When I was younger, my mother kept a garden. She loved to reap the benefits of all of her hard work. So she kept it tilled, planted seeds, and most important weeded out anything that could interfere with her harvest. Naturally, I got drafted to help with the weeding process, which at 10 and 11 years old was something that I cared very little for. But over time, I saw the benefits of my job, as I yanked carrots out of the ground or popped beautiful red ripened tomatoes into my mouth fresh off the vine. I grew up in the suburbs, but I was never afraid of wiping some dirt off of the veggie before eating it. It all seemed so natural and delicious.
One thing that I found out about the gardening process somewhere in those formative years is that sometimes you have to make counterintuitive decisions in the process of developing a healthy harvest. With certain tomato varieties, for example, I learned that to maximize your yield, you had to remove flowers in the early stages of planting. Now for the initiated, flowers turn into fruit…at least on the tomato plant.
So, it struck me as crazy that in order to produce more tomatoes you had to cut off the very flowers that become tomatoes. Now, you’d do this for a variety of reasons. If the plant was newly-planted, the flowers were removed to prevent it from expending energy on developing fruit before it was ready. You’d also do this to ensure that the plant would grow out more, rather than focus on producing its fruit before its season.
Pruning isn’t just limited to tomato plants. Naturally, it applies to a variety of bushes, trees, and vines, from roses to grapes. Master horticulturalists intimately understand the process of getting the most out of their product, even knowing how to cut them down to help them become more than they would ever be on their own.
Jesus lived in an agrarian society, which means that the vast majority of his audience had some understanding of cultivating land or farming of some kind. They either had a private garden for their own supply, or they worked on a farm. Several of Jesus’ parables center on farming of some kind. This was a way of life for his listeners, so they latched onto it, often needing little explanation- at least as it pertained to the surface meaning.
In John 15, Jesus uses another farming metaphor, this time related to growing grapes. Viticulture has a long history in the middle east, particularly in Israel, so it’s not shocking that when Jesus is talking about how God works in the lives of his people that he would use terms like this.
So it’s not unexpected that he would talk about vines and branches to his audience when he declares in verse 1 that, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes[a] to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed[b] by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
Pruning is so counterintuitive to the uninitiated because it seems on its surface that it’s harming the plant. The very idea of wantonly hacking at a vine doesn’t make any sense to me. If you look at a video of somebody pruning, it sometimes can seem as though they are cutting at random, cutting too much, and cutting too far.
And while it makes sense why you’d cut off a dead branch or rid the vine of dead leaves, it seems like a waste to cut a healthy, fruit-bearing branch. Why punish the branch for doing its job?
The truth of the matter is that pruning isn’t a punishment, and it’s not harming the plant.
In fact, pruning is about productivity and provision. A skilled gardener knows where to cut and how far to cut. Though it may seem random to an outsider, each cut is meticulous and calculated to be done at precisely the right place.
But why? What purpose does it serve?
The answer shocked me when I first heard my friend Matt LeRoy tell me, only to confirm it in my own research.
The gardener prunes the vine because the nature of the vine is to grow where you cut it. Biologically, the vines are designed to send added nutrients and energy to the ends that have been cut.
The gardener doesn’t cut the branch to harm it, he does it to make it grow.
Even further, where the cut is made, often two or three shoots will form at the place of cutting, so we’re not only talking about additional growth but sometimes exponential growth.
All of which would not be possible if the master gardener didn’t lovingly, expertly, faithfully prune the branch.
You may be seeing where I’m getting at, but Jesus said that God is the master gardener. When we abide in him, orienting our lives around him, choosing to make him the source of our life and nourishment, the by-product is becoming fruitful.
But it doesn’t mean that our walk is going to be easy. It doesn’t mean that he won’t continue to challenge us. Quite the contrary, when God sees your potential to bear more fruit, he will push you toward that potential.
I had a professor in seminary that CLAIMS that he was pushing me harder than other students because he saw a future doctoral student and he wanted me to be fully prepared for the next step of my academic journey. Where he might not have been so harsh in grading or as nitpicky in some grammatical or citation matters, he pushed me, hoping that I would grow and blossom as a student.
God often works the same way, using situations that we face to challenge us, providing opportunities for pruning, for removing branches in us that do not bear fruit, and be promoting new growth by strategically, surgically cutting things out of your life.
This isn’t a comfortable process. Growing rarely is, but what I’ve found is that God’s plan may be challenging, it may even hurt, but it will not harm.
The question that I would leave you to reflect today is this: how is God pruning your life today? What area is he promoting new growth? And how can you surrender yourself to his movement today?
Remember, the words of Paul in Philippians 1, which are my prayer for you today: “I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
I’m believing in you and cheering you on this week! I can’t wait to worship with you on Sunday!
Love you all!