The first time I hauled water, I stopped every 10 steps to catch my breath. I returned to the house with a pounding heart and aching arms. Then, I saw small children scampering up the hill with buckets on their heads and older women effortlessly making multiple trips to the river. I quickly realized that survival in this remote Tanzanian village was intimately tied to strength. I thought God had sent me here to volunteer as a Physician Assistant at an HIV clinic and teach English, but it turns out that I was the one who had a lot to learn.
Over the next few weeks, each rainless day was met with a groan. I learned to use and reuse water. Why can’t laundry water also be used to flush the toilet? Yet, despite my conservatory efforts, I still had to go to the river each day, and haul a 40-pound bucket 300 yards uphill. I dreaded it every time. It’s exhausting to continuously push your body to the limit.
Then, one day I stopped a mere three times on my trek home. I kept going. Another month passed, and I was astonished when I only set my bucket down once on the climb. I was thrilled with my growing strength.
I am now in my third month living in this corner of the world. My body has adjusted, but sometimes my mind and heart still rebel. I miss my home in Houston, Texas and crave familiarity and comfort. This week, I sat at God’s feet bemoaning my present condition. I told him that I wanted to give up. The strain of adapting to a different culture, learning a new language, and living without electricity or running water had pushed me to a breaking point. I was exhausted. I had surpassed my ability to endure. I knew that God had called me here, but I wasn’t sure that I had the strength to stay.
God gently turned my attention back to the water bucket. I was confused. Was he telling me that the only path to strength is through struggle? I was disappointed with this interpretation. It reminded me of words emblazoned on my old gym’s wall: no pain, no gain. Oh, how I hated that slogan! I remember cursing it silently from the stair stepper. The gain of toned legs never quite seemed worth the pain of that terrible machine. I left the lesson there for the day. I didn’t have the energy to ponder further.
Thankfully, God didn’t leave me to interpret his message alone. A few days later, my mom sent me this Bible passage: “We rejoice in the hope of God’s glory. Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance, character, and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint” (Romans 5:3-5). On the first read-through, it seemed to merely spiritualize the gym wall’s message: no suffering, no endurance. OK Lord, I get it. I’ll toughen up. I’ll keep going.
The next time I hauled water, I kept thinking about how I would use the water to serve my family. That focus helped propel me onward. Suddenly, it clicked: The goal makes all the difference! I won’t go an extra five minutes on the stair stepper after I reach the point of exhaustion, but I will continue trudging up a mountain with a bucket of water to ensure that my family isn’t dehydrated. The lesson of the water bucket was not merely to challenge my spiritual muscles until they strengthen, but also to keep my focus on something compelling enough to keep me going.
I returned to those verses with a new vision. Yes, God was assuring me that he would use my suffering to teach me about endurance and to strengthen my character. But perhaps he was also lovingly questioning what I put my hope in.
I had to confess that when I first reached the mission field, my greatest hope was to live a life of adventure and find purpose in my missionary endeavors. Yet, when exhaustion set in and the work grew weary, this hope didn’t sustain me. In order to continue serving as a missionary, I needed to put my hope in God’s glory, not my own.
The lesson of the water bucket has shifted my prayer life. Instead of praying for God to make me more comfortable, I now pray for God to be glorified in me. I found such relief in taking the focus off of myself and putting it on God (where it belongs!). It was like I’d been walking through the mission field, only looking at my feet. No wonder all I could see was dirt and mud! Yet with my gaze lifted up to my heavenly father, there was so much more beauty to take in.
When I hoped in my own glory, I was constantly nervous about making mistakes or being misunderstood. That worry sapped my energy and brought me to the brink of giving up. But when I truly began to live for God’s glory, he gave me the strength to continue serving him in Tanzania.
I’ve learned that God will use any means necessary, even a humble water bucket, to lead his people. He loves us too much to let us wear ourselves out with our selfish ways. (I imagine that he’s been teaching his followers this lesson for centuries!) In fact, I bet this is what Saint Ignatius was learning when he said: “So each day, pray not for good things to happen to you but pray that you’ll be drawn closer to God. Pray that…every action (you) take be done for His glory.”
So whether it is lugging a bucket of water up a hill, compassionately treating my patients, or adapting to a new culture, when I focus on God’s glory, I find the strength to keep going.
Originally published July 15, 2020.