You’ve probably heard at least one sermon or read at least one book on spiritual growth which refers to us being “pruned” by God, usually in reference to John 15:1-2, “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.”
I know next to nothing about pruning trees. (I know Jesus was referring to grapevines, not trees, but I think my tree analogy will work. I know nothing about pruning grapevines, either.) I know to trim off “shooters” that do nothing but sap energy from the “good” branches, and that dead branches can be removed. But other than that, you wouldn’t want me close to any of your trees. I have a number of trees on my property, but no fruit-bearing varieties. Any pruning we do is simply for aesthetics; that is, we want our trees to look nice. Branches are trimmed so the trees will “fill out,” and branches that go off in weird directions will be snipped for that reason. One commentary that I saw on John 15 said that God’s pruning process was designed to make us “look more like Jesus.” So, you can understand why my assumption (although to be honest, before now I never really thought that much about it) was that the more we are pruned, the better we will look.
For many years we had lived in the middle of suburban San Diego, in a development of nearly identical tract homes with very few mature trees. Five years ago we moved to Oregon, which is pretty much just a huge forest with a few clearings where people can live. We live one block from the edge of town, and right across the street from the city limits are some peach and cherry orchards, which I would drive by every day on my way to and from work. One day a couple of years ago, I was shocked at the aftermath of an apparent pruning: there were huge piles of branches on the ground below the trees, so much so that it seemed the poor trees had no branches left. I wish I had taken a photograph of it, but by the time I thought to go back with my camera, the debris had been removed, leaving just the poor naked trees to wait for leaves and new growth.
This year, another pruning has taken place in the orchard around the corner; not as drastic as that first year, but enough so that a couple of days ago I walked over and took some photos. As I stood looking for the best angle, I had an epiphany: Pruning makes you ugly, not better-looking. I stood looking at the freshly-pruned trees, which were obviously the most mature of the trees in the orchard from their size, thinking that they could have been models for the Headless Horseman’s tree in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. They were gnarled and scarred, and no longer had the same natural beauty and symmetry that younger trees on either side had. If my hunch is correct, it’s only a matter of time before the younger trees, too, will be pruned to the point of ugliness, for the sake of better (and more) fruit.
Pruning makes you ugly – I had never stopped to think about that before (and don’t recall this ever being preached on – chances are it’s not a popular sermon topic, and not one that’s apt to make visitors return to your church). Obviously, the point of this kind of pruning is the fruit, not the beauty of the tree.
Now for the deep spiritual insight that you’ve all been expecting: How many times do we look at ourselves and get disappointed at our ugliness? Unless, of course, you’re a guy who sees it as rugged good looks. But seriously, don’t we look at our scars and our gnarled and sometimes missing limbs, and start to think that God’s somehow forgotten to heal us? I think we forget that “looking good” – one of my few life-long goals – is not the point. We judge ourselves, and others, on meaningless things like symmetry and lack of what we consider to be defects. But, God’s job is to prune us, and pruning ruins all of that. Everything we think is fine, gets damaged or removed. What God knows is that a fruit tree’s only real asset is its ability to produce fruit, and therefore a scar is a beautiful thing.