We often have no idea how to address our own deepest needs. Enter a Savior who is willing to get His hands dirty.
The Problem Down Under
The fitness world was stunned when The Biggest Loser host and fitness trainer, Bob Harper, suffered a heart attack. It seems we are all under the popular assumption that if your physique looks like it was carved out of marble, you’re healthy, no doubt about it.
Such surface level metrics usually prove faulty, but we use them all the time, even to gauge spiritual health.
Christian smiles and cheery demeanor can mask emptiness, staleness, gnawing sorrow, anger, runaway lust, and anxiety. We hope if we ignore inward problems, suppressing them and limping along with their burdens, maybe they will disappear.
They don’t. In fact, they are likely to become more painfully entrenched. In the meantime, while locked in secret drama with these spiritual parasites, we try to squeeze out fruit that will tell a different story—that we are peaceful and joyful within. But that life feels suspiciously hypocritical. After a while, we resent it and the energy it takes to spin it.
Authentic spiritual health doesn’t start with appearances above ground. It begins at root level.
What Jesus Does About Troubled Little Trees
Jesus had a story to tell on this point in Luke 13:
6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
The owner of the vineyard expected the tree to bear fruit, which was certainly a reasonable expectation. Even more reasonable was his patience, as he waited years for something—anything—to happen.
The only detail in the parable that was unreasonable and illogical is how a tree managed to remain barren while planted in perfectly good ground. And so finally, the owner initiates a conversation about it. All the business of the moment seems to rotate around the condition of that one unfruitful little tree on the outer edge of a vast vineyard—a testimony of the owner’s earnest that everything belonging to him should arrive at its fullest life potential.
God righteously expects the fruits of repentance and growth, and outside the grace of Christ, He would be entirely justified in cutting us down. Nor would our sin-loving flesh care if that were to happen. While God reasons that the tree might be worthless and the ground space valuable, the sinful mind thinks in opposite terms—that the ground is worthless, and the fruitless tree is valuable.
Our darkened minds urge us to give up, to abandon the Christ in whom we have been planted. What good is redemption, anyway? It produces nothing worthwhile. Why not plant oneself into something more gratifying, like business, or hobbies, or various passions rather than this austere plot of Jesus earth?
Yet from God’s perspective, the tree, not the ground, is in question.
Still, He exhibits amazing depths of longsuffering toward us, seeking through the seasons and the years even for one small shriveled fig.
Well beyond what is reasonable, the vineyard owner finally proposes that the tree be removed. It is a suggestion that makes us wonder about a plethora of further theological questions, ones which the parable seems not designed to address. On display here instead, is the utter seriousness of salvation’s fruit, and the vinedresser’s plan.
Yes, the vinedresser—Christ—has a plan for this troubled tree. He counsels to dig around it, going beneath the surface, and packing the tree’s subterranean root network with manure. The fertilizing properties of manure were known from the earliest times to farmers and husbandmen everywhere. They knew better than to simply pour it upon the tree, for that would kill it or burn it. Rain might wash it away. It had to go on the roots.
Once packed there, the tree stood the best chance of immediate nourishment.
The vinedresser had the highest trust in this process. Still, He concedes an “if not,” reminding us that there is a limited time during this life that we can participate in spiritual growth and fruit bearing. We ought to heed these seasons.
Otherwise, His sentiments are exactly those of the owner of the vineyard: “Cut it down.” Jesus is not the One who jumps in front of the tree to protect it from the mean owner (God). He is the one who facilitates exactly what the owner wants from the beginning: fruit. The Son of God has no intention of honoring a tree that ultimately proves worthless. A tree without figs is a fake fig tree.
Don’t Just Sit There; Join the Vinedresser!
None of us would bear any fruit at all without the vinedressing Christ and His divine provisions. But there is still the matter of our cooperation—sometimes called “abiding,” and sometimes “working out your own salvation.”
If we want to cooperate with Him though, we need to understand His process.
For one, we should be willing to dig, to go beneath the surface and into the heart. Real Christians are never satisfied with superficial religiosity. But what do we bring into our depths? What will fertilize our spiritual processes so richly that the fruit of Christ-like virtue and ministry effectiveness cannot help but result?
Peter gives us some idea in the introduction to his second letter, where he says, 1:2 May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.
Grace and peace multiplies, that is, grows and increases, in the knowledge of God and Jesus our Lord. This is the plan for a languishing tree: pack its root system full of that knowledge. As a starting place, pull out the Bible and read about the goodness and love and power of God. Expose yourself to His righteousness, His holiness, and His glory. Learn about the cross of Jesus, His resurrection, His ascension, and His coming. Pack it in, and something will happen.
The Tale of the Self-Centered Tree that Bore a Little Bit of Fruit
At the end of the eighties, my wife (Aleisha) and I had settled into an idyllic young couple’s lifestyle, streamlined with only each other to care about. We found our groove of work, school, fun, and church, comfortable.
And then Aleisha told me she was pregnant.
That was okay, because to me, having a baby was sort of like getting a puppy. I rejoiced with her, and imagined a fun life with the little one.
But kids don’t much care for comfortable days. They don’t care about comfortable nights, either. And so all the predictable life adjustments followed, like napping instead of sleeping, and all sorts of scheduling acrobatics.
Aleisha was set to go back to work after maternity leave, so that meant she would be leaning on her full-time student husband for more help with the baby. Conceptually, I owned my fatherhood, and was willing to step up. But the difficult realities of carrying an overloaded semester in one arm, my service to the church in another, and my baby girl in the third arm I didn’t have, eventually tried me in new ways.
I was no longer the master and commander of my life. It hit me one day while I was in the basement, wringing cloth diapers out, one by one, and working that tell-tale scent of infant urine into my hands that never really goes away until potty training. I wasn’t doing anything that moms everywhere (and my own wife, too) hadn’t already done. But I was a young, self-centered, lazy, clueless, man. Crisis moment.
In the midst of it all, when I least expected and certainly would never have invited it, God came looking for fruit.
It was a terrible time for such a visit, and unlikely that this tree could offer anything but complaints about homework, and fatigue. But the odds were in my favor. You see, for many months before our daughter arrived, I had experienced a remarkable time in my Christian life, memorizing whole books of the Bible, gorging on good Christian writings, and studying theology. I had thought it was all a random work of the Spirit in my life, a season of accelerated interest in spiritual things, nothing more.
I had further assumed that these heightened activities were mainly preparing me for high level training, or a shining future in ministry.
It was all a part of the vinedresser’s strategy to produce in me some simple unselfishness.
I hope it was a fig the owner of the vineyard found sweet to the taste.