On Pruning Vines (John 15)
In his letter to the Church in Rome, St. Paul asserts, “All things work together unto good for those who love God.” (Rom. 8:28) No matter what kinds of things happen, both good and indeed bad, good will rise on the other side of it. It’s a statement which can strain belief. That good things happen, ok. But bad things happening to good people? Isn’t that pulling too hard on belief?
An image Jesus uses in John’s gospel (Jn. 15:2) can help when coming at what seems like this real stretch — bad things occurring which in the end work out for good.
Jesus’ image is pruning, the act of cutting off a good shoot on the grapevine today for the sake of allowing more growth in the rest of the plant tomorrow. A conversation with a gardener who tended rose bushes instructed me here.
“Pruning is not picking off the dead pieces of the bush since you did that already. Rather you’re snipping off some of the healthy shoots. If you let the ones on the inner part of the plant keep growing, they will crowd out the other potentially stronger ones still to come and so stunt the growth of the entire bush. When you prune, you trim off good things in the present so that better things can sprout in the future.”
Now if I put myself in the position of that inner branch and see those clippers coming my way, I don’t feel all that happy about it. To be snipped off would be real calamity. But if I could somehow see that cutting inside the larger picture and trust that more growth will follow, it’s different. To accept that would take much reliance on the gardener’s promise that greater good will one day blossom.
While this principle can’t be applied to every disheartening thing, it does open some windows onto the truth Jesus is getting at. It couldn’t be used to counsel the passive acceptance of bad things, but it does shed light on the luminous call Jesus is always sounding — to trust.
That is to say, when coming up against the disappointments anyone faces especially the hurtful ones, when my inflated expectations burst, when a chosen path leads to a dead end, when under trial a dream disappears, could it be that:
- such setbacks give us another option — to move toward another more grounded (eternal) path of living, the one that bends toward the Lord and reaches out in trust.
- the emptying-out such letdowns bring is an opportunity to connect to something deeper and more nourishing – what John’s gospel calls The Vine Who is Jesus Christ.
- these hurts and even calamities sometimes are a way in which God is “pruning us,” clearing us out so that down the line we can “bear more fruit?”
- along with the hurt which is always in the cutting, there also comes a summons to trust more, to open up a space inside into which the life-giving presence of God’s Spirit can flow?
It bears repeating that this doesn’t glory in tragedy or docilely accept it. It does however open up another path in the face of disenchantment – the one of deeper trust that in the end “for those who love God in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, all things do work unto good.”
The example for this is of course the Lord himself – who on the cross, feeling the deep hurt of abandonment (Why, Father, have you forsaken me?), hands himself over in trusting that his Father will bring greater good from “this pruning (a life cut short) which indeed did and does lead to that overflowing life poured out on the world. Certainly St. Vincent chimes in here with his recurring refrain to lean back on the Provident arms of God.
The point: if when facing disappointment, frustration, disenchantment and even tragedy, the person stays trustingly attached to the vine that is Christ, new and more fruitful life can spring up. This is the wisdom of that vineyard pruning which opens room for new growth.
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him or her will bear much fruit. Because without me, you can do nothing.