On my morning walk I pass an orchard of small trees, probably avocado trees. I was recently startled to see that the entire orchard of trees had been pruned, severely pruned, in my opinion. There were just a few twigs remaining on each tree; what stood out were large branches that had been cut off two or three feet from the trunk. I’m sure the farmers know what they’re doing. I have no doubt that in a few months each of these stubby trees will have lots of branches and lots more leaves and, in time, lots of avocados, or whatever fruit they’re destined to produce.
Pruning is done to a lot of plants to make them more fruitful. The imagery of pruning was used by Jesus to illustrate a significant purpose God has for allowing pain, problems, and difficulties in our lives. His plant of choice in His illustration was the grapevine, very common to His listeners. Jesus said that He’s the vine and that God the Father is the vineyard keeper. Jesus also said that those of us who are willing to have a connection to Him are similar to grape branches being connected to the vine. One of the realities of this relationship is that we get pruned!
There’s avocado tree pruning, apple tree pruning, grapevine pruning, and people pruning. Supposedly plants don’t feel pain, but we people do. People pruning is painful!
Why does God allow for pain and problems in this world of His? It’s a complex issue. Timothy Keller writes, “We have become so confident in our powers of logic that if we cannot imagine any good reason that suffering exists, we assume there can’t be one.” One reason for sure, Jesus said, is that the difficulties we encounter in this world can help us live more fruitful, productive lives. I know, I know, I’m like you and would rather seek to be a better, more God-pleasing person as a result of good times. Realistically, however, this isn’t usually how it happens.
In a lifetime of pastoral ministry I’ve never had a person say to me, “I want to get closer to God because my cancer was cured and I just won the lottery.” Good times rarely bring us closer to God. On the other hand, I’ve observed many deciding to seek out God because of a serious medical diagnosis, financial difficulty, or a broken relationship. In my own life I know God has done a special work on me when I’ve faced situations I would have rather not had to face. As C. S. Lewis so eloquently put it, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains.”
This doesn’t mean we have to like the “pains” that come into our lives – that would mean we’re a glutton for punishment and that’s not normal! It does mean, however, that we can face the negative developments in life with the conviction that God has good that He wants to come out of it, including a better us!
The pruning of the trees I observed on my walk will result in their greater fruitfulness. The same can be true for us!
Jesus said, “…every branch that does bear fruit he[God the Father] prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15:2b)