For many weeks leading into this past Christmas season I have been feeling a deepening unsettledness, something persistent, pressing, and specific. A general unsettledness is a familiar feeling for me. I have felt like an exile for years. and in this season of my life unsettledness is fitting. This is a season of saying goodbye to relationships I’ve loved over decades and the self I was with them. It is a season of transitions and thresholds, of diminishing physical capacities and deepening creative and spiritual ones. It is a season of farewells to what has been, and that tentative welcome to what is yet to be but is still unknown. I am homesick now in ways that become more pronounced by the day.
But the unease I feel recently is something more urgent than my deep and lingering homesickness. At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on this sharp unease, but I’ve felt it every day, like something out of joint needing to be put back into place. Something insistent refusing to be ignored. Then come mid-December I began to hear a counter reply in my spirit.
‘Stop, stand still, listen.‘
I believe that reply is addressed specifically to the work I would typically be doing now to get another full issue of Cultivating pulled together and published for this season. But I also believe it is speaking to something much deeper and broader for my life. What I hear in the waters of my soul, deep beneath the surface view is an unshakable discontent. Not the discontent born of grumbling and ingratitude. I am deeply grateful for the life I have been given. I count my blessings every day. Believe me when I say I am grateful. I know first-hand what it is to be homeless, addicted, poverty stricken, and lost. So how is it now as a woman who is well-married, well-provided for, and seeking the Lord daily with all my heart, that I can be discontent? I’ve seen astonishing answers to prayer in my lifetime. Why can I not just be content with the wonders that have been given so graciously to me? That is an important question. What I find in me is a discontent that is fundamentally bigger than me. It is not simply a complaining about what I have not being enough. It is the complaint of something needing to be made right, made whole, made complete. It is a yearning for a piece of the universe that includes me to be put back into its proper place.
What I feel is holy discontent.
Even now, reading those words in context, they are jarring. They seem incongruous, even opposed to each other. How can holiness keep company with discontent? How can discontent ever serve holiness? As believers we are taught through all our training in the faith to cultivate contentment and to practice resting in the circumstances in which we are placed. We are taught to bloom where we are planted and to make beautiful the surroundings we are given. We are taught to give thanks for what we have and to be faithfully present where we are. This is a practice I deeply believe in and it has marked my life. This beautiful website for Cultivating is an outward expression of that belief. So is the home I dwell in and the circle of friends and family I love.
So, I ask myself again ~ How can holiness keep company with discontent? How can discontent ever serve holiness?
Those two marry when they are bound by a truth they share. Discontent serves holiness when holiness demands that something be made right.
There is a story I would like to recount for you that gives answer to these two questions. This story is a hinge for much of my life, a story you may already be familiar with. It is a tale of holy discontent, vulnerability, surrender, fulfillment, and generational blessing. It is the story of Hannah, the prophet Samuel’s mother.
The first book of Samuel opens with a precise account of a woman’s discontent and heartache. Not a famous, rich, or powerful woman, Hannah was an obscure woman who would be unknown to any of us today were it not for what she did with her discontent. How she responded to it is given to us – men and women alike – as a model of acknowledging deep desire and naming it, taking it in vulnerability and submission to God, offering petition and sacrifice, surrendering it in a holy place, and being heard and answered by the Almighty. What Hannah desired with all her heart was a son so that the cultural shame of her barrenness would be ended and that her value be vindicated. She named and surrendered her deep discontent to the Lord. In doing that, the fulfillment of Hannah’s desire and discontent became a blessing that has touched every generation of God’s people since. It was profoundly, intimately personal to Hannah, yet the fulfillment of her desire brought something to pass that carried forward for generations beyond her counting. Her discontent was driven by a deep personal need: honour and value. This was not vanity. It was something that Hannah needed to bring peace to her soul. She was looking for her accuser to be vanquished in a holy way. She was looking to God for vindication. She was looking for an ache in her being to be mended. Hannah’s desire and discontent was not selfish. It was righteous and it was good. This is important to recognize.
The Almighty God did not mock Hannah, or scorn her voice or tears. He listened to the truthfulness of what she offered to Him. Her plea was for Him to right a wrong and it was within His power alone to do it. She recognised her powerlessness. Hannah came to Him vulnerable and humble, but also clear and unashamed. She did not demand or voice entitlement. Though she wept, she did not whine. When God fulfilled Hannah’s request it exceeded all of her imagining and exceeded the request itself. In addition to Him showing her “the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living“, God made an enduring example of her approach to holy discontent as a model to His people from that time forward. Hannah’s name means “favour” or “grace.”
