Discontentment drives us. It’s clear from an economic standpoint, but I’m no economist. I’m more concerned with human thought and behavior. The person I know most intimately is myself. So here’s my self-analysis.
All my life, I’ve been eagerly looking forward. To what? It hardly matters. Always looking forward to something. Sometimes I pause to look back, mostly with displeasure. Sometimes I get mired in the present for a while. But I always come back to looking forward.
A brief overview: I went to a small Lutheran grade school. Preschool through junior high were all on the same campus, adjacent to the church. In my younger years, I looked forward to sixth grade, when I would finally be in the junior high building. In sixth grade, I looked forward to seventh grade, when I would finally be recognized as truly part of the junior high. But for much of my young life, the perceived pinnacle was high school.
What could be better than high school? Driving, dances, dates with lots of guys… Well I only dated one guy, which turned out not to be a disappointment. But in high school I became enlightened enough to realize that high school wasn’t the greatest good after all. Behold – College: a glowing beacon of absolute freedom and indescribable happiness. The expectation for college was so great that I spent the first semester holed up in my dorm room crying because it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Fortunately, I’d come up with something else to look forward to during high school. Something I could continue looking forward to in college. A hope I’ve carried with me for a long, long time. Marriage. The greatest goal.
I’m not questioning that marriage is a great thing to look forward to. With 105 days until my wedding (who’s counting?), I’m definitely looking forward to it. But there’s a reality that I must grasp. Discontentment doesn’t end with these milestones I’ve set for myself. It is a curse that runs deeper than any event in my life. It’s a mental/emotional monster gnawing at my soul.
Constantly looking forward is a coping mechanism. It transports me away from present problems into a fictitious future bliss where nothing can rain on my parade. (Sorry for the alliteration there, it just happened.) I suppose one of two things is true. Either 1) The myth of a perfect future makes me discontent with my life or 2) My discontentment with life drives me to create the myth of a perfect future. Or maybe both are true, feeding each other in a vicious cycle.
I suspect that once I get married, I will discover myriad things to be discontent about. I will be depressed with how often Michael works; I’ll dream of a day when we have more time together. I’ll be totally unsatisfied with my own career or lack thereof. I’ll be cold and lonely in Indiana. I’ll dream to get out of the apartment and buy a house. I’ll want to move home to Missouri. If we do move home, I’ll wish we were in Colorado. Or someplace warmer. Then I’ll want kids. I cannot imagine the overwhelming discontent that will come if I can’t have kids.
I could go on. The point is this. I am diseased. And all of humanity shares in my disease. We are discontent. We are walking around with a big void inside, trying every way imaginable to fill it. A lot can be explained about human behavior if it is meant to fill the nameless void. Why are people greedy or altruistic? Murderous or caring? Different methods of seeking fulfillment. A lot of people try to buy out the void. Bigger houses, faster cars, nicer clothes. Some people try to fill it with relationships. One doesn’t do it, so they try another and another and can’t stop because the void never goes away. I think a lot of people sleep around because they’re empty inside. “Good” and “bad” can be seen as measures of how laudable a particular effort is.
I will argue that people who try to fill the void by reaching outward are far more successful than those who reach inward. Humanitarians, missionaries, civil servants, friendly people: anyone who responds to their discontent by helping others and making the world better. Those people seem to be more content. In fact, they are often content in circumstances that appall the rest of the world. You’ve given up all your worldly possessions to live in this remote village in poverty, digging wells and educating the villagers. You have almost nothing. How can you be content? But they are. We could learn so much and accomplish so much and feel so much better if we’d all reach outward rather than inward. But how can I help others until I grapple with the looming problems in my own life? Simple. My problems are looming because I’m egocentric. If the world revolves around me, then my worries mean that the world is falling apart. But if I reach outward, everything changes. Once the world stops revolving around me, my worries diminish. They might not go away. But they no longer signal the end of the world. And from that perspective, problems are amazingly manageable.
I’ll further argue that I know the reason for the void. God. Or more specifically, our separation from God. Scripture says that we were created in the image of God, for the purpose of being in eternal relationship with him. But God gave us a choice, because the love of a free, thinking being is infinitely better than the service of a slave or robot. God said “I love you. Walk with me.” And we said “Nah. Don’t really like where you’re going, God. We’re gonna find our own direction.” And off we went to live out lifetimes of meaningless self-indulgence. God daily extends love to us and we daily shut God out. But our inmost being craves the perfect love we’re missing. Thus the void. Permanent discontentment, and a million ineffective ways to fulfill ourselves.
We ran from God’s love, so he sent it to us in a very personal package – his son – the greatest gift ever given. Jesus Christ came to restore us to the perfect love relationship with God. He came to fill our void and heal our discontent. He lived, died, and rose to give a hope that isn’t futile: a future truly worth looking forward to in eternity with God. And he gave us a purpose to fulfill us now: reaching outward. Preach the good news, spread the love, care for the sick and helpless and poor.
Even those of us in relationship with God experience discontentment. It’s because we’re still looking inward. We give God part of our love and allow some of God’s love into our lives. But we never give fully nor accept fully. If we would let go and allow God’s love to overtake us completely, we would never be discontent again. God’s love would overflow from us to everyone around us. The song would be true: “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
Our discontentment is a clear sign that we were meant to live for so much more. I pray for the ability to fully accept God’s love, to fully give love and to live out the purpose for which I have been given life.
“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” CS Lewis
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” -John 15:9-13