In the last week of July, I found myself in a spare bedroom of an apartment 7,000 miles from home. A colleague and I had spent the day planning upcoming service at a special needs orphanage, but mutual jet lag had us back in our rooms by 5 pm.
I didn't want to be there. This country held harsh memories that took months of counseling and prayer and processing to overcome.
I felt like I had been burned in God's service. I had spent months abroad in a country I did not know with people I had never met doing service I had never done. I had shouldered more responsibility and care than any 19-year-old I had ever heard of had, and done my absolute best. But that hadn't stopped the critics (worst one being myself), the painful mistakes, the I-can't-believe-I-did-that foolish decisions, and the aching sensation of failure.
I didn't want to be back in this place. I hated the pain the country's name represented to me, and I hated myself for hating pain. But I was tired of pain.
Alone, I flipped through my worn sword, trying to find a simple answer to the anxiety that was becoming overwhelming. Somehow, I made my way to Isaiah 5.
The chapter opens with the Beloved describing His vineyard. After doing literally everything He could to ensure a successful harvest--planting the best seeds, digging it Himself, building a tower for protection, using fruitful soil--He is still left with wild grapes. Bad grapes. Grapes He did everything to not have.
The Beloved, who we learn is God, tells the children of Israel that like His vineyard, He has done everything possible to bless them and yet they have turned against Him every time. What else could He have done? He asks.
The parables closes with God's words: "I will lay [the vineyard] waste; it shall not be pruned or dug, but there shall come up briers and thorns. I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain in it." (Isaiah 5: 6).
This gave me pause. Both options sounded very different, but they shared the quality of pain. Pruning is painful (would you like to be pruned by a knife?) and briers and thorns are painful (ever grabbed one?). So really, they would just be exchanging one pain for another.
In this life, because there is sin and the great controversy between good and evil raging around us and in us, we can not have a painless life. It is literally impossible. Yet, we can choose the kind of pain.
Like the Israelites, we can choose to be in passive ground that invites briers and thorns. We can reject the hands of the Beloved and have the pain that the world brings: unfulfilled purpose, lack of forgiveness, estrangement from love. Sure, we’re not actively choosing this pain (who chooses to have briers?), but by not choosing the alternative, we are left with the consequences of our passive decision.
But—hallelujah!—there’s another option. We can choose to be pressed by a sharp knife held by the gentle and trustworthy hands of the Beloved. We can avoid briers and thorns by actively growing in pains and productivity. We can invite His spade to dig up the soil of our hearts to plant good seed. A painful process, but one that is lavished in purpose and gentleness.
Lord, may I always choose the pain of being pruned rather than the pain of this world. Thank You for Your trustworthy hands.