In the first two chapters of my book “Welcome to the Wilderness, I took time to establish how the wilderness is a place of subtraction and addition, a place of humility and chastening. Nothing else, perhaps, illustrates this more than the pruning process of a tree or vine. I have found that it has been useful to study this concept in light of what I have been learning about the wilderness.
The place to begin this study is in John 15, where we see Jesus teaching about the relationship between the fruit, the branch, and the vine. He also taught about pruning, which I have seen happen both in the natural and in the spiritual lives of men. Both look painful. Both are humiliating, but Jesus said this was a normal part of our spiritual connectedness to Him, the True Vine. He said the Vinedresser or Gardener takes us through the process of pruning us back to scrub, which is necessary if you have been fruitful.
ONLY BECAUSE YOU ARE FRUITFUL
I first began to appreciate the pruning process during our days in Wooler, Ontario, when a friend of ours asked if I would help him prune a few apple trees in his back yard. I had never been invited to go pruning before, or since, so I can only conclude that the Lord wanted to speak to me. I began by gently clipping away a few branches until my friend asked me to step aside so he could show me the right way to prune. He launched into it, just lopping off one branch after another, even though they had taken a long time to grow. He didn’t seem to appreciate that fact, nor did he care that I felt sorry for the tree. I had never seen anything like it before. He sawed and hacked away until the tree looked ruined. It was just heart breaking, but I learned that it had to happen in order to ensure the continued health and fruitfulness of the tree.
The primary thing pruning accomplishes is that it redirects energy to go to other areas of growth. By cutting off a lot of branches going in all different directions, all the life of the tree is redirected to just a few areas. In my case, the Lord cut back all the time and energy I had been putting into my work and redirected it into spending time with Him and time in His Word. He redirected the priority I had of building a name for myself into losing my reputation so that all that mattered was spending time with Him in the secret place.
God took all my notions about money and material things, and cut them back so that, when they finally grew back, they looked completely different to me. I had a new set of motivations and a new appreciation for money. I had begun to know what it meant to live by every word that proceeded out of His mouth. The way He did this was to lead me through a prolonged period of going without any visible means of support. I soon learned that I had no ability within myself to get wealth.
I always had nice cars, but when we entered this phase of discipline, we went for a while without having one. When one was finally given to us, I was so grateful that I didn’t care what it was. It was a little Ford Pinto station wagon. In time, it began to rust away. The Pinto had two extra-long doors that began to sag where the sidewalls and running board had rusted away. You had to pick them up to close them. One day, they actually rusted shut. This meant I had to leave the window down enough to get my fingers in and push it down manually, and then climb through the window to drive. This was difficult to do, not so much physically, but it was very hard on my pride. At the time, I worked in advertising and would park away from my customers in order to climb in and out of the car without them seeing me. I submitted to the humbling because I knew God was after something in me.
The longer the process continued, the more dying to self I had to embrace. I thought I had come to the end of it until one day I watched as my pregnant wife climbed into the car through the window. Something broke within me. I stood there crying, but resolved afresh to allow Him to do whatever it took to bring me to the end of myself. Then, as suddenly as it started, I knew the test was over.
Shortly after this, I was able to purchase another car; in fact, it was another Pinto, only with doors that actually worked. I only had it a short time when the Lord chose something better for me as He knew I would begin commuting to Bible school.
About the same time I saw a family driving by in a very old Pinto, which was in worse shape than any I had seen before. I felt compassion on them, especially for all the little kids that filled the back. I followed them home and walked up the driveway, giving them the keys to my nice little Pinto, which must have been like a new car to them.
It was during this time that I began to learn that the pruning was not punitive; rather, it contained a promise of productivity. Jesus said,
And every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit (John 15:2).
So we see that with the pruning comes the potential to become even more fruitful. It is also one of God’s means to protect us from the perils of unbroken success. When we are successful, we can conclude that all the good things we have come from our having done everything right; that it all happened because we found some kind of “faith formula” or because of our diligent devotion. We can even conclude that the growth is really coming from us, the branch, rather than the source, the Vine. This is evident by the way we act unappreciative, demanding, and arrogant, and by the way we look down our noses at others who aren’t as fruitful, thinking that we are more blessed or favored than they. When the Vinedresser sees this, He gets out His saw.
We should ask ourselves:
- How much can God prune in our lives without it resulting in our quitting the race?
- How much can He prune without our looking for someone to blame?
- How much can He use other people to help prune us without our quitting church?
- Can He cut us back to scrub?
- Can He take away all our success, all our comforts, or all the things we have become accustomed to having in order to keep them from ruining our spiritual lives?
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Q. You talk about pruning, but can you give us some examples of what it looks like in everyday life?
A. Yes, I had been a political cartoonist before I came to Christ, but when I entered into discipleship with Jesus, the desire to draw left me. Those who knew me were critical that I could put such an ability aside, even using Scripture against me. They said I was neglecting the gift I had been given, but I knew I had to lay it down. God never explained to me why I needed to stop drawing, but after a while I began to see how it had become a larger part of my life than God ever intended it to be. It became too much a part of my identity, too much pride had been wrapped up in it.
When the desire came back several years later, with it came a new motivation to draw. You would think that the neglect would damage the ability, but in fact, it was so much better than before. During this time, I had a brother-in-law who went through the same process. He had been a lead guitarist for some of the area’s best rock bands, but when he met the Lord, he knew he needed to lay the instrument down. You could not persuade him to pick it up. People who knew him and boasted in how good he was could not believe that he could walk away from playing the way he did. I was one of the few people who understood and could encourage him in it. When he picked it up again, this time to play in church, he truly glorified the Lord.
I have seen other talented people push their way past the pruning process, entering back into “the business” too soon, only to fall short of the spiritual gains they could have made. For others, this all takes place in the arena of business, or making money, or in some form of leadership. Once you know the principle, you can find the pattern in almost any testimony of those who went on to greatness. It’s part of the process.
Q. In John 15:2,3, Jesus said that the disciples were already clean through the word He had spoken to them. The word prunes and the word clean are similar here, one coming from the other. How does His word prune us?
A. When Jesus addresses an area of our life, like an attitude, a habit, or a behavior, using either a scripture or a sermon, or something He simply says to our hearts, it changes how we see that area. It also gives us the power to stop doing it or let it go. It essentially cuts it off. If we feel that He is dealing with us, invite Him to do deeper, asking Him to show you what He is saying. He did this as He walked with the disciples. Over time, their lives looked completely different.
I had to go through some pretty humbling experiences, especially financially. Like the time the doors rusted shut on our car. We were humbled in the wilderness in many ways, but I knew that God was taking me into some deep places.
Pruning and punishment look the same. The difference is in the fruit. After a time of pruning, there should be lots of visible fruit. You will have an experience so worthwhile that you will urge others to endure it, even embrace it.
This study is part of a book called “Welcome to the Wilderness” and the book is part of a series of twelve study guides being written to help people prepare for their ministry or to develop as a church leader. This material has been tested at a local church level over a 30-year period, helping people come into their calling. They will be available in print and in eBook format.
This is a notebook size manual with over a 100 pages, side-columns for your own notes, assignments, links to additional on-line studies and a question and answer section that will help clarify this unique perspective and shed even more light on the subject.