Restlessness makes a fairly common appearance at our house. Maybe it’s because my husband and I are both idealists (things could be better—let’s fix them!) or strategists (things could run better—let’s help them!) or lovers of adventure (I’m bored—let’s do something crazy!), but learning to identify the role of restlessness in our decision-making has been critical through the years.
Earlier in our marriage when my husband would start talking about his restlessness and brainstorming about new opportunities, I would glaze over. All I could think about was what this could mean for our family: Increased travel? Solo parenting? A move? I then started poking holes in all his ideas, trying to talk him into why he shouldn’t be restless. He ended up deflated, left to figure out what was stirring in his heart on his own. I ended up feeling like the big kill joy trying to keep him rooted to reality. It was not a good dynamic.
Most of us have experienced restlessness in some degree; it’s as if your soul has gotten wiggly and you can’t find any internal stillness. Conversations or tasks or people that you used to love may become boring, then downright irritating. You disengage emotionally, maybe even physically. Your commitment to the job/person/project starts to wane. You might feel guilty because your heart isn’t in it anymore. Then, depending on your personality, you either jump ship or hunker down and push through.
The problem is, many people never really explore what is at the heart of their discontent; and we are not very good about helping others explore their discontent either!
Not all restlessness is bad. In fact, that internal squirminess is one of the very common signs that you are heading into a transition. When we work with people in vocational transition, we are always listening for the undertones of what we call “holy discontent.”
Holy discontent is a sense of feeling dissatisfied and unsettled with your current situation that usually is a sign we need to move toward change or growth in a relationship, a job, a role, or a situation.
These changes might include a need for one or more of the following:
A new job or role change (As we say in our house, “I need a new mountain to climb!”)
An infusion of new life—ideas, energy, or people, into your world
A call to action to engage with some part of the brokenness around you
A change in how you are relating with someone in your life
Exploring an area of gifting (some of us are called to stir the pot when things get stagnant!)
Holy discontent is the stuff that changes our little world and the world at large. In fact, all forms of social change began with someone feeling restless with the status quo. Bill Hybels describes holy discontent as a climactic moment where our uneasy spirit about some form of brokenness in the world connects in some way with the heart of God and spurs us on to become an agent of change. And sometimes it is dramatic. But just as often our restlessness grows slowly and quietly until we cannot ignore it any longer. Lean in and explore what is happening in your unsettled heart.
But before we give complete carte blanche to all forms of restlessness, be aware that certain types of restlessness need to be sifted before we act on them. There is a difference between a restlessness calling us toward growth, healthy risk, and change, and just plain discontent—a perpetual restlessness linked to craving something we don’t have or avoidance of something painful.
Just about every August I get restless about sending my kids back to their school. I’m convinced there is a better option for our girls…somewhere. Because homeschooling is illegal in Spain, our kids have bounced around to several international schools trying to find one that aligns better with our philosophy of life and education. Consequently, our oldest went to five different schools in five years (with two moves factored in).
Every year my husband patiently waits out my tirades and brainstorming (let’s homeschool as we travel around to war zones with the kids!), but eventually we stay the course. Wrapped up in all that restlessness is a lot of junk: Disappointment with our options. Sadness that my girls are not having an American high school experience. Frustration with the rigidity of the systems available to us.
And once I wade through the mess, I find a different invitation than taking a risk and making a change. My restlessness presents me with an opportunity to choose stability and receive an imperfect system. And believe it or not, that takes more faith for us sometimes than doing something wild and crazy.
Your restlessness—holy or not—is speaking to you. Ignoring it doesn’t usually work. Unchecked and unexplored restlessness can lead to a critical spirit, instability, fear of commitment, poor work ethic, consumerism, and impulsivity in moving on to something new. It’s worth taking the time to unpack what is underneath it.
WHAT ABOUT YOU?
Where are you feeling restless in your life? What might some of the invitations be in your holy discontent? Where are you called to choose stability?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amy Galloway and her husband, Alex, have three teenage daughters and live in Málaga, Spain. They serve together on CRM’s Staff Care and Development Team, running a hub for missionaries that provides counseling, training, leadership and transition coaching, and spiritual direction. Amy writes a blog on life transitions called Beautiful Upheaval, where this reflection was originally posted.