In some translations, the word used for ‘desire’ is ‘longing’. Longing is something far stronger and deeper than a mere wish, or wistful dream. It is not an arbitrary or passing want, or anything easily fulfilled. Longing’s roots are planted deep into the heart, the core of our being. No real and true longing will be moved from there, no matter how hard one might try to pull it out. That longing gives witness to our calling and it flags our essential telos. It can be called ‘longing’ because it does not go away quickly. It holds its ground over long periods of time. It is not something based on shifting interests. Circumstance or age do not change it. It is not something that can be changed without fulfilling it or killing the heart that bears it. It is an all or nothing kind of thing – either to be fulfilled or unrequited. As much as our deepest faith and deepest fear, our longings define us. To name it openly is to name who we really, truly are. This kind of longing must be reckoned with and accounted for. To die without facing it faithfully, is to have lived a half-life.
According to the Etymology dictionary, to long (as a verb) means to “yearn after, grieve for.” There is living truth in that phrase “grieve for” because grief does indeed accompany our unfulfilled longings. Longing colours our every day, named or unnamed. That is one of the core conditions of the human experience. The grief stemming from it is a grief to which we owe our attention. In fact, grief is so much a hallmark of true longing that often we experience the longing as a wordless ache in our heart before we can even identify or name it. This ache is important to recognise and to respect.
Let me ask you, when do you hurt or even cry over news that “should” make you happy for someone else’s advancement or achievement in a given area? When do you see someone doing something and find yourself unexplainably sad at the sight and find some part of yourself turning away and folding up inside? What causes you pain that seems irrational or unjustified? When do you feel passed by or like you are looking into windows of a house you cannot enter? Can you see a pattern or a specific? Make note of it.
On my desk, right beneath my laptop monitor, is a small silver brick stamped with a single question. I look at this every single time I sit down at my computer, which means every single day. What is the question?
“What would you attempt to do
if you knew you could not fail?”
I am willing to be still and hear the beating of my own soul and heart, and as I stop my frantic working and striving, as I look past my fears and failures, I can name it. I can name what I would attempt to do if I knew I could not fail.
There is a distinct parallel between discontent and fire. Both have the power for great destruction or great good, depending on how they are tended. They may lay a long time smouldering beneath the surface with embers hot but out of sight. Unrecognised and unattended, both can wreak utter destruction upon the unsuspecting and defenseless. Yet, when tended rightly both can keep us warm in the cold protecting us from apathy or despair. Both can be kindled into a gathering point, to share fellowship. Both can give us light in the darkness, guiding us on our way to our appointed destination.
What if we look at that longing, that unsettling fire of holy discontent, through new eyes and see it with trust and not suspicion, what might it tell us we are called to enflesh and bring to life? How might being truthful with it in all the ache it carries bring you closer into the presence of The Almighty as your Defender and Champion?
I can name my holy discontent and ache. Mine comes in pairs. They have both been held for decades. One is to move to a long, ranch style house in the Colorado country with a small barn (for Cultivating) and a big sky. This is “the house on the refrigerator” (a picture I posted there probably 20 years ago now, a house seemingly impossible to find). This is an earthly answer to homesickness. Two, to complete the design and launch of the Cultivating magazine in print this year. This answers a long held yearning to see and hold the tangible reality of what I have seen for years in my mind’s eye. Bringing this work to print is an act of beauty in defiance of despair, and singing beauty’s glorious song of love that triumphs.
These I need for my soul to be made whole and at peace.
Can you name your discontent and ache?
The featured image “A Winter Gathering Fire” is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and used with her permission for Cultivating.
For this winter season of 2022, The Cultivating Project is taking a time away from our “full-feast” publication offerings to pursue personal reflection and rest as a team. The content on site will be served up slower for this season. We are grateful for your patience and understanding and very much hope that you will join us in this same endeavor. May we each be able to truthfully and respectfully voice our holy discontent and watch for the Lord to answer us in the days ahead.
Thank you always for your good company with us!
For further reading: Denise Armstrong’s beautiful piece about Hannah in the Cultivating Christmastide 2021 issue.
Lancia E. Smith is an author, photographer, teacher, and business owner. A grateful lover of the Triune God, Lancia is the Founder & Executive Director of Cultivating & The Cultivating Project. She has served in executive management, church leadership, boards, and Art & Faith organizations over 30 years. She & her husband Peter have parented 7 children, & have a flock of beloved grandchildren. Lancia loves garden and website design, beautiful typography, road trips, being read aloud to by Peter, & cherishes every book she ever read by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald.
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