How to Recognize When God is Nudging You to Action

An old Gospel song insists that because of Jesus, “Now I am happy all the day.” Discontent is often viewed negatively, especially among Christians. | by Michael Carey

Irene Summerford overflowed with joy, even as she endured heart-breaking poverty. Some of her neighbors staved off hunger by selling themselves to satisfy other people’s appetites. But feasting upon the “Bread of Life” (John 6:35), Sister Irene was an apostle of hope.

Boiling hot dogs on a camp stove, singing to tunes from a cassette player, posting figures on a flannel board, Sister Irene told anyone and everyone about Jesus. Though surrounded by despair, Irene was energized by irrepressible hope. Hardly a demure church lady, Irene would even “get in the faces” of hostile drug dealers, insisting that Jesus could redeem their lives, too.

I first heard “Sister Irene stories” from my wife, the director of a fledgling faith-based neighborhood restoration organization, now called Neighbor Up Brevard. Using Christian Community Development principles, Lynn and her colleagues built relationships with residents who yearned for positive change and nurtured partnerships with well-resourced outsiders.

Irene’s pioneering presence and contagious joy accelerated the neighborhood’s revitalization. The sidewalk Sunday School became a five-day-a-week after-school safe haven. Dozens of volunteers helped children with homework and taught them the scriptures. Within a few years, Lynn and Irene involved hundreds of diverse people in designing, funding, and constructing a beautiful home for this ministry. Inspired by Dorcas, the servant-hearted woman celebrated in Acts 9:36, Irene’s vision became the Dorcas Outreach Center for Kids—The DOCK.

Our hearts broke when Irene succumbed to cancer just months before The DOCK was completed. Sitting with her in the hospital just a few hours before she died, I lamented that she wouldn’t see it finished. Without opening her eyes, Irene whispered, “Pastor, I’ve already seen it.”

Hope-building flourished in that neighborhood because Irene and her partners cultivated healthy and holy discontent. Even as she overflowed with joy, Irene’s huge impact emerged from her faithful stewardship of negative emotions.

Healthy and Holy Discontent

Discontent is often viewed negatively, especially among Christians. An old Gospel song insists that because of Jesus, “Now I am happy all the day.” Discontent is unhealthy if we obsess on what we don’t have or don’t like about ourselves. Unhealthy discontent can plague us when we cross paths with people who are attractive, affluent, talented, or successful. We are especially vulnerable to unhealthy discontent when we see people who, with total disregard to God, enjoy comfortable, self-absorbed lives.

Discontent is also unhealthy when our emotions are controlled by things we cannot change. For good reason, the “Serenity Prayer” attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr became a mantra for millions:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

The scriptures assure us that God gives peace of mind. Witnesses declare that the Lord hears our lament, empathizes with our distress, and applies balm to our hearts and minds. After the psalmist admitted that “I envied the arrogant, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked, they have no struggles,” he discovered that “my flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:3-4, 26). God’s steadfast love is our best tonic for unhealthy discontent.

Dispensed by the indwelling Spirit, God’s love frees us from anxiety and fills us with divine joy. While awaiting his execution, the Apostle Paul declared: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:12-13) God provides serenity for the things we cannot change. Yet scripture also teaches us that God gives us courage to deal with the discontent we have for things that can be changed.

Discontent can be healthy. Sin and suffering were not God’s intent. Seeing human brokenness stokes holy discontent within the heart of the Triune God. The overarching trajectory of God’s self-revelation—from the burning bush to the crucified Christ, risen Lord, and Spirit-filled Church—conveys divine passion to redeem and restore creation. People drawn into a relationship with Jesus receive his grace and much more. God’s indwelling Spirit also conveys the Father’s passion for holiness and wholeness. As partners in Christ’s mission, God’s holy discontent becomes ours.

Do not ignore discontent. We must reject passivity when life disappoints. It is our responsibility to discern whether discontent is unholy and unhealthy or holy and healthy. Faithfulness to God involves understanding your emotions. If you conclude that your discontent is unholy and unhealthy, pursue a path of healing. But if you discern that its holy and healthy, invite God to teach you to build hope.

Nehemiah’s Saga

The Bible provides marvelous glimpses of how holy discontent can be channeled into blessing: Hope-building heroes include Moses and Miriam, David and Hezekiah, Paul and Barnabas. Yet the most detailed account is the saga of Nehemiah, the Persian emperor’s cupbearer who inquired as to the state of far-away Jerusalem. His brother’s report changed Nehemiah’s life: “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” Nehemiah was inconsolable: “I sat down and wept. For some days, I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:3-4).

