Aristotle once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is in a great battle.”
Are you in a battle today?
Each of us comes from a different background. Yet, one of the things which unites us is pain. Struggle. Suffering. While these occur for us at varying degrees, we’ve all been wounded, defeated and hurt.
The Process We Cannot Escape
In Susan Howatch’s novel, Absolute Truths, the sculptor, Harriet March, reflects on the intersection between her work and pain, including why she won’t let go of either.
“But no matter how much the mess and distortion make you want to despair, you can’t abandon the work because you’re chained to the bloody thing. It’s absolutely woven into your soul and you know you can never rest unitl you’ve brought truth out of all the distorition and beauty out of all the mess – but it’s agony – agony, agony, agony – while simultaneously being the most wonderful and rewarding experence in the world – and that’s the creative process which so few people understand.”
“The creative process.” Regardless of whethere you consider yourself “creative”, we are all well-acquainted with this process. We all know “the process.” It’s the space between our dream and reality, between our plan and the final outcome. It’s the gap between our goal weight and our actual weight. “The process” is what happens between deciding to get out of credit card debt and being able to scream “I’m debt free!”
When writing about this subject, pastor and author Steven Furtick said, “Between the promise and the payoff is a process.” The promise is the beginning. The payoff is the end. And the process is the messy middle.
Most of us throw in the towel in the middle. We’re full of ambition and optimism in the beginning, but like a boat crossing the ocean, we find ourselves at sea. Unable to see the shore we left nor the shore of our destination, we feel lost and confused, like a little child asking, “Are we there yet?”
What happens in the middle of the scary ocean?
Preparation. As we travel to our destination (what Furtick called “the payoff”), we are prepared. In my experience, there is no preparation without pain. In fact, I believe everything between promise and the payoff is preparation. Even the pain prepares us to be the kind of people we need to be when we “land.” In fact, I think that’s sometimes why God makes us wait. We need to become a different kind of person along the way.
Consider David. In the Bible, the story is told of a young shepherd boy named David. A priest named Samuel anoints him as the future king of Israel at age 16. However, it is nearly two decades between David’s anointing and the day he takes the throne. In the twenty years between his anointing and his appointing, David experiences incredible pain and preparation. The current king, Saul, tries to kill him multiple times. David spends years on the run, hiding in caves. He learns about God, himself and others in ways he would’ve never known had he become king at 16.
Those twenty years were full of struggle and preparation. If we’re honest, most of us would much rather read David’s story than experience it ourselves.
The Secret Truth About The Process and Pain
Harriet March, the sculptor we heard from earleir, talks about that too. She said…
“It (the creative process) involves an indestructible sort of fidelity, an insane sort of hope, and indescribable sort of…well, it’s love isn’t it? There’s no other word for it…and don’t throw Mozart at me…I know he claimed his creative process was no more than a form of automatic writing, but the truth was he sweated and slaved and died young giving birth to all that music. He poured himself out and suffered. That’s the way it is. That’s creation...You can’t create without waste and mess and sure undiluted slog. You can’t create without pain. It’s all part of the process.“
Pain. It’s part of the process. Pain and preparation are intimately connected.
So, what gets us through the middle? What sustains us through the pain?
Perseverance is what gets us through phases of preparation. We want to run away from it. But the only way to our dreams is through the pain and process, not around it.
According to Angela Duckworth, grit is the single most determining factor of human success. Duckworth defines grit as “the tendency to sustain interest and effort toward very long-term goals.” In her best-selling book on grit, she acknowledges this sustained interest and effort can be thriving at times and wavering at other times. But the nature of grit is that it perseveres regardless.
Despite the number of posts we make on social media each day, we don’t regularly let others see us in the middle of a situation where grit carries us. Duckworth writes, “Nobody wants to show you the hours and hours of becoming. They’d rather show you the highlight of what they’ve become.” We rarely Instagram or tweet from the struggle, in the middle of the race. We filter our favorite photos of the finish line. We take selfies with our gold medals, having won the race.
