“I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.
– John 15:5-8
I grew up in a very legalistic church and attended a very legalistic school. As a result of that, I received two things:
- I know all about the “Rules”.
- I deal with a lot of guilt.
I’m not going to sit here and say that Fundamental Baptist churches are cults or that they are warping the minds of those who attend them. I am sure there are a lot of them that are doing great things, and that God is being glorified through them, but I am going to say that many are so overwhelmingly governed by legalism that they are harming the children that grow up in them. The focus on rules and guilt takes the truth of God’s Word and twists it into something that does not bring a desire to know God or to be in close relationship with Him. Instead, it drives them to perform in order to pacify an angry God that desires nothing but obedience and withholds His love until He gets it.
OK. Enough of that soap box. That was just said so I can say that this passage used to scare me to death. My belief as a kid, based on what was presented to me as truth, was that this passage meant that if I did not regularly lead someone to Christ, I would be taken from earth. God would end my life. I was not leading anyone to Christ. I didn’t really even know any “unsaved” people since I was in a Christian school and that is where all of my friends were. Can you see how this would make me a little nervous?
As I got older, I had someone explain something about the care of grapes and vines and all of that, and that did shed some light on the truth of this passage, but I still struggled with portions because I still could not really relate to the word picture that Christ was giving here. In reading the Bible for myself now and getting a better and deeper understanding of the person and mission of Christ I know that there is nothing about Christ that would defend that abrupt and cold finality that I had been presented. That would not be the act of a Savior.
I came across this passage in my devotions the other day, and I felt that old guilty feeling hit me again. As the day went on I continued to mull it over in my mind and a different picture began to show up in my head. I might not understand much about vines and grapes, but I do have a very good understanding of Christmas trees. So, I’m going to take what I understand about the nature of Christ and the act of tree pruning and use Christmas trees as a word picture.
First off, I know. Christmas trees do not produce fruit as we would consider it. For the purpose of this example the tree itself is the fruit. The whole purpose of that plant is to grow it to maturity, and that maturity is where the value is realized. The purpose to the grower is to sell it for a nice profit as a Christmas tree in a few years, but if cannot be used for that purpose they are forced to wait until the tree is very large – 30 years or more and then sell that tree for pulp and make pretty much the same profit. It just takes more time.
We have all seen Christmas trees. The nice ones have a conical shape without a lot of holes. The branches are strong and spaced so the tree has places to hang ornaments. A lot of people don’t realize that trees like that don’t just “happen”. There are varieties of trees that will produce a passable version of it, but usually those trees are very large, old trees, and their sheer size makes it look like it has that perfect shape. Imagine the tree at Rockefeller Center. If you look at that tree closely, you will see huge gaps in it. It is not something you would want to see in a small tree, but its mass covers the flaws.
The growth of a Christmas tree is dictated by the conditions around it. The slope of the land, the type of soil, the prevailing winds, the rainfall, and insects will all determine the growth rate and the shape of the tree. If a tree is left to itself, especially a pine tree, the tree will have vast differences in growth from year to year, and there are times when that tree will have parts that will just die off altogether. The result is a tree that has no value for its intended purpose.
So, the grower must step in. The grower will put things in place to give the tree a good chance to grow well. A nice, flat area with sandy soil works quite well. Space is provided for the trees to grow without crowding each other. Sometimes a deep furrow is used to prevent grass and weeds from choking the tree out when it is very young.
Then the grower starts looking at the harmful damage of outside forces. Insects, fungi, and parasites can have damaging effects on the trees, so the grower will provide sprays that will help keep that damage at bay. Sometimes they work, but sometimes they don’t. Sprays are often washed away by a rain that will allow the pests to still invade.
The most direct method a grower has to make sure that things grow properly is to prune. To get right into the tree and physically examine it for its problems and determine a course of action that always requires a pruning. Not to cut back and harm, but to promote healthy growth.
There are times that trees will take off and grow fast. I have seen them grow as much as 18 inches in a year. That sounds great when you are trying to grow a tree quickly, but when it is allowed to do that, the tree will not fill in properly and have that desired shape. It must be cut back so it can fill in and be complete. There have been times that I have felt a real desire to take off and do things for God. I feel like I have grown and now I am ready to tackle things that are good for God. But I lack in other areas that are going to leave gaps in my life. If allowed to continue, I will not be as effective in my purpose God has for me, so He will put hard things in my life as a way to prune me back so the weaker areas have a chance to develop so I am ready for the next step in life.
Some years a tree will have almost no growth. When that happens the tree will put on a lot of buds. If the conditions are good the next year with rain and temperature, that tree will go absolutely insane with growth, but it will be misdirected. The grower must get in and pick out those small buds that could lead the tree to grow in the wrong direction. It takes an understanding of the final product. During the times in my life when I feel like I am not growing spiritually I often feel like there are numerous little things that draw my attention from God. I’m distracted from the important to the immediate. Those times in my life scream for me to be in the Word. I need to have the truth of it in my mind, to have the Holy Spirit speak to me about the things that I am allowing to pull my attentions from the example of Christ. When I find those things I have to remove them. They will take me the wrong way.
Sometimes the top of a tree will just die. A bug will get inside the crown of the tree and destroy it. When this happens a tree will lose its shape entirely unless the grower does something radical. The top of that tree contains a branch called the “leader”. If the leader dies, a new one must be selected that is close to the center of the tree and looks stronger than the surrounding “potential” leaders. When that leader is found, all of the others need to be completely removed. If they aren’t, they will keep trying to take over the spot as leader and the tree will need to go through the same process for several years until that leader is firmly established. This also results in a setback to the tree that can take a couple of years to overcome. It’s a setback, not a death. Sin is like that in my life. There are choices I have made that have changed the direction of my life. Sin that must be removed. Directions I thought were clear and established are no longer there because of my actions. But God is good. He has taken the time to identify the other things in my life that have value and potential. I might not get where He wanted me without some extra scars or as quickly, but He is faithful to keep working on me to bring me to maturity.
I know that an analogy of a tree does not hold all the way through as a picture of the life of a Christian, but I can see very clearly how those instances have presented themselves in my life. In all of them, God’s plan was not my destruction, but my growth – a Relentless Growth. The pruning was not to hurt, but to bring me where I needed to be. A place where I can grow straight and strong. I’m at a point now in my life where I have enough of it behind me that I can see some of these patterns emerge. The beauty of it is that I am recognizing this work more quickly now. Some of it is a willingness to look at my life honestly, but more of it comes from a willingness to listen to the truth that God speaks through close friends.
So, I’m not sure if this meant anything to you, dear reader, but I know that this is true in my life. I hope it helps at least to spark a thought into what the pain of trials and struggles might be doing in your life as it is in mine.