By Pat Pickren
Spring is a normal time of year when we think of growth. In Atlanta that means the first azaleas and trees bloom quickly followed by the yellowish green haze of pollen on everything. Thankfully we’re moving past that phase and into summer. This year I’ve been even more focused on growth – or at least trying to make things grow or keep things growing – as my family has embarked on a landscape project. And there is a correlation of gardening and our own spiritual life. Scripture uses many illustrations of gardening, planting and harvesting to help us understand our spiritual life. Even in a non-agrarian based economy these analogies give us insight. So through our project at home and reflection on Scripture – John 15 – I’m reminded of three things true of both gardening or landscaping and our spiritual life:
1) the gardener has a plan
2) sometimes growth looks like cutting back and
3) we can’t make things grow on our own.
Due to our lack of gardening skills, we knew that help with an overall plan was necessary to make good choices. We needed a holistic plan that accounted for not only what we think looks good but also what would look good together, what would work with the existing conditions (such as shady or sunny parts of the yard), and what kind of plants would do well in our weather. We needed someone that had a lot more experience. Through the help of a professional landscape architect, we found someone who could guide us in where we could re-use existing plants in the yard, what new plants to get, as well as where we had areas of problems or potential that we could focus. He listened to us to understand our desires but also helped us make sure that we didn’t go too far off track. He provided an overall plan that we’re now using as the map or guide.
Reflecting on our spiritual life, the Scriptures reference God as planting his people as a vine (Psalm 80, Jeremiah 2), and Christ says that the Father is the gardener (John 15 vinedresser or farmer depending on your translation). This has many implications but among them is that God has intentional plans for us. We are not just tossed into the landscape. He considers not only what we need, but also how we fit into his overall landscape. And, similar to my need for gardening expertise, I also have a need for someone far wiser and knowledgeable than me related to my spiritual life. Just as a gardener cares for and nurtures plantings to thrive, God in his wisdom does the same for his people.
The Power of Pruning
What does thriving look like? Often in a garden it requires cutting back or pruning. In the landscape plan for our project, there were several notes and instructions from the landscape architect – please cut back these crepe myrtles by 5 feet or trim back this large azalea. It may seem a little counterintuitive to cut back shrubs so that they can grow, but that is the power of pruning. Several of the azaleas had grown spindly branches without leaves or flowers. But after cutting them back they are beginning to produce new growth.
In John 15 speaking of the Father, Christ says “Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” God does the pruning process in our lives so that we are more fruitful. A few years ago when I went through some big changes in my role at work, it was hard to deal with the disappointment of not getting what I wanted. These changes felt like branches, which I wanted to grow, were being cut back. After a few months and even years, I’ve seen how those changes in my work role have actually caused me to grow in new ways. As we face difficulties – challenges in a personal relationship, financial challenges, or even health issues – we all need this reminder that God is graciously cutting back so that we can become more like Christ and bear fruit. While the carefully selected cutbacks may be difficult, the outcome of being more fruitful is worthwhile.
We Can Not Make it Grow
As we’ve moved some plants around the yard, planted new ones or wrestled overgrown shrubs into submission, we’ve done lots of work – digging, pulling, cutting, spreading, and watering. Yet, we can’t make any of these things grow. Of course we play a part, but we cannot will any of these to produce new leaves or flowers. If we cut any of these plants from their life source (water and good soil) then they quickly die. Looking again at John 15 (John 15:5), Christ says that he is the vine and that we are the branches, to remain in him to bear fruit, and apart from him we can do nothing. The source of our spiritual life is Christ – not in our performance.
We bear fruit when we are intimately connected with him, just as any branch of a tree or shrub only produces leaves, flowers or fruit when it is connected or attached to the main limb or trunk. And if we are not connected to him then our spiritual lives wither.
The landscape project is many months, well maybe years if I’m honest, from being completed. There is much more pruning and gardening that needs to be done, but we look forward to the result which is a yard that we and others can enjoy. I also want the same thing for my spiritual life – a fruitful life that enjoys God and that is shared with others.