Why is that? Why are we so enamored with the achievement, not the road to it? I think the secret is another P word – patience.
What Preaching Taught Me About Patience
As a pastor, I get commentary on my sermons each week. I’ve had people compliment me on my sermons. I appreciate the feedback and responses – I’ve just spent hours crafting a talk and I want to know if I was effective. I laugh to myself, though, when people make comments about how they don’t expect someone so young to be a good communicator (I’m now in my early 30s). It’s one of those compliments you’re not sure if it’s not also a cut. I try to explain to them that I’m 300 sermons into it – I’ve been doing this 25 times a year for 12 years. My age doesn’t reflect my experience.
The truth is few people will ever know how bad I was when I got started. Because you can’t find those sermons on iTunes or YouTube. Long before I gave a message worthy of being shared on Facebook or before I had any grounds to coach or teach anyone else, I gave 55 minute sermons, talking so fast no one could understand. Those sermons had 10 points on a double-sided, single-spaced, full-to-the-brim handout. I gave a lot of crappy sermons before I found out how to deliver a good one. Week after week, I painfully listened to my sermons, taking notes and abandoning practices which didn’t work. I studied all sorts of communicators for years, stealing a tip, trick and insight from each one.
Preaching, like many activities, is just one of those things that you only get better with time. You have to get a lot of bad sermons to give good ones. And you have to get feedback and deconstruct the bad ones to figure out what makes a good one. It takes time, patience, and perseverance to become successful.
Patience in a Modern World
The trouble is we’re just impatient. We may be the most impatient people in human history.
Most people want the skill or the stage at someone else stands on. Admiration is okay, but impatience is not. We want success – like yesterday! We think it will arrive as fast as an Amazon shipment and we get frustrated when success doesn’t come with free two-day delivery. We spurn the process and the perseverance others engaged to get to the platform on which they now stand.
Most of us want the payoff immediately after the promise. We look for shortcuts around the process, forgetting it is during the process we grow to be people who can handle the payoff. Again, we’re missing the point when we focus more on what we’re doing than who we are becoming while we wait.
What can we do? How can we live in this messy middle? I’ve learned four practices which have helped me grow in the preparation phase.
4 Steps to Transform Your Process
1. Let the crowds pay attention to the results; stay focused on the process.
Whatever the arena, we all have a process. A process is nothing more than a set of habits or actions which we engage repeatedly in pursuit of the goal we want. Pick an arena of life and those who have achieved success have a process they use relentlessly. They’ve honed it over time and they constantly adjust it based upon education and experience.
When it comes to writing, I’ve adopted a process from a successful writer which guides how I write (including this blog post). When it comes to preaching, I’ve developed my own process which helps me finish a sermon every Tuesday evening and leave room to “preach the sermon to myself” before I step foot on the stage. I even have a process for strengthening my marriage, which includes habits for certain times each day and certain days of the week.
What processes do you have? Are you engaging them consistently or have you lost focus? If you have a process, where do you need to double down on the process? Where do you need to move from desire to discipline? From talking to doing?
We live in a world enamored by outcomes and results. The truth is we don’t control outcomes and results, but we can control inputs and processes. Let the crowds pay attention to the results. Let’s stay focused on the process.
2. Embrace all forms of preparation, including pain.
In his book, Leadership Pain: The Classroom for Growth, Dr. Samuel Chand argues each leader’s capacity for growth and effectiveness is equivalent to his or her capacity for pain. The threshhold of our pain is the threshhold of our leadership.
Think about it. Pick an arena of your life (job, family, friend, volunteer role, etc.). Ask yourself, “If I was fired from this (job/role) and someone else took over, what’s the first thing they would do?” Once you’ve identified this thing, ask yourself, “So, why don’t I do that thing myself?” Typically, the reason is “too painful.” Jack Canfield was right when he wrote, “Everything we want is on the other side of fear.” We often know what we do – we’re just too scared.
