Gardening with God
Perhaps you have noticed how when a tree’s branches are exposed at this time of year they look like upside down lungs. That’s just what God’s designed them to be: our lungs suck the oxygen out of the air and feed it into our bodies; trees suck in the carbon dioxide we breath out, use it and give us back the oxygen we need.
Like a tree takes the waste from our lungs, Jesus takes our rubbish, our sin, and transforms it into food to enrich us and the rest of the vine. Like a tree connects each leaf, twig and branch to each other by virtue of it’s relationship with the trunk, Jesus does likewise with us.
It is no mistake that diagrams of our genealogy are called family trees. If a person is on your family tree they are related to you, no matter how far apart in time and space.
Understandably our ability to explore our own family trees is limited by the level of information recorded in the past but often even what we do find out is complex and throws up some surprises. If the information was there we would be able to place each and every person in a single family tree but Jesus saves us the bother and makes it very simple.
“I am the vine; you are the branches”
Each and every believer is related to each other through Jesus Christ. Through Jesus we have brothers and sisters we have never met, brothers and sisters being persecuted; brothers and sisters in poverty, brothers and sisters who pray for us and who need our prayers; in your church, your town, your country, our world.
But what of those are part of our family tree but not yet within God’s tree, that haven’t accepted Christ’s gift yet? Jesus has the answer in the very first verse of John 15:1-11:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener”.
God is a gardener who grafts. Now grafting is quite an art. It’s the practice of taking one species of a plant and attaching it to another in such a way that it becomes part of that plant. The host plant adopts and incorporates the new plant, feeding it just as it feeds the rest of the plant. My Grandparents did it with apple trees, God can do it with people!
But God the gardener doesn’t stop with grafting us into His tree, the vine Jesus talked about. Once we’re in He prunes.
I’ve spent much of this autumn addressing a lack of pruning. The shrubs, bushes and trees at a house I moved to last year had been left alone for too long and although on the service they looked fine, autumn revealed them to be thin, woody and weak.
But why does God need to prune us?
The Greek for ‘He prunes’ also means ‘He cleans’, in other words God doesn’t just do it to guide us but to care for us. Properly cared for people and plants thrive whilst neglected ones find themselves in trouble.
Children may rebel against the rules that parents and teachers lay down but studies have shown how they crave them if they are taken away. Left without a set of boundaries to live by and they soon discover life becomes chaotic and less fun. The statistics tell a sad tale: a child taken by the state into care is much more likely to find themselves in trouble.
Although fewer than 1% of children in England are in care they make up 33% of boys and 61% of girls in custody (Source: Beyond Youth Custody).
No matter how positive the guidance or discipline is, when its done to us, pruning by God, family or friends can feel painful or frustrating. But if we were uncared for, or left unchecked and without boundaries or guidance, we would lose our way.
God cares for us beyond rescuing and healing us, He wants us to be fruitful and to be fruitful He knows that in order to make the most of our lives for ourselves, others and Him we need to be effective.
How often have we tried to be all things to all people, or be a ‘jack of all trades’ only to find we are ‘master of none’? Just as pruning helps a plant direct its energy to produce strong and healthy growth, God may suggest the need for a little bit of pruning in our lives to help us focus our efforts on things that will produce the most fruit in ourselves, others and the Kingdom as a whole.
Don’t try to do everything or feel guilty that you aren’t rushing to every mission but tune in to God to find out where, on what or whom you should be focusing on at this moment in your life.
But what is the fruit Jesus speaks of?
Fruitfulness isn’t simply about direction or effectiveness, as Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians (Galatians 5:16-26) it’s also the characteristics we should have and demonstrate to others.
Paul wrote ‘acts of the flesh’ and ‘fruit of the spirit’. Acts is plural and fruit is singular. In other words whilst Paul said that where as we might only succumb to one or some of the acts if we are to reflect God’s Kingdom to people we should produce all of the fruitful characteristics.
Let me remind you what characteristics we are supposed to demonstrate:
“the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”
Now, I don’t know about you but I may… on occasions… well, on most days… struggle with… one to two or more of them!
The fruit of the spirit consists of attitudes that enhance personal relationships, ways of thinking that manifest in our behaviour with each other. For example, the qualities of peace and joy probably refer not to subjective feelings but to the way we deal with each other.
