Thank you again for generously providing me with two weeks of study break every year! It is a tremendous gift to have undistracted time to devote to seeking God and working on projects that I otherwise might not get to. As I mentioned on Sunday, my two-week retreat in the woods of southern Ohio was supremely blessed by God, and I have no doubt that it was in large measure the result of your faithful and fervent prayers. Thank you for praying for me! Over those ten days of monkish seclusion, I experienced God carrying me along in a peculiar way. I’ve never been so helped in writing in my life, and God used my writing project to do a profound work in my own soul. I feel personally revived and restlessly hungry for a deeper work of grace in my life and in our church.
I wanted to share with you an excerpt of the book I was able to write during study break entitled Dissatisfied Devotion: An Urgent Call to Godward Discontentment. Here is a portion of the introduction:
“Restlessness is discontent and discontent is the first necessity of progress. Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure.”
Those are the words of the mastermind, Thomas Edison. Throughout his career, Edison was awarded 1,093 U.S. patents for his multiplicity of inventions. At his death, he left behind over 4,000 notebooks containing detailed records of his tireless drive after innovation.
As I write, an electric bulb hangs over my head, illuminating my desk. An electric bulb lies hidden behind the screen of my MacBook, illuminating my word processor. The lightbulb was not invented by Thomas Edison, but it was revolutionized by him. In 1878, he filed a patent application for “Improvement In Electric Lights.” At this time, electric bulbs had a very short life-span and were very expensive. Edison set out to change that, and through his invention of a carbon-filament bulb which was both durable and economical, electric light became a commonplace entity in America and around the world.
What drove Edison to labor after the improvement of electric bulbs? Discontentment. He was simply not satisfied with their present low quality and high cost. That restless agitation of soul drove him to seek after progress. Had he, along with the rest of humankind, been content with the bleak state of electric bulbs in the late nineteenth century, the average person would have no access to electric light today.
Discontent was arguably what fueled every one of Edison’s ideas and inventions. His stubborn refusal to become “a thoroughly satisfied man” was what made him such a prolific success. In Edison’s estimation, nothing was more detrimental than embracing the allusion that the human race had arrived. There was always more to discover, design, and develop. There was always progress to be made. His vision of better things to come provoked within him a restlessness which drove him to his dying day.
Discontent is the necessary precondition of progress. If humans had been content with the outhouse and the bedpan, we wouldn’t have indoor plumbing. If they had been content with the stagecoach, we wouldn’t have automobiles and airplanes. If they had been content with sleepless nights in sweltering heat, we wouldn’t have fans and air conditioning units. Think of any of the modern day innovations we enjoy—all of them were born out of discontentment. In His common grace, God stirs up a productive restlessness in the hearts of men and women whom He gifts to make innovative progress in society. Without it, the human race may well not have survived into the 21st century.
The book in your hands is about human progress, but not in the way Edison conceived of it. I’m not seeking to promote progress in technology, medicine, economics, education, or politics. While I’m deeply grateful for those making strides in these areas for the general good of humanity, these common grace blessings have not actually led to human progress in the ultimate sense. For given that humans are created in the image of God, true human progress is always progress toward God. And given the fall into sin, true human progress requires nothing less than God’s saving grace transforming sinners in Jesus Christ. Tragically, however, humanity’s innovative brilliance has often led society away from God and His saving grace and toward the idols of self-exaltation and self-salvation (cf. Gen. 11:1–9). Not everything that goes by the name of progress is truly progress.
Dissatisfied Devotion is unto the promotion of progress toward God in Christ. So why begin with Thomas Edison and lightbulbs? Because, though not a Christian, Edison is an exemplary illustration of the fact that progress results from dissatisfaction and rarely occurs without it. That is true when it comes to technological advance, but it is equally true when it comes to spiritual advance. To slightly modify Edison’s assertion, “Show me a thoroughly satisfied Christian and I will show you a spiritual failure.” True spiritual progress is born out of a holy discontentment.
The burden of this book is that Godward desire is the necessary precondition of spiritual progress. Biblical spirituality pulsates with God-exalting dissatisfaction, and it perishes without it. That is why the call of Dissatisfied Devotion is urgent. For ordinarily, we only make progress toward God to the degree we desire it. If Edison had been content with candles and kerosine lanterns, he never would have developed a commercial incandescent bulb. If you and I are content with low levels of spirituality, we will never press on into the bright prospect of spiritual progress.
Spiritual complacency is one of our most dangerous foes and one of Satan’s chief devices. Just as discontentment can be godless, so too can contentment. Complacency is a godless content, and one reason it is so dangerous is its subtlety. It can live and even thrive behind great religious externals. It infects Christians that hold fast to God-centered theology but smugly rest in their confessional orthodoxy as if it is an end in itself and not a means to an end of knowing God and reflecting Him. It infects churches that promote God-ordered worship but smugly rest in their adherence to the regulative principle without any concern as to whether the Spirit of God is actively working in their midst through the ordinary means of grace. It infects pastors and elders that shepherd the sheep entrusted to their care but smugly rest in the confines of their fold and never venture out in the uncomfortable pursuit of lost sheep. Spiritual complacency lulls us into a lackadaisical comatose, and sadly multitudes of Christians and churches succumb to Satan’s soothing lullaby only to never wake up again.
To be thoroughly satisfied in your present knowledge of God, likeness to God, and service of God equals the death of individual spiritual progress. To be thoroughly satisfied in your church’s present worship, fellowship, and witness equals the death of corporate spiritual progress.
We must wake up! For those who are not making spiritual progress are spiritually stagnating. It might be hard to see given the veneer of external religiosity that often continues unabated, but if we are not moving forward in an experiential knowing and serving of God, then we are most certainly moving backward. Our spirituality is never static. Unwarranted spiritual satisfaction always results in spiritual declension.
Yours in Him,