on a sentence by Dallas Willard I had read in a book on spiritual formation. I didn’t know what to make of it then, but it arrested me.

Well, the sentence got my attention again today.

Here are Willard’s words:

“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.

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.

It’s been 50 years since 1968, that most tumultuous of years. Then I look at the year we’re having now and realize not much has changed.

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, a sign 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?

But 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 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.

“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.

Peter Rollins says this will increasingly need to be the Church’s stance in a post-Christian, post-modern world. I think he says it well:

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

Comments

  1. What the Rolling Stones expressed for your Baby Boomer generation with “I can’t get no satisfaction”, U2/Bono expressed for my Generation X:

    I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…

    I like the idea that this dissatisfaction can be spiritually formative, that it can somehow point us to Jesus even without leading us to all the glib answers.

    • This is the song that expressed it for me, when I was a young adult in the 1980s. And it still speaks to me today, from a place deep within; but, while the yearning still runs deep, it doesn’t hurt as much, and it opens out onto hope at the other end.

  2. Excellent post and wisdom, CM. A few thoughts:

    –> “Most of my dissatisfaction is about me. I can’t stop ‘shoulding’ on myself.”

    The word “should” should be banned from the English language. It’s too “guilt-charged” to be healthy, whether used on yourself or spoken to you by someone else.

    –> “But many Christians avoid Ecclesiastes, not grasping how important it is to stare life squarely in the face and see it as it really is.”

    I think I’ve shared this before, but when I first became a Christian I read Ecclesiastes because I knew it contained lyrics that the Byrds used in their song “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Imagine my surprise to find out how cynical it was!!! The GOOD aspect of that was that reading Ecclesiastes so early in my Christian walk helped solidify the trustworthiness of the Bible. I mean, who in the heck would leave that book in there if all they wanted was to portray a walk with God in a “everything will be wonderful now that you’re a Christian” light? (Prosperity gospel people would be well-served to read it periodically.)

    –> “‘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.”

    Yes. I’ve also shared this before… Philip Yancey’s “Disappointment with God” is one of my favorite books. It is unafraid at looking at spiritual dissatisfaction from a number of angles and finding no concrete answers. In fact, the fact he DOESN’T provide concrete answers is what makes the book such a winner to me.

  3. Ronald Avra says:

    In the early seventies, my grandmother (who was an acolyte of J. Vernon McGee and Oliver B. Green) came to me and said I want to give you a verse:

    Isaiah 30
    20 And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity, and the water of affliction, yet shall not thy teachers be removed into a corner any more, but thine eyes shall see thy teachers:

    21 And thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left.

    Today, I can testify that I’ve never gone hungry nor ever thirsted.

  4. rhymeswithplague says:

    Some of you will say this is pap, but an old gospel song came to mind as I read this post:

    I am satisfied with Jesus, ev’ry day and ev’ry hour;
    Oh, I need His peace and comfort, when the clouds of sadness low’r.
    When I pass thro’ deep affliction, or when waves of trouble roll,
    Jesus comes in sweet compassion, bringing peace into my soul.

    I am satisfied with Jesu, when the skies are bright and clear;
    When the sunshine glows about me, it is joy to know He’s near.
    When the way is not so certain, still I trust my faithful Guide;
    And I’ll sing as on I travel, knowing ill cannot betide.

    I am satisfied with Jesus, who is all in all to me;
    Oh, I could not do without Him, such a constant Friend is He.
    Be it joy or be it sorrow, skies all bright or light grown dim,
    Jesus loves me, Jesus keeps me; I am satisfied with Him.

    The rock-throwing may now commence.

    • As this song makes clear, life with Jesus is not always sweetness and light. Sometimes it’s dark and stormy. Jesus doen’t necessarily take away the problems or keep us from the hard times. The point this song makes is that Jesus is with us regardless of the circumstances. Sometines I have a hard time remembering that. There’s another old song that says “Take your burdens to the Lord and leave them there”. I can usually take my burdens to the Lord. My problem is leaving them there , Thanks for this reminder.

