When we bought a new house last summer, I was delighted by the enormous rose bush in the front yard. All summer long, it boasts bright pink blossoms that spread their scent across the entire yard. The only time that the rose bush isn't a delight to me is when I have to prune it, a task that must be done regularly.
This rose bush isn't slow-growing: Left to itself, it quickly flourishes into a sprawling mass of flowers, leaves and thorns. So several times a year, I dig out my pruning shears and trim it back into acceptable dimensions. And having the imaginative mind I do, I always feel a little guilty while I prune. I imagine the rose bush thinking: "Why is she cutting off all of my lovely new leaves? I did what I was supposed to do: I'm a rose bush! I'm supposed to grow! So why is she punishing me?"
Like I said, I have a vivid imagination! But while I was imagining--and trimming--this past week, it occurred to me that I sometimes feel the way I imagine my rose bush does. Sometimes, when painful things happen or I have to do things I don't really want to do, I can look and see that those steps are required because there is something in me that needs to change. Usually, it's a bad or sinful way of behaving or speaking or acting. But it seems that just as often, I experience painful events or challenging situations that seem to come out of nowhere; when, as my imaginary rose bush complains, "I was doing what I'm supposed to do!" For example, a relocation meant that I had to leave a job that I loved. The job had come out of nowhere, I hadn't been looking for it, and the first several months were really challenging. But then, I grew to love my job, and I could see that I was growing and developing new strengths. And just as I started to feel that I was getting my roots established, everything changed and I had to leave the job behind. It was hard not to feel like God had taken it away as punishment for something I had done. I found myself examining everything I had said, felt or done for some inadequacy or wrong, but it wasn't there. I had done a good job, and the things God had put into my hands had prospered.
It was then that I had to learn about pruning. In the Bible, pruning isn't mentioned as a punishment, or as a method of removing undesirable traits. Instead, it is a symbol of love and care. The prophet Isaiah wrote in Isaiah 5:6 that because of Israel's disobedience to Him, He would lay it waste, and that it would not be pruned or dug. In the New Testament, Christ Himself said that His Father takes away the branches that are not bearing fruit, but, "Every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit" (John 15:2). God prunes us for the same reason that I prune my rose bush: so it will be healthy, strong, and will bear more of the beautifully-scented roses that I love. Far from being a punishment, pruning is a sign of God's love for us and His desire to see us grow even more abundantly.
When challenging times of growth occur, it's good to do some self-examination and see if there aren't some bad spots to be removed. But it's also good to appreciate that God may be using those challenging situations to prune us, to take what we were already doing well and make it even more bountiful.