The old lady next to me had been battling cancer for 10 years, but she wasn’t giving up the fight just yet. Side by side in our chemo chairs, we got to talking about how some people can smoke a pack a day, drink like a fish and still live to be a 100, while other people can work so hard to stay healthy and yet die young of cancer or some accident.
I mused aloud if both circumstances weren’t the patience and providence of God.
For those who refuse to yield, the apparent blessing of a long life is granted to them. From our point of view it seems like they are being rewarded for their stubbornness or sin, but from God’s point of view they are merely being given every chance possible to repent.
While those who strive to live sober lives but are burdened with disease or hardship are being given the opportunity to grow. Suffering is pruning, and perseverance is growth.
We might look at the old man who has been stubborn in all his ways and wonder why God allowed him to live so long in his stubbornness and sin, but what we see as the reward of a long life, He sees as the chance to redeem a fruitless life. What grace to delight in a few short years of fruitfulness despite a long life of bitter waste.
A fulfilled life is marked by perseverance and growth, by bearing fruit to the blessing of others, not mere duration. Better a short life bursting with abundance than a long, stagnant life that blesses no one in its passing.
There is a parable in Luke 13:6-9 that tells the story of a barren fig tree given one more chance. It goes like this:
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on the fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”
We are like the man who cries, “Cut it down!” when we see people wasting their lives and just taking up space. We are so quick to judge. But the Gardener is patient, willing that none should parish. See his heart for the fig tree. “Give me one more season,” he pleads. “Let me care for this tree one more time. Let me dig out the old, dry dirt and mulch in nutrient-rich compost. Give him one more year to bear forth fruit.”
Interestingly, the ancient way of looking at life was in three seasons. You may have heard of these seasons of life portrayed as a virgin, a maiden, and a crone. Consider then the significance of three years, or seasons, of barrenness. When we have wasted away our entire lives, all that we have and are, the Gardener asks for one more season.
This is the heart of the Divine Gardener towards you.
When we let the Gardener work in our lives, submitting to his pruning shears, we become a blessing to others both in the richer fruit we bare and in the space we give others to grow into. This is the experience Henri Nouwen writes about in The Life of the Beloved.
Nouwen presents our common experience of human brokenness as inevitable and uniquely our own. He writes:
“The leaders and prophets of Israel, who were clearly chosen and blessed, all lived very broken lives. And we, the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, cannot escape our brokenness either.”
“Our brokenness is truly ours. Nobody else’s. Our brokenness is as unique as our chosenness and blessedness.”
We all face the same struggles in life to varying degrees, but the way we break is actually an expression of our individuality. This is why we feel so alone in our pain, and also why we come together over our brokenness in our songs, our art, and stories. Our brokenness is a unique experience that bonds us together.
Henri goes on to offer us two responses to our brokenness. The first is to embrace it, “to face it squarely and befriend it.” We must walk through our suffering to find healing on the other side, otherwise we will simply sit in the pain.
When I was diagnosed with Lymphoma in 2009, I was faced with the decision to either undergo chemotherapy or let the cancer kill me, which the doctor assured me was inevitable and near.
The only way out was through.
“The deep truth,” Henri writes, “is that our human suffering need not be an obstacle to the joy and peace we so desire, but can become, instead, the means to it.”
How do we do this? By bringing our suffering under our blessing. This second response to our suffering is no easy task. Henri’s suggestion here is not about enjoying pain, but about getting a new perspective on it.
Rather than looking at our suffering as a confirmation of our self-rejection, we can trust the voice that calls us the Beloved and persevere through our suffering to a deeper blessing, like a vine that preservers through its pruning to become healthier and more abundant.
Such growth and blessing is the hope within our suffering, but not all suffering is at the hands of a loving Gardener. Sometimes suffering comes like a lighting storm raging through the garden, or like disease seeping through the soil. Is there still hope in this kind of suffering? Let’s consider that question next week.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your story about how you have grown through pruning. Feel free to leave a comment below, or message me through the contact form. You can also sign up for our newsletter and join the conversation on Facebook at On Journey Together.
Buen Camino, my friends.
To the end, to the truth.