Nehemiah’s discontent was healthy. God’s people—his people—faced great peril. Broken walls and burned gates left returning Jews vulnerable to attack. Nehemiah’s discontent was holy. It expressed God’s passion for the Jews’ well-being. This wasn’t a momentary disappointment. Nehemiah was devastated, for days “he mourned and fasted” (Nehemiah 1:4).

Our Discontent

The sources of our discontent are many.  Discontent can be unhealthy, the fruit of woundedness or bitterness. Discontent can be unholy. It certainly doesn’t express God’s concern if your unhappiness is due to sin or attachment to an idol. Unhealthy discontent necessitates emotional healing, perhaps with the help of a counselor. Unholy discontent can only be remedied with repentance.

Yet there are many legitimate ways to feel healthy and holy discontent. Are you deeply concerned for your neighborhood? Your city? Your country? How about the state of our world? Are you troubled by the plight of refugees? Does human trafficking break your heart? Are you haunted by images of starving people? Do you feel burdened by people who don’t know Jesus? What about the state of the Church? Is your own congregation effective in God’s mission?

It’s not healthy to feel deep discontent over everything that’s wrong. Yet loving the world, our Lord seeks to ignite every heart with the passion needed to remedy something.

My Discontent

Several decades ago, I was overcome with holy discontent as a pastor. A year previous, I had moved from a smaller congregation to a larger one. There was much to appreciate about my new parish—a beautiful beachside community populated by high-tech workers. Neither a retirement haven nor a tourist trap, its multi-generational demographics were unusual for coastal Florida. The congregation was strong. I followed a successful pastorate. My family and I were warmly welcomed. What’s not to like?

Yet in this ideal setting, I soon experienced discontent. While privileged to lead a core of sincere Christ-followers, the majority of our membership bore telltale signs of spiritual shallowness. Other than attracting them to worship services, our congregation didn’t seem to have significant influence in peoples’ lives. This ineffectiveness was evident as we tracked the participation of new members. If thirty newcomers joined the church, ten seemed to disappear within a few months and ten more merely lingered at the margins of congregational life. Perhaps ten of the original thirty became active in Christian community. While .333 is a great batting average in baseball, it was discouraging to affect such a small portion. Much more than baseball was at stake.

Jim Collins wrote that a key step in organizational health is for leaders to “face the brutal facts.”1 Instead of making excuses for malaise, the Holy Spirit cultivated my passion and courage. After I named our weaknesses to the church’s elders, we agreed to search for remedies. Seeking insights from pastors of effective churches, my colleagues and I discovered a conference that provided a strategy that was biblical, workable, and adaptable to my congregation’s core values. Within months we sat amidst a vast crowd. The conference was a watershed. We gained insights and learned techniques that would transform our congregation. Yet my key experience was an epiphany in a bathroom.

Bathroom Barkers

Between sessions, most of the three thousand attendees would make a beeline for the restrooms. I found myself in a line that stretched far outside the men’s room door. To my relief, the church hosting the conference had bathroom “barkers!” Cheerful voices rang out: “This stall is free!” or “Space available, no reservation required!” Positioned before the long row of toilets were four ushers who insured that each was utilized efficiently.

Assuming that these men were church staff, I declared, “Whatever they pay you guys is not enough.” One replied, “Ha, you couldn’t pay me to do this. I’m an accountant. I serve on the Bathroom Hospitality Team. I took paid leave to help with this conference.”

Suddenly a ray of hope pierced my discontent. If the ministry model being taught could transform self-centered suburbanites into selfless volunteers who served in smelly bathrooms, our search was over. Recalling this experience provided me and my colleagues with energy and courage needed to make costly (even controversial) changes. On every level, the quality and scope of our church’s impact increased dramatically.

It’s been twenty years since that bathroom epiphany. Since then waves of holy discontent have propelled me to new forms of hope-building.


We cannot obsess over everything that needs improving. While every broken place in creation matters to God, it’s unhealthy for mortals to attempt to shoulder all the world’s problems. As bearers of Holy Spirit, neither can we ignore the world’s brokenness. God’s passion to bring His Kingdom to earth make Jesus’ disciples passionate for some particular cause and corner of God’s world. We can trust our gracious Lord to help us discern where its best to invest our energies. God doesn’t want to burden us with more than we can bear.

Let God harness your holy discontent. May God use you to cultivate holy discontent in others.

1 Jim Collins, Good to Great (New York: Harper Business, 2001), 51

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