When we are single, we often desire marriage. Once married, we hope for kids. When the kids come, though they are a blessing, we long for peace and quiet.
Although all of these things (singleness, marriage, kids) are good, we tend to long for something else, no matter the season of life. Even the apostle Paul had to learn to be content in all circumstances. There are also times when, like the preacher of Ecclesiastes notes, we chase and chase for the next big thing like striving after wind. And yet, in other times God stretches us, leading us to make changes in our lives and use the gifts he gave us for the benefit of others.
Jennie Allen understands the tension between discontentment and pursuing God's calling on ones' life, and she shares her journey in her new book, Restless: Because You Were Made For More. I corresponded with Allen to learn about holy discontent and our longing for more from life.
You write often about surrendering. What might that look like in someone's life?
Surrendering is the laying down of our lives, control, and plans in order to follow Jesus. I am so passionate about this because for so long I missed this, or at least I missed really living this kind of risk-it-all, die-to-self, die-to-control part of following Christ. It turns out that in God's beautiful irony the kind of life we want so badly lays on the other side of death.
The scariest and safest thing I have ever done is to finally and completely surrender my rights—to hand complete control of my life and my dreams over to my God. How it practically plays out involves a thousand little deaths—from forgiving friends who've wronged us, to walking through a cancer diagnosis, to taking initiative for orphans, to fighting those dark sins we just can't seem to beat.
For me, the most common form of surrender is in letting go of playing it safe and starting to risk comfort for God's glory and the good of others.
As you have seen others go through the Restless Project what has been the most significant discovery or change you've seen from someone?
I headed into this study convicted by John Piper's words: "It is possible to waste your life." I wanted to start a corporate discussion on gifts and callings and dreams for God's glory. I was worried that others, just like me, were entangled with fear and distraction and perhaps missing "the good works God prepared in advance for us to do" (Eph 2:10). This isn't a quick fix with easy answers. Restless is an exploration of God's story and how our seemingly small stories, gifts, and passions could be a part of that larger story.
It is a wake-up call, a reminder that we are here for just a moment. How we spend that moment has eternal significance. Wanting more out of life is not about a desire to bring more attention to you. It's about wanting to find a way to do more with your life in a form of worship that ultimately brings more glory to God. Just because you desire more out of your life does necessarily mean you are sinfully discontent or denying God's free grace in your life. It is more about embracing a perspective that our creative God has an infinite number of creative plans to make himself known through us, his image bearers, and he provides us opportunities to find joy in experiencing these often-small daily tasks.
Restless follows the life of Joseph in Genesis, and I taught it in Austin last year at my local church. Some of my favorite stories from that time include . . .
My friend Laura connected the suffering of feeling invisible as a young child to a passion to see the invisible suffering people in her world. She recently spent a week beside her homeless friend Linda's hospital bed as Linda went home to meet Jesus. She would say, "I saw how my pain collided with her pain and her need—we all want to be seen."
Bekah connected her love for the other young moms on her block and her passion for exercise and started an early morning bootcamp on her street, which led to coffee dates and deeper relationships.
Karen needed permission and direction to dream. She found deep friends in the journey who are speaking truth to her and giving her space to discover her gifts. She had never had time to think about the unique threads God had given her to make him known.
This isn't a magic formula. It is just sanctification and understanding more fully our part in God's story. Once we understand our new identity as Christians, we should look more closely at our environment and contextualize how it all fits into God's story.
When is restlessness good, and when is it just being discontent? What do you suggest women do when they sense this desire for something else or more?
Great question, because certainly not all feelings of restlessness are from God. Sometimes our feelings of restlessness are a sinful discontentment with the lives we have been given. But there is another type of stirring that feels similar and that I often ignored because I assumed it was sin. No change in our lives or in our world is made without a stirring for something greater—something more.
There is a type of restlessness that grows as we see the emptiness of the American dream and the brevity of our lives. A restlessness to make our lives count and a responsibility to steward all that we have been given for God's glory and other's good.
Restless is not self-analysis for the sake of inner fulfillment, though I believe deeper joy is a byproduct. This is about understanding the story of God and how to play our parts in it, to serve him and his people while we are here. "Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18). As we wrestle with how this verse plays out in each of our lives, it takes intention and thought and dreaming and community.
Actually I have seen the sinful discontentment fade in my own life and others as our vision and holy restlessness grows. So long as we are on this earth, we will continue to ache for something bigger, because we were designed for something bigger—something larger and better than ourselves. We are designed for an intimate relationship with God forever. Augustine said, "You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you."
The Holy Spirit enables us to find that rest and contentment in God, but that doesn't mean we won't long to do more in this life. I believe God often prompts our hearts and motivates us to participate in his unfolding story. There is deep joy and satisfaction in realizing that our insignificant moments often contribute to matters of eternal significance. And even if it proves costly or difficult, it is part of the call on the Christian's life.
You say that we are all made to do great things. How do you encourage women, particularly, not to compare? My great thing may very well be to get my son to school on time and my daughter fed (which you note in your book), while another women's great thing might be to lead a non-profit. Ultimately, we are made to glorify God in all we do. How do we see even our everyday as great things?
We brush against people in checkout lines who will live forever in heaven or hell, and we're all made in the image of God. Try to tell me your life is insignificant. Try to tell me that anything about this life is insignificant.
Your view of your life may be small, but nothing about your life is small. We have souls undone and rebuilt by the Spirit of God. As God surveys this earth, he sees light and darkness. And he sees his light, his Spirit in us, wandering through neighborhoods, offices, schools, Walmarts, playgrounds, and eating breadsticks at Olive Garden.
We are created in the image of God, and the Holy Spirit dwells inside of us! How could we ever be small? Why would we ever waste time comparing when our work is so important and our time so short?
There are no small dreams and no average people. There are no meaningless moments as we go to the gym or cook macaroni or handle shipping orders gone wrong or nurse our babies. If we were sitting across from each other, and you pleaded with me—begged me—to believe you were average, your life is boring, that there is nothing significant to anything you are doing, you could not convince me. You could not. You just may not realize it. The "more" is already built in your everyday life. You just have to see it.
You write that "personal fulfillment is fullest when we are involved in something bigger than ourselves, something for the good of others." How might you apply this to the local church?
Our lives exist within God's unfolding story or redemption in the world. God has given us his church as the vehicle by which we participate with the Christian body within that story. This is the context where we will operate until the return of Jesus—a community of people on mission together helping each other remember God is not pretend, heaven is coming, and we have work to do. This is the church. We won't run far or fast without going deep with the people God has put right around us in our local churches. We need the local church, and through it we are able to serve, grow, be refined, and meet needs.
"One body, many parts" is how Paul describes the church in 1 Corinthians 12:20. God builds us uniquely, issuing different gifts and stories and places and people, then calls us to come together as parts of the whole and to move as one. We live out this great story in our local contexts. The small gets big and the big gets small and together we get to be part of giving people God. How incredible is that?