Review of Bill Hybels, Holy Discontent: Fueling the Fire that Ignites Personal Vision. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007.
What really sets you off? What are the things in life that really get your blood boiling? In this short, provocative, and easy-to-read book, Willow Creek’s Bill Hybels uses his pastoral fluency to challenge the reader to consider what he calls their “holy discontent,” which consists of a sort of God-given righteous indignation and to channel this discontent in positive directions. The back-cover blurb summarizes the book very concisely: “Hybels invites you to consider the dramatic impact your life will have when you willingly convert the frustration of your holy discontent into fuel for changing the world.”
Before I proceed with the review I should offer a bit of context. I saw the title at the bookstore at Gardendale’s First Baptist Church in Gardendale, Alabama on July 13, 2008, and it stuck out for two reasons. First, I had a passing familiarity with Hybels and his ministry. Second, Gardendale pastor Kevin Hamm had just given a message on contentment based on a passage from Philippians 4. From the promotional text on the book jacket it appeared that the book would address a lot of issues in which I am interested.
I found the book to be both timely and revolutionary. It asks a set of questions and teaches lessons that are important to Christians and non-Christians alike. Life is frustrating, and unfocused rage can be exhausting. So how can we channel our discontent in more positive directions?
Hybels bases his book around a very simple question: “why do people do what they do?” This is based on a simple observation: people expend a lot of time, effort, and energy to change the world, and not always in ways that render material benefits. In the language of the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, people act in order to remove “felt uneasiness” or to transform their environment into one that they find more suitable.
What Mises calls “felt uneasiness” Hybels calls “holy discontent,” and he compares it to and contrasts it against the spiritual principle of contentment. Contentment and holy discontent are somewhere along the spectrum between inert complacency and unthinking, unfocused rage. Holy discontent is a motivation to action that is tempered by the Holy Spirit.
Hybels illustrates his points with Biblical patterns and twentieth century examples, noting for example that Moses became useful to God because of the injustices he observed and could not stand (pp. 20-21). I should mention here that Moses was motivated by holy discontent, but when he tried to take care of business by his own ideas and his own methods, he failed miserably, sacrificing his credibility with the nation of Israel by killing an Egyptian.
The failures of our Biblical examples are encouraging, and Hybels encourages us to take God’s perspective on our fellow man. Every person should be labeled “work in progress,” and it should be unsurprising (and un-discouraging) when our zeal for God’s house issues in mistakes and shortcomings.
To use a more modern pattern, Hybels discusses the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example of someone taking something he could stand no more and effecting change. Even today, people delight in pointing out King’s personal and professional failures. Indeed, there was much in King’s politics, economics, and personal life that was objectionable. But the same applies to King David, whose failures and shortcomings are immortalized as part of Holy Writ. We shouldn’t infer from this that God excuses everything; rather, we should take comfort from this in the knowledge that God can use people in spite of their failures and shortcomings. That Dr. King was imperfect should surprise no one. That God used him in spite of this to usher in a peaceful revolution in the way the United States conceives of the proposition that all men are created equal should inspire everyone.
Most of the remainder of the book consists of examples and applications. He discusses the fire in some hearts for children’s ministry, women’s ministry, poverty alleviation, revival, and other matters. His discussion of children’s ministry was especially compelling as he pointed out the workers at Willow Creek who, taking the view that some percentage of the children at Willow Creek on any given Sunday are, have been, or will be abused, seek to provide an environment in which the kids can be comforted, cared for, and loved. The trials and travails of daily life that seem so important fade to black when God shines his light on real injustice and others’ pain.
Hybels’s goal is to help people channel their deep discontent—and such discontent can be healthy—into effective action, noting on pages 50 and 51 that there has to be a purpose for our lives between salvation and death. Quoting Ephesians 2:10, Hybels notes that we are to dedicate ourselves to good works. This point can be summarized in the following passage from page 41:
Truly there’s nothing more inspiring than a person who transforms something he just can’t stand into the kind of positive energy that advances restoration in the world. This is what’s at work every time a check gets sent from a grateful heart to a worthy cause, all in the name of “doing good” in the world. It’s what’s at work every time a person steps into a church or a civic center or a reliev agency’s tent with an “I’m here to serve” attitude—and does so after logging forty or sixty or eighty hours at their “real” job each week. It’s also what’s at work when that real job is more than a path to a paycheck; it is an avenue for releasing a little pent-up holy discontent tension.
Incubating clarity takes time, though. Hybels advises baby steps (pp. 67-68) while at the same time advising a resolute forward march against the Goliaths of our lives (pp. 70-71). He counsels a conscientious and self-aware view of the areas where we really think we need to see change. Rather than fighting the impulses we feel when something really drives us crazy, he suggests that we feed rather than fight the missional feelings that God gives us. He cites further the example of U2’s Bono, a rock star who has no doubt made many rock star mistakes but who shines as a “1000-watt bulb,” to paraphrase Hybels, and as a living expression of his faith. I disagree with Bono about a great many things related to economic development policy, but his earnestness and his willingness to seek out wise counsel (such as Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs) are admirable.
Here I diverge from a traditional review and consider some of the take-home points I have gleaned from this book. Business writer Seth Godin has suggested that one should not read a business book without resolving to change at least three things as a result. Here I echo this advice. Holy Discontent is not a business book per se, but it is a call to action. I would like to combine Hybels’s message with some of the things I have learned as an economist to help the reader formulate an action plan that can complement the book.
With respect to good works, we should think hard and have a nuanced understanding of what we seek to change. This requires that we seek wise counsel. I mentioned earlier that I think Bono’s views about the process of economic development are incorrect (and have gone on record to this effect), but he has done something that few celebrity activists have done. He sought the assistance of the very best; indeed, his relationship with development economist Jeffrey Sachs resulted in Bono’s writing the introduction for Sachs’s book The End of Poverty. I am more inclined to fall on the other side of the development debate, agreeing primarily with New York University economist William Easterly, but we should all follow Bono’s example by seeking to develop a nuanced understanding of the problems we seek to solve.
We should also “see then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, for the days are evil,” continuing steadfastly in prayer and fellowship (Ephesians 5:15-16). The world will fill all of our time with demands on our attention, which means that we will often be tempted to put off the things that are important in order to take care of things which are merely urgent. This suggests two action steps.
We would all do well to take an inventory of our commitments and of the things that create in us a sense of holy discontent. Then we should apply what has come to be known as the “80/20 rule,” a rule developed based on the writings of the Italian economist Vilifredo Pareto. Pareto pointed out an interesting empirical regularity: approximately eighty percent of output comes from about twenty percent of inputs, and approximately eighty percent of problems come from about twenty percent of inputs. This suggests that we should look for and seek to develop the twenty percent of our commitments that create eighty percent of our meaningful results while discarding the commitments we have that are very heavy on the inputs but very light on the output.
This requires a degree of discipline, review, and reflection that I, quite honestly, have struggled to implement. Particularly as technology changes and as we become more productive, the demands on our time will only increase. The temptation to sacrifice what is important and productive in order to do things that are trivial and perhaps unproductive can be, at times, overwhelming. Over time, however, we can develop the discipline necessary to change the things that create in us a sense of holy discontent.
In my estimation, Bill Hybels has written a very important book. It is by no means a “how to” manual on dealing with holy discontent, but it offers a scriptural and practical foundation on which to build our lives and ministries. Hybels’s book is short and easy to read, and in this sense it is a literary manifestation of Shakespeare’s idea that “brevity is the soul of wit.” The book has changed my outlook on life, and I expect it will do the same for others, too.