John 15:1-11 (ESV)
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
PRUNING AS THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL
How we respond to difficult and painful circumstances in life often reveals our hearts. God uses these experiences to prune us in order that we may bear more and better fruit. The process of “pruning” that the Father does (as described by Jesus in this passage) is not a pleasant experience! The Father prunes us in ways that are sometimes shallow, sometimes deep. The deeper pruning seasons I would put in the category of the “Dark Night of the Soul,” where there are deep wounds cut upon the branch, and fruitfulness lies dormant for a good long while. I saw myself in this passage today, having been deeply pruned over the last 10 years (and counting), without much sign of stopping.
Here are some facts about pruning from Susan C. French, Extension Technician and Bonnie Lee Appleton, Extension Horticulturist, Virginia Tech (http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/430/430-455/430-455.html). I have inserted a few thoughts on application throughout.
Pruning is a regular part of plant maintenance involving the selective removal of specific plant parts. . . . Pruning wounds plants.
1) To improve the appearance or health of a plant. Prompt removal of diseased, damaged, or dead plant parts speeds the formation of callus tissue, and sometimes limits the spread of insects and disease. For trees, pruning a dense canopy permits better air circulation and sunlight penetration. To avoid future problems, remove crossing branches that rub or interfere with each other, and those that form narrow crotches.
[Here we are reminded that God is pursuing what is best for us in all things. He is relentless in his efforts to make us fit for life in his kingdom.]
2) To control the size of a plant. Pruning reduces the size of a plant so that it remains in better proportion with your landscape. Pruning can also decrease shade, prevent interference with utility lines, and allow better access for pest control.
[He must increase, we must decrease. Pruning definitely “reduces” us, keeps us human in helping us to embrace our limits.]
3) To prevent personal injury or property damage. Remove dead or hazardously low limbs to make underlying areas safer. Corrective pruning also reduces wind resistance in trees. Prune shrubs with thorny branches back from walkways and other well-traveled areas. Have trained or certified arborists handle any pruning work in the crowns of large trees.
[We are pruned so that our “parts” have strength to them, and won’t give way when the slightest wind of testing comes. Our weaker parts easily injure others.]
4) To train young plants. Train main scaffold branches (those that form the structure of the canopy) to produce stronger and more vigorous trees. You'll find it easier to shape branches with hand pruners when a plant is young than to prune larger branches later. Pruning often begins with young plants for bonsai, topiary, espalier, or other types of special plant training.
[Shoots that are hardened into habits are much more difficult to prune and much more painful. How much better it is to submit to God’s pruning early on rather than when great damage has been done! This also implies that other younger plants are leaning on us for support in the Christian community.]
5) To influence fruiting and flowering. Proper pruning of flower buds encourages early vegetative growth. You can also use selective pruning to stimulate flowering in some species, and to help produce larger (though fewer) fruits in others.
[God’s pruning stimulates our growth and fruitfulness in Him. The pain and injury of pruning drives us back in desperation to the source of life, the Vine of Jesus]
6) To rejuvenate old trees and shrubs. As trees and shrubs mature, their forms may become unattractive. Pruning can restore vigor, and enhance the appearance of these plants.
[Pruning keeps us childlike – joyful, dependent, full of wonder. How sad the older life that no longer responds to God’s shears! By his grace may we remain pliable and prun-able.]
GOD’S PURPOSE IN PRUNING IS LOVE
God desires our hearts; he makes us and redeems us in order to have intimate relationship with us, to abide in and with us. He invites us to commune with his three-in-one self, and in this rich community to find our true selves.
We are pruned so that we can abide in this reality, the ultimate reality of the love of God. He cuts away everything that hinders this abiding (see St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul for more on this). John Coe offers this helpful summary of the general purpose of Dark Nights, and we can see how well it fits with the biblical idea of pruning:
1) Development of Spiritual Hunger and Purging of the Heart (Deut. 8:1-5)
2) Union with God in Love as the power for change in the spiritual life (Eph 3:16-19) (taken from his excellent Spiritual Formation lectures on biblicaltraining.org)
Our efforts to delay or resist the gardener will only result in more painful pruning, so let’s seek to surrender more freely and fully to the hands of the gardener, which sometimes feel like the hands of a brutal surgeon. When the pain is great, we have his word to remind us of his heart – that he loves us so much that he died (ultimate self-pruning?!) to bring us back to him. He knows it is difficult to abide when we are being pruned, so he gives us his Spirit and Word along with community to help us.
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.