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4 Completely Unexpected Things I Learned on My Pilgrimage to Israel

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I expected for my life to be changed by traveling to Israel, the homeland of Jesus. What I did learn did not just surprise me, it profoundly rocked me.


“How would you like to go to Israel?”

It’s a simple, practical question my boss asked—yet it carried an impossible weight on its tiny shoulders. As I sat mouth agape I realized I didn’t even possess the words to respond to a question I never imagined being asked.

Going to Israel was like an unspoken dream. The Biblical legacy, the historical wonder, the cradle of Christianity itself. It’s an opportunity most Christians would never get to experience.

Less than 3 weeks later, my colleague and friend, Katherine Warnock and I traveled over 17 hours across the sea to Israel for the trip of a lifetime.

The story of Israel is the story of every single person that turns their heart to Him. It’s in our spiritual DNA, it’s our story.

I’m not an anticipator and never have been. I could plan a permanent move to Antarctica and not feel its finality until the frigid air literally stung my face exiting the plane. However, this was different. Not only did I anticipate what Israel would feel and look like, but I also anticipated what God would show me and say to me.

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One beautiful, life-changing trip later, I’m back still with plenty to unpack spiritually. Despite my best efforts, what I attempted to anticipate couldn’t even touch the way God profoundly transformed me in Israel.

Here are the 4 unexpected truths revealed to me in Israel.

1. I can prepare my heart but I can’t study.  Israel is not a movie based on the book.

Part of my anticipation of this voyage was to come spiritually prepared. Without hesitation, my administrative subconscious created a plan to re-familiarize myself with the gospels for the “full spiritual effect.” The more I read, the more my experiences in Israel would resonate and thus the louder God would speak.

I ambitiously planned to read as many of the gospels as possible on the long plane ride. What I didn’t count on was complete exhaustion knocking me out for most of it. On the final leg, I woke in a panic with only 3 hours left and barely through Matthew.

I began to anxiously speed read the Bible, full of frustration that I was threatening the “spiritual potency” of my time in Israel. Minutes later my spirit lurched, recognizing the absolute absurdity of this moment. I was worriedly binge reading the Bible. l then immediately heard Him say “Do not study me.”

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I quietly shut my Bible, feeling a bit sheepish at my pharisaical attitude towards spiritual preparation but it was quickly followed by His gentle assurance. There is no correlation to how much I read as to how much I receive. It’s solely up to Him so long as my hands remained open. Period.

Visiting Israel isn’t like watching the movie based on the book. This is the living, breathing Word that was physically manifested in the Cradle of Christianity. There is nothing you can do to manufacture your experience. Simply drink it in. He’ll meet you there as he did me in Row 4 seat C before we even touched the ground.

2. Israel felt familiar to my soul.

During an intimate night tour of David’s tomb, our guide quoted the famous Jeff Buckley song Hallelujah: “But baby I’ve been here before, I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor.”

The famous tune depicts the story of King David. This line captures so vividly the overwhelming familiarity my soul felt the second we arrived. It was like I had been there before.

The moment we set foot into the Old City of Jerusalem a tender safety came over me instantly. It was the most dichotomous feeling, to feel completely familiar in a country that looks nothing like anything I’ve ever seen or experienced. No amount of head knowledge could be responsible for this reaction in my soul.

As we looked out to the ancient sandstone that lined the city, the skyline touting the bold rooftop of the Wailing Wall, it didn’t feel new, yet it was. It only confirmed what I hadn’t stopped to ponder practically in my spirit; Israel is already home to every child of God. Its story is tattooed in our hearts without us even realizing it.

A friend of ours warmly noted to us before our trip, “people don’t go to Israel, they return to Israel.” It was an unforgettable experience I won’t be able to shake.

WATCH: Warnock + Chibwe Tour the Holy Land to Discover Why Christians Should Care About Israel:

3. What the sites looked like was irrelevant.

At the helm of my anticipation for this trip was the expectation of how things would look. It didn’t take long for me to be lovingly convicted and confronted with my expectations of what I would see and where I would meet God.

We were eager to visit the Garden of Gethsemane, the grounds where Jesus prayed the night before His fateful crucifixion. In reality, it looked more like the manicured property of a wealthy landowner with perfectly tidied lawns and tall iron gates separating the trees from contact with the public. It was far from the raw, intimate space we imagined in our heads. While it was disappointing, it drew attention to another “wall” I subconsciously concocted to control my experience.

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Yet again, I found myself letting go and letting God. Still feeling a bit bummed we wandered to a plaque square in the center of the atrium. It stated, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39). I felt Him speak to my spirit again, “Forget how it looks, what am I showing you?”

Instantly I was humbly reminded of not only His greatness but His humanity as He knelt in this very garden. The unexpected decadence, pushy crowds and tall fences were only distractions for my flesh to cling to. Jesus was here, that’s all that matters.

How the sites looked became completely irrelevant. The irony was, the most “unsuspecting” sites like the marshy unattractive waters of the Jordan River seemed to ignite the strongest response in my spirit. Releasing my on visual expectations set me free to meditate on Jesus and His life without the baggage.

WATCH: Walk the Stations of the Cross with Warnock and Chibwe as They Experience Jerusalem:

4. I didn’t need to come to Israel.

The final truth God revealed to me was one that took me by complete surprise. The more I came to drink in the beauty of this sacred country, the more grateful it made me for the access and intimacy we experience with God every day, everywhere.

In observance of people participating in liturgical traditions at these sacred sites, I felt the oddest sense of dissonance in my heart. It was an absolute gift to see, touch and feel the land Jesus walked on. However, over and over I felt so firmly how near He is to us outside these borders.

I didn’t have to kneel at the site of His birthplace to receive His grace. I didn’t have to weep at the Wailing Wall to savor His sacrifice. I didn’t have to stand in the marshy waters of the Jordan River to feel the urgency of His commission on my life.

Experiencing Israel felt like watching the veil tear in two at the temple. I could touch, feel and inhale the fragrance of the fabric of that veil representing the land that God loves so fiercely. But with every tangible sensation, came the stark recognition of its physical tear and that I could lay this beautiful fabric down. It deepened my gratitude that the boundary between God and His children was no more, Jews and Gentiles alike.

The story of Israel is the story of every single person that turns their heart to Him. It’s our story. It’s in our spiritual DNA. The lessons I learned in Israel were a gift of a lifetime, but not as big as the gift of knowing we get to partner in friendship with the Creator of life itself. I’m done unpacking physically, but I’m sure I’ll be unpacking spiritually for a lifetime.

WATCH: Join us as We Tour 10 Biblical Sites in the Holy Land: