Bring Your Pain

It’s the middle of the day as I sit down to write this article. The most interesting thing is happening outside my window here in Azusa, California. 

It’s raining. 

Now, I know that’s not a big deal in most parts of the country because you get a regular, healthy season of rain, but in California we’ve been experiencing a drought forever, and we’ve never seen this much rain, at least in my generation. I’ve lived here for 16 years, and this is the most rain and hail, and even snow at times, that I’ve seen here in Southern California.

It’s challenging because although we need the rain, we don’t know what to do with this much rain. People don’t know how to drive on the freeways with this much rain. Traffic is already bad here. Now it’s even worse. Folks are having to figure out what to do with this white powder that has descended upon their driveways. Mudslides are also an issue. It makes everything a little bit harder and more challenging. 

It’s been a long rainy season in Southern California. The days are longer. Mobilization is more challenged. The rain is hard. 

When the Season Won’t Change

The interesting thing is, the other day was the first day of spring. The season has changed, and there should be new expectations now. Flowers should be budding, and a beautiful sun should be shining. I know in places like Chicago, spring means something different, but out here it means, Oh, it’s time for spring break. Let’s open up the beach. Let’s head to Disneyland. Let’s go outside. Let’s enjoy the beautiful mountains. The problem is, although it’s spring, it’s still raining.

It feels the same in my leadership. I feel like it’s been raining for a couple of years now, and everything is just harder in the rain. I feel like what was easier to do a few years ago, that same thing is now more difficult to do. To accomplish the same results, it feels like I’m having to work twice as hard. And it feels like relationships are harder, friendships are harder, executing ministry is harder, getting volunteers is harder, helping people stay encouraged is harder. It feels like it’s just raining in ministry and in life, and everything is more challenging in this season.

And the struggle is, I feel like there’s a new season, there’s a new opportunity. We’re in a different time. And although a new season has been announced, I’m still feeling the rain from the old season, whether it was the COVID-19 pandemic, racial tensions in our country or political tensions in our country. It feels like we’re in a new season. But as I look out, it’s still raining.

Alone at the Well

I have been sitting with John 4 for many years. It’s one of my favorite go-to passages. And in a time of study, I went back to that passage and suddenly, I read it in this season in a way unlike I’d ever read it before. 

Whenever I look at a passage or I read a story or even watch a movie, I am always thinking about which character is most like me. Subconsciously, I just go there. I just saw Creed III, a spinoff from the Rocky movie series. Now, when I was a kid, when I would watch Rocky, I was Rocky. I would jump up and swing my arms like I was him. When I watch Creed III, I see myself as Michael B. Jordan. Yes, I am him. I see myself like that, even afterward. I feel like going to work out, and then I realize abruptly that I am not him, and I go sit down and eat a sandwich. So, when I read stories, I tend to read myself into the characters.

In John 4, I’ve always read myself as maybe one of the disciples or as the character of Jesus extending care and compassion to someone who is overlooked. But in this season, ironically, I find myself identifying with the Samaritan woman more than ever before. She comes to the well at a time when no one else is there because I imagine her life is marked with shame, with guilt, with disappointment, with fractured relationships. She probably had friends that she no longer has. She has relationships that have now been broken, and she’s coming to the well alone to get what she needs, but to avoid people at all costs.

If I’m honest, this has been a season of ministry when I have identified with those characteristics more than ever before. Sometimes my friendships are challenged because I honestly didn’t have time to show up well for them. Exhausted and weary of ministry, it is hard to be a good friend to anybody else. Not only that, but sometimes people just assume that you are strong, that you have got it figured out, so they don’t think you need the support that you actually do need.

At our church, I have experienced people leaving because of something that they got offended by or something that they didn’t agree with. Then I was reminded, Oh, I was their pastor at their church, but I wasn’t a personal friend because they didn’t call like a friend would, and they didn’t walk away as a friend. They walked away as a church member. And I feel that. And you feel that. And honestly, people tell you that you shouldn’t take any of this stuff personally. But by the time they tell me that, they are too late. I have already started to take it personally. Because it is personal. You feel the pain, you feel the disappointment, you feel the hurt.

Heart’s Not in It

The problem is, most leaders don’t get a chance to hurt. And if you hurt, you tend to hurt in isolation. The danger with that is you begin to assume this false narrative. I’d probably be more effective as a leader if I didn’t have to deal with so much disappointment that came from relationships. So, you begin to isolate yourself from relationships in an effort to guard your heart. You begin to come to the well and say, “Let me get what I need, but let me not deal with people.”

You begin to preach without heart, because you say to yourself, I’ll show up and preach, and I’ll show up and do what I need to do, but I’m not going to bring my heart. I’ll show up and lead, and I’ll oversee the staff, but I’m not going to bring my heart. I’ll grab this life group and I’ll facilitate all the things that are necessary to execute it, but I’m not going to bring my heart. Because once your heart is hurt, it’s a natural response, it’s a natural reaction, it’s self-preservation to guard your heart and to lock it away.

