The lilac bush outside our kitchen window this month is spilling its lavender and olfactory glory as none of us remember in recent years. So I asked my wife how she explained such an unexpected extravagance.
"It's the pruning," she said. But she said it with a tone that told me she was talking about a great deal more of life than the lilac bush.
In fact, some time earlier she had been pretty severe with the old bush. Her judgment is better than mine on such matters, but even so, I had winced at how many severed branches got carried up the driveway for the refuse pile. Would the lilac bush, which had already shown signs of bad wear when we bought this house 21 years ago, survive?
It not only survived, but flourished. And the reason I knew that my wife was thinking of much more than the lilac bush after having whacked away with such confidence was that together in recent months we too had experienced more of the Lord's pruning knife than we had in a long time-and together we had also seen how such pruning tends to yield the best blossoms in memory.
Still there's puzzlement, and an unanswered question, that hangs over such situations. Does God's pruning represent punishment for specific matters we've given too little attention to, or is the pruning just his routine annual trimming to keep things ship-shape? The question perplexes individuals and families (like Job and his wife), but it can confuse whole societies and nations as well. All of us, unlike lilac bushes, have hearts, souls, and consciences that tend to ask incessantly, "What is God doing? The promise of blossoms notwithstanding, what do these painfully sharp blades mean right now?"
The answers to such questions do not come easily. Indeed, they do not come at all to people who ask with arrogance or a sense of having the right to know. If you want the answers, you'd better get in the right posture. Like Job, you need to discover that the right posture means kneeling-or maybe even falling flat on your face.
Too often, instead, as we evangelical Christians in North America are called on painfully to watch a few of our past comforts disappear over the horizons of history, we've responded like spoiled children. We've yelped and yapped about everything that's wrong "out there"-when maybe what is called for is a little pensive introspection about changes God wants to bring about in our own hearts. We see his pruning knife at work and can imagine only that it is intended for the wicked rebels, when if we were attentive to his voice we would see how it is meant to spruce up our own performance in his kingdom.
Now mind you that when any particular piece of God's pruning occurs, it may appear at first glance to be impossibly messy. A winter storm that came through our city a couple of months ago took a terrible toll on all kinds of trees in the area; the devastation, even in a setting as well manicured as the Biltmore Estate, was not pretty for a number of weeks. Yet now, for miles around, the whole forest system has been pruned in a maxi-manner, and thousands of acres have been freed of weakened and inferior stock. We're left with the hardiest of the hardy. Not the way we would have done it? Of course not. But the fact is that had it been left to our near-sighted scheduling, we never would have done it at all.
Perhaps it's because of what we perceive as a very messy process that our vision gets so clouded. In such circumstances, when you see God's "terrible swift sword" falling but you can't quite figure out what's going on, I suggest a simple order of exploration:
(1) Resist the almost automatic temptation to presume God is pruning someone else. He may be, of course-but God is also big enough to be doing several things at once. So it's good to ask him first whether what he's doing is intended for your own instruction, no matter how other-directed it may first appear.
(2) Confess your own sins. Identify those ugly and deformed branches you're finally willing now to have whacked off, and ask God to get on with it.
(3) Speak the truth in love to those you think are also doing wrong. Your faithfulness in doing so may be God's means of pruning someone else who needs it. Your faithlessness in avoiding such a task may leave that person an ugly and unfruitful bush.
(4) Recognize that it's also possible that God's pruning of you, or someone else, has nothing at all to do with particular sin or wrongdoing. He may simply be toughening you for the days ahead, or proving how big he and his purposes are. Discovering that is also a little like standing next to a lilac bush-in that it's fragrant, it's overpowering, it's mysterious, and it reminds you how little you deserve something so wonderful.