I’ve sat down to write this post at least a dozen times in the past few weeks, agonizing over the right words to say… but time and time again, the “right words” have eluded me. For the past month, I have heard the same question over and over again, “How was Haiti?” and each time I’ve found myself speechless.
The truth is, this last trip to Haiti was amazing in so many ways… but it was also really, REALLY hard. There’s something about stepping into a 3rd world country, away from all the comforts and familiarity of daily life, that invites God to break you down in beautifully painful ways. Because when you strip away all the things that our culture gives us to hide behind (nice clothes, makeup, showers, technology, a bedroom door… the list goes on), what you’re left with is simply yourself… a truer version of yourself than you may like to admit.
While we were in Haiti, I read the book “The Gift of Being Yourself” by David Benner. In speaking of the journey to spiritual transformation, he explains that, “We have to learn to see – and accept – what is really there. Stripping away our illusions is part of this process, as it reorients us toward reality.”
What I experienced in Haiti was a level of authenticity and vulnerability in my relationship with God that can be difficult to find during the course of my comfortable life here in the States. When you come before the Creator of the Universe, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, as your dirty and smelly self (metaphorically and literally), there is no other option but to be wrecked by the encounter. In those moments, God broke me down; He showed me the parts of myself that I didn’t want to see or accept, He showed me the lies that I’ve been believing, and He showed me the areas of my life that are like festering sores needing to be cut away and flushed out. It would be a lot easier to say that this process came to a nice conclusion when I boarded a plane to come back to the States, but it didn’t. A month later, I’m still left feeling raw and broken down, trying to process and put the pieces back together.
I realize that this probably sounds awfully negative and somber for a post about a recent mission trip… we’re used to hearing the excited and optimistic “missions trip high” responses. But if that recap sounded negative, it’s simply because we have come to view discomfort and vulnerability as conclusively negative and unwanted things. But there is a process by which God refines us that is often neither comfortable nor pleasant, but that is such a beautiful and vital component to our walk with God.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15:1-2)
The Warren Wiersbe BE Bible Study Series explains that, “Pruning does not simply mean spiritual surgery that removes what is bad. It can also mean cutting away the good and the better so that we might enjoy the best. Yes, pruning hurts, but it also helps. We may not enjoy it, but we need it.”
Haiti was a time of pruning in my life, a time of stripping away many things that I had been clinging to like a dysfunctional security blanket. My identity, my relationships, and even the physical limits of my body were all challenged in ways that often left me in tears. But it was also a time of bearing new fruit. In the midst of feeling vulnerable and exposed, God opened the door for me to step out in faith in a whole new way. While wrestling with the ugly and painful parts of my life that God was revealing to me, He gave me a boldness and strength that I’d never experienced before.
The second half of our trip centered around the distribution of water filters in villages throughout the country. We were there to address a very legitimate need for clean water, but also to share the Gospel with everyone who would listen. On our first day distributing filters, I found myself standing in the background and watching my friend Jeff install filters and share the Gospel, all the while I was battling severe anxiety at even the thought of speaking… Picture sweating, dry mouth, nausea, heart palpitations, light-headedness, and shaking hands… Every time Jeff would ask me if I wanted to try it, it felt like I was being punched in the stomach. Simply put, I was a mess.
When we went back to the place we were staying, I was overwhelmed with the thought, “what was I thinking even coming here? I can’t do this!” But in that moment I felt God telling me that He wanted to take away something I hold very close, my own comfort, so that He could give me something so much greater. The choice was up to me; I could play it safe and have my comfort, or I could have what God wanted to give me… but I couldn’t have both.
Just a few days later, I found myself standing in one of the worst parts of Haiti, proclaiming the name of Jesus in a village that is still heavily under the influence of Voodoo. I found myself sharing the Gospel with a small crowd of people, and a few minutes later, with a woman who had just told us that she was serving the devil. It wasn’t easy, and those initial moments of stepping out to speak left me feeling incredibly exposed and vulnerable. But in the midst of breaking me down in so many ways, God was making me stronger than I could’ve ever imagined… and by letting God strip me of my comfort, I got to be a part of something so incredibly powerful and rewarding, and there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that the reward was worth the cost.
Being pruned and refined by God is never particularly enjoyable or comfortable, but we can take heart that we serve a God who doesn’t break us down to leave us that way, He breaks us down so that He can build us back up into more of who we were always meant to be. He takes away the lesser things in our lives, and the things that are not of Him, so that He can give us more of Himself; His beauty and goodness. As humans, our natural instinct is to resist this process. We cling to what we know, even if it’s destroying us, because we find comfort in what is known and familiar even if it’s toxic to our souls. But in resisting the refining work that God wants to do in our lives, we forfeit the beautiful things that He has in store for us. When we embrace the discomfort and allow the skillful hands of our Creator to prune our lives, we open the door for Him to do amazing things in and through us… things we may have never imagined possible.