Love doesn’t mean we have to like everyone but it does mean we have to see beyond our opinions and treat them as Jesus would.
Peace doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have arguments or be pacifists, but it does mean that how ever much we disagree with someone we should seek to deal with them in way that will bring peace. At the moment there is naturally lots of talk about how to respond to terrorists. Whilst some are reacting in the way the terrorists are wanting us to, many others are trying to find a way to respond in a way that ends the cycle of violence. I would say that the latter are demonstrating the peace Paul refers to.
Kindness, goodness don’t mean we should say yes every time someone asks for something but we shouldn’t withhold it out of spite or selfishness. Gentleness and self-control mean doesn’t mean we should not be firm or not be angry, but that we should act with care and restraint.
And faithfulness? In all that we do we should be loyal, constant, dependable and dedicated whether its for God or for each other.
What do we need to do to produce the fruit?
The purpose of the vine is to produce fruit so if we have accepted the invitation to be grafted onto the vine will we automatically produce the fruit? If we are in tune with the Holy Spirit and keep God’s commands as Jesus did, will we avoid succumbing to acts of the flesh: to anger, envy, selfishness and hatred to name but four?
If only it was so easy!
We are shaped by our experiences more than by the answers to our questions. God knows what I’m sure you do, that if you tell a person the answer they learn little; but if you give them the tools to find the answers for themselves and they learn much more than the answer itself.
It’s difficult to see clearly the best course of action or be aware of some supernatural pruning whilst we’re in the midst of it, which may be why God gave us hindsight! But both Jesus and Paul pointed to how we can do our best to be fruitful.
Our attention needs to be on what needs to be done to produce a good crop, and for us to be fruitful we need to at least do things in God’s strength, not ours; we need to turn to Him when we feel tempted to give into any of the acts of the flesh that Paul describes: idolatry, envy, rage, selfishness and hatred to name but five.
They both knew that we need God, not just for our salvation but for living well in this world. Jesus wants us to remain in the vine not chiefly because He wants us to be fruitful but because He loves us.
Jesus told His disciple and tells us to keep His commands we will remain in and retain His love. Another way to think about it is that if we are true to what He has taught and teaches us we will be require less pruning and His nutrients will be able to feed us more effectively, making us and our faith stronger.
We can’t produce Christian character simply by obeying the 10 commandments or by being disciplined. We can only produce the fruit of the Spirit with the Spirit.
If we are occupied in pleasing one, the Spirit or the flesh, we will not please the other. Christ gave a fatal blow to the power of the flesh over us when we placed our faith in Him so ultimately we will be victorious, but the journey to the victory will be more fruitful and more pleasing with His help.
Paul spells it out like this: go through life with the Holy Spirit as our walking-partner and we will find ourselves steering away from the acts of the flesh he spoke of. We find ourselves be angry less, we won’t lust over things or be envious of other people’s position in life as much.
I’m not saying we will never be envious, that we won’t find hatred within ourselves, or even that we won’t idolise someone or something but that the more we walk in step with Christ; the more we are in tune with God to hear and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit the less we will.
The more we consciously walk with God, the more we will be fruitful. Not only will we notice the difference in ourselves but so will others, and they and society will reap the benefits of our fruit. They may even decide to they want some of it too.
If we want to see God’s Kingdom we need be within God’s family tree and we need to live the Kingdom life. God can graft us into it and feed us at anytime, and once we are within the vine we need to connect with him, and we need to have an attitude of prayer.
Prayer is our conversation with God, our chance to put the distractions outside of the vine aside and be fed through the Holy Spirit and receive God’s guidance.
We need to connect with God and the Holy Spirit each day. If we don’t we will live in our own strength and will not produce that fruit, those characteristics of a Christian living in step with Christ. If we do, we will not only reflect and demonstrate what the Kingdom of Heaven is like but we’ll enjoy living a lot more whilst we wait for Jesus to return.
Lord, help us to hear you daily, to notice your promptings to turn away from certain things and towards others.
Help us to consciously live out each characteristic of the fruit of the Spirit for the benefit or ourselves and others, but most of all for you glory.