Holy Discontent

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

Today I came across this prayer from Robert Raines:

“O God, make me discontented with things the way they are in the world and in my own life. Make me notice the stains when people get spilled on. Make me care about the slum child downtown, the misfit at work, the people crammed into the mental hospital, the men, women, and youth behind bars. Jar my complacence, expose my excuses, get me involved in the life of my city and world. Give me integrity, once more, O God, as we seek to be changed and transformed, with a new understanding and awareness of our common humanity.” (Wittenberg Door, 1971)

Discontent becomes a holy gift when it pushes us toward change. It causes us to notice all that is wrong, the structures and systems that cause pain and keep injustice alive and well. To be restless is not to be wrong in this context.

I have always thought of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount as speaking about grief, about a sense of being defeated by life, maybe a kind of “defeated” spirit flowing from a life that has gotten the best of me one way or another. The greek word for ‘”poor” is ptochoi — miserable, oppressed, lowly, destitute, afflicted, humiliated.

But I’m wondering about the poverty of spirit that comes and is engaged, voluntarily — that is, not the results of life’s journey and pain just for me, but the miserable oppression and humiliation of others in the world that bothers me deeply, that troubles my spirit. In this sense, it’s interesting to read the beatitudes as an expression of our corporate “un-doneness” from all the pain, all the sorrow, all the tragedy, all the suffering, all the poverty going on in the world. All the poverty in the world sinks into my spirit. Here the text not primarily about me (though I have my own sadnesses and sorrows) but about you, about others, about neighbors, about all the sorrows of the world.

That’s holy discontent, a blessing according to Jesus, a kind of willingness to take on the sorrows of our broken world with a vision of how they might be soothed in the here and now, and find their end in the kingdom of heaven. To care deeply about the world’s poverty and work for its end is a blessed life indeed, albeit painful.

I’m thinking about that oft forgotten moment after the grand parade of Palm Sunday, when Jesus leans out over the city and weeps, and says, “If only you knew the things that make for peace!” (Luke 19:41). Here is Jesus, roundly celebrated as king, choosing to embrace a poverty of spirit for the city he looks over. And then he gets to work redeeming it.

It all sounds rather bleak and morbid, a lot like the weather these days. But listen to what Diana Butler Bass says, in her book Christianity After Religion: “Religious Discontent is indistinguishable from the history of spiritual renewal and awakening. Religion is often characterized as contentment, the idea that faith and faithfulness offer peace, security, and certainty. In this mode, God is depicted in kindly ways, the church as an escape from the cares and stresses of the world…But religion has another guise as well — the prophetic tradition. In the prophetic mode, faith discomforts the members of a community, opens their eyes and hearts to the shortcomings of their own lives and injustice in the world, and presses for human society to more fully embody God’s dream of healing and love for all people. (p. 88).

To walk around this world with the love of Christ in our hearts leaves us no other choice than to carry the burden of religious discontent, to find ourselves poor in spirit. And Christ, who died for us and our world, calls us to the same work. So don’t allow yourself to be numbed from the pain around you. And work with self-sacrifice to make thing right.

For all its struggle, this is what Jesus calls a blessed life. What do you think?

Love from here

Peter Hawkinson

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