The danger of that is obvious, right? You become a heartless leader, and God did not call you or me to be a heartless leader. Our heart must be engaged. C.S. Lewis has a quote that stopped me in my tracks when I read it. It exposed the natural default setting of my heart, and it woke me up to the reality of the need not to come to this well alone. In The Four Loves he writes: 

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell.”

Not Supposed to Be Here

The Samaritan woman was at the well trying her best to guard her heart, and I understand that. I get it, and I know why she is there alone. If you are a leader and you find yourself coming to the well desiring more isolation, avoiding the crowds, not wanting to engage with people, I get it and I know why you are there. The most beautiful thing about this story is that while she is there, she is overwhelmingly surprised that Jesus is there too.

Her first reaction shows her surprise. She looks at him, and for all intents and purposes, she says, “You’re not supposed to be here. You are a Jew and I’m a Samaritan, and Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. You’re not supposed to be here. You don’t even have a cup to draw water from this well. You’re not supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be here in isolation and loneliness and hiding and getting what I need and going back. You are not supposed to be here. What are you doing here?”

I think as you look up in the midst of leading without heart, leading in challenging times, leading in the midst of rain, leading in the midst of discouragement, you should be encouraged to know—and I have been encouraged to discover—Jesus is right here. And he’s in places where he’s just not supposed to be. 

You’re not supposed to be here in my depression. You’re not supposed to be here in my discouragement. You’re not supposed to be here in my bitterness. You’re not supposed to be here in my shame for how I have shown up or my disappointment with how I didn’t show up when I thought I should have shown up better. You’re just not supposed to be here. But here is Jesus saying, I must go to Samaria. I need to go to the rainy place. I must go to the well. I need to come to your place of isolation. I must come to your place of bitterness. I must go through Samaria. I must come here. 

The woman has this encounter with Jesus, and he begins to tell her, “You’re not supposed to be here. I’m only here because of you, and you are not supposed to be here. You’re not supposed to be walking in shame and isolation. You weren’t created for that. You were made for more than that. You’re not supposed to be here in this place of bitterness and disappointment and your decisions, and the decisions that have been made against you. You are not supposed to be here either.”

The One You’re Looking For

Jesus invites her into an opportunity where she will never have to be there again. He wants to do something supernatural. Where she is struggling in the practical, his answer is in the supernatural. “I want to do something so supernatural for you that you’ll never have to come back here again. You are coming here with your water jar to receive water, but that’s going to run out. Your strategy is limited and temporal, and it’s not going to sustain you. But what I have for you will sustain you, and it will fulfill the deepest longings of your soul.”

She’s like, “What do I need to do?” And he says, “Go get your husband. Go get that area in your life that’s been the source of pain and disappointment and guilt and shame.” She says, “I have no husband.” He says, “You are right. You don’t have a husband. As a matter of fact, you had five and the one you are with now is not your husband. But I want that area of your life. Give me the area that is broken. Give me the area that is disappointing. Give me the area that is frail.”

She then begins to talk about, “Well, you think I’m supposed to worship at this mountain, but Jews say I’m supposed to worship here.” In essence, she says, “We’ve got a religious problem.” He says, “No, we don’t have a religious problem. You worship what you do not know. Salvation is from the Jews.” In other words, “I’m bringing you salvation.” And then she says, “Well, it’s all confusing, but when the Messiah comes, it’ll all get worked out.” And then she hears the words that we all long to hear: “The one you are seeking, the one you are looking for, I am he.”

He says, “It’s not about where you worship, but it’s about how you worship and how you worship in spirit and in truth. And I have come to see you. I have come to be present with you. I have come to rescue you from this strategy of depletion that you’re stuck in, and I have come to deliver you from this community of isolation where you are showing up without heart. I have come to save you. Every man you’ve ever encountered has always used you. Every single man. There are six men that we can count that have used you. Well, today, you’ve met the seventh man, and I don’t want to use you. I just want you.” 

She leaves her water jar and runs into the city receiving his overwhelming love and his indwelling spring of new life springing forth.

On days like today, when the rain is still here but the season has changed, I am so encouraged that Jesus is right here too. If you feel like a new season has come, but you are still stuck in the rain of the old, I want to invite you to open your eyes and see Jesus is right there in the midst of the rain. 

One of the pastors at our church, Michael Field, says, “What if Jesus doesn’t just want to use you? What if you discover in this season that he just wants you?” So I know it’s hard, it’s rainy. But just know that in this season, maybe it will be marked more by his presence than your productivity. Even in the rain, know that he wants you. Give him your heart.

Albert Tate is the co-founder and lead pastor of Fellowship Church in Monrovia, California; a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church; and the author of How We Love Matters and Disobedient God (both Hachette).

Albert Tate
Albert Tate

Albert Tate is the co-founder and lead pastor of Fellowship Church in Monrovia, California; a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church; and the author of How We Love Matters and Disobedient God (both Hachette).