This summer I’ve been blessed by the teaching of my brother as he unpacks the Word from the book of James. The themes of consistency and bearing fruit in our lives as evidence of our salvation have become more real and applicable to me than at any time in my Christian life.
Now, anyone who has spent much time around the church has heard parables and metaphors about fruit, vines and trees – how the fruit we bear is evidence of the condition of our heart. We’ve heard about figs and olives, withered trees and branches cast into the fire. The analogies (no reflection on the James series!) can become too familiar and comfortable.
This past weekend I decided to tackle the job of pruning the great Curly Hazel tree in the corner of our backyard. My Grandad, a man who knew of such things, informed me that Curly Hazels of this size and age are rare and valuable (yay for me! I have a rich tree). That was three years ago, and this year the tree was starting to look its age a bit.
“Time for a bit of a trim,” I thought, grabbing my trusty clippers and my pint-sized helper. “A little snippage and this old beauty will be good as new, ready to focus on more healthy growth.”
Approximately three hours and three large and heavy bundles later, I had a different perspective. What had appeared to be a reasonably healthy tree was in fact mostly dead (but not all dead – no looking for loose change yet!) and heavily infested. In working on the tree I clipped off all the dead branches I could reach, pulled many large weeds and small trees from around the base, removed several large branches that had snuck through the fence from neighbouring trees, and washed out all the accumulated sawdust and soil from the ant infestations. The remainder is a barely recognizable trunk and a few branches that still bear green leaves.
How had I been so fooled? How did I not see the tree was so close to death? The reasons are many, and they spoke directly to my heart:
- The decay happened gradually
- My expectations were lowered
- The rot was hidden
- The damage was camouflaged
You see, in passing by the tree, I often determined from a glance that the tree was meeting expectations. It wasn’t flourishing like Janis‘ freakish HGH Tomatoes, but you don’t expect that from an aged tree. My expectations were lowered because of the tree’s circumstances. How often do we do that with each other and with our own hearts? “I’m getting along fine, I think” – well enough for an average guy like me with a list of excuses and explanations that I use to buffer myself from higher expectations. Because I didn’t strive for perfection, I was blind to the deterioration of the fruit of my tree.
Abundant ground cover and some large, stubborn weeds hid the rot at the base of the trunk. While I ignored the open wound various colonies of ants entered the tree, consuming it from the inside. I only noticed the problem once the outside distractions were pulled back and the rot was laid bare. How often do the distractions of life and the world cover over our blatant problems by occupying our time and energy, blocking our vision? Even weeds can look nice and green if you don’t look too closely.
I was shocked to find that most of the upper green leaves I attributed to my tree were actually from neighbouring trees whose branches were stealthily encroaching on the hazel’s space. Once the neighbouring branches were pruned away the tree’s lack of fruit was plain to see. It made me wonder how often our perceived fruit is really the fruit of others near to us. In a church as vibrant and healthy as GFC, it can be very easy to tag along for the ride and participate in the fruit of others while contributing little. When the works of others are removed from view our own pathetic harvest can be seen plainly judged.
So what will happen with my tree? I don’t know. I have stripped away the weeds that disguised it, removed the mask of the healthy fruit of other trees, cleaned away the dirt and rot, and sprayed to destroy the ant colonies. I have done externally all that I can – but if there is no life in the tree, I am dealing with kindling, not a bearer of fruit. Only time will tell if this tree is destined for glory or fire.
As for me, I am more grateful than ever for the Holy Spirit in me and the assurance of my salvation through Jesus. I am more motivated than ever to bring forth fruit in my life, to His glory, in His strength and through His Spirit. I want to be more vigilant over my heart.