I woke up a couple mornings ago with a vivid recollection of a dream; the details were already fuzzy, but the emotional content remained strong. I was among a small group of people, and we were being asked to consider the problem of homelessness together. I found myself backing away internally, feeling overwhelmed by the scope of the problem and inadequate to offer any solutions.
But the facilitator, sensing my reluctance, urged me to stay lean in. “If you’re just willing to hold the problem wholeheartedly, to feel the pain and tension embedded in this crisis, and to feel your own vulnerability in the face of the brokenness it represents…it will begin to change you.” And I woke up.
Life is chock full of painful situations. Perhaps not all operate at the same scale as homelessness, but we are confronted by them nevertheless. An unsatisfying career, a broken relationship, a dying relative, a painful dynamic with your spouse that you can’t seem to fix. A long list of sufferings, small and large, parades in front of our lives day by day…and that’s before we get to the tidal wave of pain reported by newscasters. What to do?
The more personal and perplexing the problem, the more we are tempted to distance ourselves from it emotionally. It’s human nature—and we’re good at finding ways to dodge the uncomfortable feelings they elicit. We jump back into the familiar demands of work; we distract ourselves with the next episode on Netflix; we may reach for an extra shot of whiskey or an elicit relationship…all to avoid a source of pain.
For myself that morning, the pain point was a difficult relationship where I felt a conflux of negative emotions from powerlessness to frustration to an almost panicky urge to flee. And into that anxious space I felt God appeal to my heart: don't run away, don’t resist. Instead lean in! Pain will be your teacher if you allow it.
I began to look at the hard questions: What is it about me that makes this relationship so difficult? How is my false self rising in response to anxiety? What would a true self response look like? How does God want to form something good in me out of this painful situation?
And it happened. As a result of leaning in, I felt God deepening my capacity for compassion, offloading false responsibilities, and embracing a wider scope of grace—both for myself and for others. And none of that might have transpired without the painful situation I was so eager to avoid.
Ready to try this for yourself? At any moment in time, there is probably more than one painful situation confronting your soul. Pick one. In fact, pick the one that you are most inclined to resist. What would it look like to “lean in” to that situation? What is the question God is asking you about it? Where is the life and the learning in this dilemma—how can it be your teacher?
Don’t run away from the pain.