  5. Good thoughts, but just to help keep it in the right context/perspective, DW also wrote this:

    “Personal soul care also requires attending to our feelings. Emotions are a real component of life and of our lives in Christ. Some ministers allow their emotions to defeat them. We do well to note, however, that love is the foundation of the spiritual life and joy is a key component in the Christ life. Joy is not pleasure, a mere sensation, but a pervasive and constant sense of well-being. Hope in the goodness of God is joy’s indispensable support.
    In a moment of worship and praise, Paul spontaneously expressed a benediction on the Christians in Rome: “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13, NASB). This verse addresses the profound needs of the emotional side of the Christian’s life. The great central terms of life in Christ are “faith,” “hope,” “love,” and “peace.” These are not just feelings; in substance, they are not feelings. They are conditions involving every part of an individual’s life, including the body and the social context. They serve to equip us for the engagements of life. They do, however, have feelings that accompany them, and these positive feelings abundantly characterize those living in the presence of God. These feelings displace the bitter and angry feelings, that characterize life “in the flesh”—life in human energies only. They even transform the sickening emotional tones that permeate and largely govern the world around us—even many times the Church world.
    Jesus taught us to abide in God’s love “that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full” (John 15: 10-11, NASB). Our joy is full when there is no room for more. Abiding in God’s love provides the unshakable source of joy, which is in turn the source of peace. All is based in the reality of God’s grace and goodness.”

  6. Michael Bell says:

    This post really reminded me of Michael Spencer, and his book “Mere Churchianity.”

    Like the comment above, “It is spiritually formative to be dissatisfied and unable to resolve it”, one of the reasons why we call this the “post-evangelical wilderness”, is many of us, Michael Spencer included, can not or could not find an exit sign.

    As I read through “Mere Churchianity”, I was struck with the thought over and over, “He really doesn’t have a solution here, does he?”

    It is not a great feeling to feel like you don’t belong anywhere, yet I guess, like the quote above, it does build spiritual formation in that one eventually comes to the realization that no situation is perfect and you just have to do the best that you can regardless of your circumstances.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > one eventually comes to the realization that no situation is perfect and you just
      > have to do the best that you can regardless of your circumstances.

      Which sounds like a rather straight-forward solution.

      If ones settles down in the Wilderness, clearing a space, is it still Wilderness?

      • flatrocker says:

        Depends. Are you pouring a foundation or pitching a tent?

      • “If ones settles down in the Wilderness, clearing a space, is it still Wilderness?”

        Depends. How close is the nearest Five Guys?

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          Depends on the WIlderness.

          In the lower 48 it is impossible to be more than 27 miles from a maintained road . . . so I doubt one can be more than half a day from a Five Guys. Most places not more than a few hours.

  7. I’m still puzzling over the long boxed quote. We are not an answer. Neither are we a question. To sound trite, we have the answer in the person, Jesus. It is correct that we are not the food for the hungry. that we are the aroma. We are the aroma that leads the hungry and thirsty to the food, which we offer literally, spiritually, and sacrementally (through Baptism and the Eucharist).

  8. Even in Kyoto,
    Hearing the cuckoo’s cry,
    I long for Kyoto

    Kobayashi Issa

  9. autumn emptiness —
    hear its dull echo in the
    last rains of August

  10. “..to stare life squarely in the face and see it as it really is”, then deny it.

    That is my generation.

  11. Christiane says:

    When I read Kathleen Norris’s books, these words I high-lighted and still I am impacted greatly on re-reading them:

    ‘ MAYBE THE DESERT WISDOM. . . . . CAN TEACH US TO LOVE ANYWAY . . . . . AND NOT PRETEND THAT THINGS ARE OTHER THAN THEY ARE’

    ‘“Maybe the desert wisdom of the Dakotas can teach us to love anyway, to love what is dying, in the face of death, and not pretend that things are other than they are. The irony and wonder of all of this is that it is the desert’s grimness, its stillness and isolation, that brings us back to love.”

    (Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography)

    as to ‘why’ these I am drawn to those words, I can’t explain it . . . just a place to rest from ‘it all’ for a while, I guess