I wrote this as a submission piece which was rejected. I’m just publishing it here, ‘cause I can.
When I was younger, around the age of 6 or 7, I was left at home without enough supervision to keep me from wandering into the garden. Not alone, but also in a different time from what we live in today. As with many memories we have of that age, the specifics of the whole are fuzzy, but I had presumably recently seen my Mum pruning back the roses and other plants, because of what I proceeded to do on my own.
There was an azalea out the back, and I must have decided that it too required pruning. I did not understand the reason or the necessity for pruning, but Mum had done it, so I would help out.
Mum came back up the driveway to find this beautiful azalea pruned to within an inch of its life (and very possibly beyond). From what had been a plant easily my height, and probably taller, this poor azalea was now maybe half its original height and very devoid of leaves, not to mention flowers.
Here’s what my Mum said about the azalea;
“…it didn’t look well for a while, but it grew and blossomed more than it had before!”
An even wiser source than my Mum says this about pruning;
“I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. He takes away every branch that does not bear fruit in me. He prunes every branch that bears fruit so that it will bear more fruit.”
We’ll Always Need Pruning
Here is what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say about pruning;
trim (a tree, shrub, or bush) by cutting away dead or overgrown branches or stems, especially to encourage growth:
Just like a rose bush needs to be pruned to help it grow, so we do as well. Leave a rose and never prune it, and you will get flowers, but not as many as if you had pruned it, and as time goes by there will be fewer and fewer of them. As with us, we may bloom in the good times, but if we don’t encounter adversity, then we won’t change and grow, and over time we will bloom less and less, eventually dying with a whimper.
One of the Bible’s most inspiring verses is found in Jeremiah in the 11th verse of the 29th chapter.
For I know what I have planned for you,’ says the Lord. ‘I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope.
It is a wonderfully affirming verse. It is a verse that has helped countless numbers. God not only has plans for us, but he has plans that will prosper us, ones that will not hurt us, and ones that are filled with hope.
However, immediately prior to this beautiful verse we see the Lord asking Jeremiah to tell the exiled people of Israel that they must spend seventy years in Babylon. Not only that, but in verse 7 the Lord tells the Israelites to work for the good of the city, and to pray for the prosperity of that city. There is no suffering in silence going on here; God tells them not complain at all. This is His plan for them and only at the end of seventy years will He “fulfil [His] gracious promise to [them] and restore [them] to [their] homeland.”
What had the Israelites done wrong to deserve this treatment? And from their own God as well?
But what do we see happen following their return to Jerusalem? The walls go up to defend from the many that would tear them down, and not long after the temple is rebuilt. The nation of Israel goes home.
Rejoicing In Adversity
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
Just as the Israelites in the time of Jeremiah’s ministry were told to prosper their new masters, so James brings us this very tough message. “Consider it pure joy … whenever you face trials”? Really? Joy in trial?
But what I left out in the verse from Jeremiah was that the Israelites would prosper as the city they worked for prospered. God would not only bring them from their trials, but He would prosper them as a result.
As Jerry Bridges points out in his wonderful book, Trusting God, James asks us not to rejoice in the trials themselves, but “because of their beneficial results.”
Paul addresses the same idea in Romans;
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.
Both James and Paul make a very clear distinction; whilst we are pruned, whilst we suffer in trials and adversity, we are to take joy for the growth that will come next.
How can they make such promises? Because God already did so in Jeremiah. Here is the full context;
“For the Lord says, ‘Only when the seventy years of Babylonian rule are over will I again take up consideration for you. Then I will fulfil my gracious promise to you and restore you to your homeland. For I know what I have planned for you,’ says the Lord. ‘I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope.”
Do Not Be Anxious, Be Strong and Courageous
Roses are not the only plants that benefit from pruning. The productivity of fruit trees relies upon regular and effective pruning. Allowing a fruit tree to go unpruned will simply see flowers appear, but will not push the plant to use its life and energy to produce fruit. Only when you start cutting away the dead and unproductive parts of the tree will the remainder start not only to flower, but to bear real fruit.
There will be a time when the apple tree will look a little morose, somewhat worse for wear. It’ll be devoid of leaves and will look bare and small.
When we are encountering those same trials, when God has set us aside for pruning, we too may look a little worse for wear. That’s OK! We were never intended to be creatures that would enjoy and desire pain. Having your leaves and branches lopped off is supposed to hurt. And just as a tree doesn’t regrow immediately, so too will we take time to come back to be fully ourselves. As someone wise once told me, if our problems were solved immediately, what would we learn?
But just as the tree doesn’t stop living when its branches are trimmed away, we should also learn to keep living through our own pain. Wallowing in what has happened, in the leaves that were torn from us and the branches that were cut away is not only unhelpful, but it goes in direct contradiction to what God has instructed us to do in times of trouble;
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4: 6,7
We are specifically told not to be anxious about anything. Similarly, in Joshua 1 verse 9 God tells Joshua to “be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” Why should Joshua not be afraid or discouraged? He’s just lost his mentor, he is now the leader of a people who have been wandering the desert for 40 years, and any day now God’s going to have him lead them all into Canaan. So again, why is Joshua not allowed to be afraid or discouraged?
“For the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Bearing His Fruit
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
Matthew 7:15 – 20
Jesus spoke these words to the crowds in what is now known as the Sermon on the Mount. It is one of many lessons that Jesus explored, and one that has special significance to our purpose. Because it is by our fruit, our actions, that those around us will see what we are.
Throughout all the gospels Jesus speaks much of pruning and fruit; of our need to be obvious in our faith and to act in a Christlike way. Just as Jesus cursed the fig tree that bore no fruit, so too will we be “cut down and thrown into the fire” if we do not bear good fruit.
But bearing good fruit is no guarantee that we will be excused pain. In fact, it’s a guarantee that we will be pruned again. As I quoted at the beginning, “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”
Again though, when we look at the whole of the passage, we see encouragement, rather than just more promise of pain.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
John 15: 1 – 4
We can be expected to be pruned, but Jesus assures us that we are not alone. As we remain in Him – which is the only way we can bear fruit – so He will remain in us.
Pain will come, most likely time and time again. It may come one after another, or all at once. You may suffer like Job, or you may suffer like Paul and Silas in the dungeons. But if you remain in Jesus Christ, then He will remain in you and the fruit you will bear as a result will be good fruit indeed.