We’ve all had seasons of our lives where we struggled. Dark days. Bitter times. Painful moments. Moments where we cried out to God and begged him to end it. On the other sides of times like these, we see things very differently. We observe lessons learned, signs of growth and perspective we lacked prior. We often say, “I wouldn’t have __________ any other way.” We embrace the pain afterward and see it as preparation.
Why can’t we embrace our current pain today? We see how we were prepared before, how pain became a gift in the past. Why wait until it has past to accept it?
I’m not even two months into my first position as a lead pastor. But I’ve already seen countless ways that I’ve been prepared for this over the last 10 to 15 years of my life. Even things that I wish I didn’t have to do or things that I dreaded or things that were painful in the past are now coming to fruition and are assets to me as I lead. I wonder what would be different if I hadn’t fought against those times like I did. What I begged God to end, I now thank God for allowing.
3. Watch your heart in the middle.
The greatest temptation in the process is to give up. Since we don’t know when we will arrive at the “payoff,” how tragic would it be to give up just before we arrived? In those vulnerable moments, the condition of our hearts and loudest voices around us can betray us. While it might not be popular or “normal” to let people into the becoming Duckworth mentioned, it is vital. We need to let others see the struggle.
I had some friends in college who met weekly as a group to study the Bible and pray for one another. Their group had a motto, “Let the Suck Show.” It became such a mantra for these girls they created t-shirts with the phrase on it. They wanted their weekly gathering and the community it created to be a place of authenticity and vulnerability. They wanted to see each others hearts, so they could be vigilant for darkness and danger.
Sadly, our hearts don’t have tools to measure them like our car’s gas tank or phone’s battery. We find it easier to ignore a sick heart than we do squeaky brakes. Watching our heart is essential in the middle because the struggle is often far more emotional and spiritual than mental or physical.
How’s your heart doing today?
4. Filter your voices.
No image has represented this principle better than this picture from one of Michael Phelps’ races during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.
We all have critics, haters and rock-throwers in our lives. While anyone can have an opinion on your life, not everyone’s opinion matters equally. Some people should be muted – whether in person or online. Certain voices are evil and destructive. We must tune out our critics and lean into those who want to help us even if they have things to tell you you don’t want to hear.
Because the struggle of life is real (long before it became a hashtag), we cannot go through life alone. No amount of Facebook friends, Twitter followers, Instagram likes or funny Snapchats can do what a person standing next to us in the storm can. We weren’t meant to be solo artists in the studio of life alone. We are part of a great chorus and we learn to sing by those who surround us.
At the same time, we have to lean into our critics and carefully extract the wisdom contained even in the difficult feedback. We can learn from anyone.
The voices we listen to shape who we become. These voices determine what we choose to do with the life which surprises us.
Give Thanks Because Nothing is Wasted
A final word from our friend the sculptor, Harriet.
“So in the end every major disaster, every tiny error, every wrong turning, every fragment of discarded clay, all the blood, sweat and tears, everything has meaning. I give it meaning. I reuse, reshape, recast all that goes wrong so that in the end nothing is wasted and nothing is without significance and nothing ceases to be precious to me.”
She’s talking about sculpture. But I think she’s also talking about life.
The hard lesson I’ve learned at the end of a recent process in my life is God isn’t nearly as concerned with efficiency as I am. In the middle, I’ve learned God is far more concerned with who I am becoming than what I’m accomplishing. In the end, I look back and wonder why I didn’t see things more clearly. I wish we could all see how God wastes nothing. He doesn’t waste the destruction of our selfish and short-sighted choices. Even the shrapnel thrown about by the lives of those around us, God redeems those wounds too.
If nothing is wasted, then this moment matters more than we could ever imagine.
If you’re in the messy middle today, you’re not alone. Don’t give up. Don’t give in; you’re closer to a breakthrough than you realize. You can’t see the full picture from where you are. Keep trusting and take one step forward. Do the next right thing you know to do.
You are being prepared in ways you couldn’t even imagine today.