The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."
January 5, 2001
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful." John 15:1-2
How nice, I used to think when I read those verses. God is the gardener, and when Christians remain in Christ and bear fruit, God tends to us so that we grow in Jesus and produce more fruit.
Of course, I never thought much about what Jesus meant by his "pruning" comment. That is, until recently.
What is the point of pruning? A master gardener knows that pruning makes plants healthier and more productive.
A master gardener knows exactly when, where, and how much to prune. The plant does not! Its job is to submit to being pruned.
After pruning, the plant is reinvigorated. New, directed growth results. The plant produces more fruit than it would have otherwise.
Jesus told us that he is the vine, we are the branches, and the Father is the gardener. We've got the master gardener who knows exactly what and where to prune in our lives. He can see things in us that we can't, and he knows how to correct them. Like the plant, our job is to submit to his pruning.
It's important to understand that God's pruning can cause us temporary pain. It is not easy to see something you held dear in your life cut away from you, even if deep down you realize you are better off without it. It's even more difficult if you don't understand what's happening or you resist being pruned.
I believe God prunes us in a number of ways. In my life, he has convicted me through prayer and Scripture, he has prompted other Christians to encourage and admonish me, and he has used my life circumstances to instruct me. Let me give you an example of circumstance-based pruning from my own life so you can get an idea of what I mean.
About a year and a half ago I led a Christian basics class in the church I was helping to found. In one of our sessions we discussed the nine fruit of the Spirit:
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law."
One of the points of the lesson was that the fruit are actually aspects of God's own personality. As we abide in Christ, the Holy Spirit molds us and we begin to take on each of these traits ourselves. God's plan is that, just like fruit, each character trait will grow to maturity within us.
Class members were asked to comment on the fruit we already had seen God develop within us, and to look honestly at which fruit were still lacking in our lives.
It was a sobering experience for me. I had seen much progress in joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and gentleness. But I knew I had a long way to go in patience, self-control and most of all, love.
My lack of unconditional (agape) love for other people especially troubled me. I remembered back to what Paul had to say about this kind of love in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3:
"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing."
That night I began praying earnestly that those three fruit, especially love, would grow in me.
Fast forward to the present. My prayer has been answered. These fruit have developed. But it took God's pruning work, and the accompanying but necessary pain, to work the change.
God instructed me in patience as I wandered in the desert of a fallow season after the church start I was part of failed. Instead of immediately guiding me to a new church and ministry, God stayed with me as I struggled. Rather than provide relief right away, he helped me endure mental and emotional hurts. I have learned a lot about waiting, and I have greater trust in God's providence and timing.
God grew the fruit of self control by showing me how futile my own attempts were without him. In the past eight months I found myself in deep depression and despair over my church situation. During this time I realized my own strength was not sufficient to deal with my overwhelming feelings and thoughts. I have a greater understanding of my total dependence on God and the depths of my own weakness. To be self-controlled, I've found I must really be God-controlled.
God pruned me in unconditional love by shutting down a personal relationship, then asking me to forgive and love that person just as he does. As I followed God's lead, I learned firsthand what Jesus meant by loving and forgiving people who did not know what they'd done. Now I have a greater understanding of God's love and a heightened thankfulness for Christ's life and work. Increasingly I can see people through God's eyes and I am learning to love them as he loves them.
I wish I could tell you that I always bore God's pruning with a cheerful spirit, completely trusted what God was doing even when I didn't understand it, and had absolute faith that the circumstances in my life would ultimately work together for my good (Romans 8:28).
But that's not how it happened. I really didn't see the bigger picture until recently, and I struggled a lot under the pruning process.
I replayed events over and over in my mind, trying to make them make sense. I felt sorry for myself. I beat myself up mentally and emotionally. I asked "Why?" far too many times. I became bitter towards others.
I did do one thing right, though. I spent a lot of time hanging on to God for dear life. I did my best to remember God's faithfulness to me in times past and to recall his signposts in my life. I spent a lot of time praying about my experiences and checking them against Scripture. Over and over I said with Peter:
"Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." — John 6:68-69
Today I can say that not giving up on God was what allowed him to work in me, and that made all the difference.
Was the pruning painful? Absolutely. I can look around on the ground and see all the things God cut away. I would have hung on to many of them had it been my choice.
But I'm not the master gardener who knows exactly what I need to grow, be healthy, and produce fruit. Today, I am grateful that his ways are higher than my ways and his thoughts higher than my thoughts (Isaiah 55:9). I can say it with confidence: The pruning truly has been for my good.
Perhaps God is pruning something in you right now. He may be doing it through circumstances you find yourself in, through an inner prompting during prayer or Scripture reading, or in the counsel of another Christian.
Hang on to him, even when you don't understand. Ask him for his direction — and obey him when you receive it. And believe that he knows what is best for you and is leading you according to his will. Submit to the pruning: one day you will be healthier and bear more fruit because of it.