It makes sense to me for great advances to be met with great opposition, for heroic action to be met by trouble and even pain. Paying a price to stand up for Jesus, at least in abstraction, is a glorious ideal.
This was a thread of one of the most memorable messages I have ever heard. It was at a college chapel when Dewey Bertolini, the professor for my Christian life and service class, wove a tale of pathos and suffering and utter devotion, telling the story of people who paid dearly to identify with Jesus. Against this grim backdrop he challenged us:
“Jesus stood in my place and took the shots that were meant for me. Now it’s my chance to stand in His place and take the shots that are meant for Him.”
Twenty-six years later, those words still ring in my ears. And by God’s grace, I’m still ready to stand in Jesus’place in this world—to take the shots that are meant for Him, whatever it costs.
Bloody scenes of torture and stalwart faith still play across the world screen.
Martyrdom is not a thing of the past. We don’t have to look far to find Christians who join the host of souls crying from under the altar in heaven, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before You will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”(Revelation 6:10).
It’s the privilege of every true Christian to be ready to die for Jesus. But spine-tingling imaginations of coliseums and lions and catacombs feel far away from the normal life of sacrifice where no one sees, and no one cares.
Yet in days of obscurity, in hours of ordinary duty, I have a chance to die. And some of these days, it feels like I am dying, like something inside me is being cut out.
I find it’s more painful to submit to the reality of the God’s plan than it was in theory, harder to watch my good intentions and lofty dreams go under His knife, harder to accept the humbling that I know I need.
I can understand why God would prune dead twigs from my life, why He’d cut away useless, ugly wood and refresh me. But when He cuts deep into living tissue, it hurts.
To be honest, it feels like a waste.
Why has God given so clear a calling only to block my way in fulfilling it? Why this fire in my bones if not to express it?
Why the time, the energy, the hours of sacrifice invested in preparing my life for a service if it’s not mine to perform?
Have I missed the plan of God? Have I mistaken His calling?
No. I’m as confident of God’s purpose for me as I’ve ever been. But the means to that fulfillment, I cannot say I know.
Every year, three old pear trees, relics from a past era, bloom alongside our house. When their blossoms drop and new leaves appear, they throw unbelievable energy into growing. By the end of summer, hundreds of tall straight “water sprouts” cover the gnarled branches.
Somehow this rampant growth is part of their God-designed cycle. They drink in the sunshine of long summer days, feed the pears growing within their canopy, and give us a place of repose in the shade.
And every year, we prune all that growth off in the springtime.
As I think about it, I’m not sure I can say the trees have wasted their energy, that they should have dedicated their resources just to making pears. Or maybe, and this I suspect is closer to the truth, that growth was devoted to making pears. But having served its purpose, the luxuriant growth itself must die.
It must die, so that more pears can be fed by more growth in the coming season.
Jesus didn’t talk about pears in the final
instructions He gave to His disciples before He went to the cross. But He did
talk about grapes, vines perhaps even more wild than my pear trees. I’ve been trying to get rid of grape vines along my fence for years. We’ve cut them down over and over again, and I’ve even sprayed them with herbicide. But year after year, those tenacious vines struggle back to life and send long arms out to feel the sun, and, if I’d let them, they’d bloom and bear grapes again.
They grow because that’s what they’re made to do. They grow because that growth is part of the process of bearing fruit.
And if I wanted to grow grapes, I don’t think I could grudge the branches for the fruit they are instrumental in producing. But I’d prune them back hard every year, just like my pear trees—so they would bear more fruit.
There are branches that are dead, though they appear to be alive. “Judas-branches” are removed, not pruned. But for branches that are really attached to the vine, the vinedresser’s pruning is a token of His care, a demonstration of His love, and the seal of His commitment to fruitfulness. He is more zealous for fruit than we are.
“. . . every branch that does bear fruit,” Jesus tells His disciples, “He (the Father) prunes that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:2).
I’m astonished, and at times, chagrined by God’s
relentless, untiring determination to bear fruit in my life. Oh, I’d never say that. In fact, I don’t see myself as being weary of God’s work. I’d say I’m tired of hardship or ready to be done with trouble. I’d say I want something in life to turn out right. I’d even say I want fruitfulness.
But I get confused on one point: The fruit borne in my life isn’t my fruit at all. It is the fruit of God’s Spirit, and it all belongs to Him. If He decides to pick my fruit rather than allowing me to glory in its splendor, that’s His prerogative. If He decides to trim my branch back to half its length, to prune every visible reminder of sacrifice and service, that’s His right. He is the Vinedresser; I am His branch growing on His Vine. And my fruit is all His.
So what of all the labor poured into growth that’s cut off and tossed on the burn pile? Was it misdirected energy or a waste of time and effort? Could be. It’s possible to develop patterns of self-righteousness that have no life of the Vine flowing through them at all. These iniquities clog our spiritual arteries and hinder us from bearing real fruit. And they must go.
But it’s also possible for real branches to shoot forth real growth, filled with Vine-life, only to have them pruned for the purpose of greater fruitfulness. It’s hard to imagine that God would spend all that energy on growth He intends to take away. But He would. He is absolutely unafraid to prune us of good things so that He can reap His longed-for fruit.
He’s not afraid to spend forty years of Moses’ life out in the wilderness tending sheep—to prepare Him for the much more difficult task of forty years leading people in the wilderness. He’s willing to isolate John on the Isle of Patmos, an old man spent in His service—to give him visions of what is to come. He’s untroubled by spending the last drop of Stephen’s blood for a harvest greater anyone but God could conceive.
When King Jehoiakim burned Jeremiah’s scroll, consuming the words of God in the flame, the prophet’s labors were reduced to ashes. Jeremiah had to start over. He could have wept over the loss—perhaps he did. Didn’t God care about His own Word? But God’s plans were bigger, and Jeremiah’s loss was not wasted. The new “revised version” was expanded with further prophetic insight bearing directly on the lineage of the coming Messiah.
William Carey, pioneer missionary in India, lost years of translation work in a fire. He wept and wrote, “In one short evening the labors of years are consumed. How unsearchable are the ways of God. I had lately brought some things to the utmost perfection of which they seemed capable . . .” Why would God waste years of arduous effort? Didn’t He want His Word to be given to the needy people of India? Carey concluded, “The Lord has laid me low, that I may look more simply to Him.” And he started over.
And the Lord’s not worried when He cuts into my living tissues, either, taking from me hard-won growth. The pain is all part of His plan for ultimate fruitfulness.
In the process, sometimes I feel like crying on the inside. Prospects shorn, resources depleted, life looks upside down. What I’ve longed for, the fruit I’ve craved, can seem as far away as it’s ever been.
But somehow, some way, God’s pruning is part of His loving plan.
What God prunes, He removes for good reasons. Sometimes He lets us stand in Jesus’ place and take the shots that are meant for Him.
And sometimes . . . sometimes, He gives us other chances to die. Chances to bear fruit in unimagined circumstances and in ways that we’d never choose. Chances to grow under the care of the Vinedresser and filled with the life of the Vine—but without being able to see the fruit at all.
So I can—I do—rejoice. God spends my life lavishly, but never wastes a tear. No effort fed by the Vine is worthless. And if cropped branches please no one but Him, His pleasure is enough.
© 2011 by Robert G. Robbins