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Abiding in Christ: Initial Pruning

Category Articles
Date March 19, 2019

This excerpt is taken from chapter three of Maturity by Sinclair B. Ferguson, a new release from the Banner of Truth Trust.

* * *

In the early years of a plant’s life, the basic function of pruning is not to produce fruit immediately, but to prepare for future fruit. Good pruning helps create the proper form and shape in the plant, so that it can both produce and support quality fruit in the future.

Parallel principles are at work in the Christian life. In our ­earliest periods of spiritual life, God’s purpose is to lay the foundations on which he will build in the future. Distorted growth here has the potential to warp the rest of our Christian life. So we need to share God’s longer term view. Of course God may produce fruit overnight as it were. But character development is normally a progressive work. So while we tend to look impatiently for immediate fruit, he has a longer term strategy.

Sometimes we unwisely encourage new Christians to engage in public activities so early on in their lives that their spiritual growth becomes distorted and the quality of their long-term fruitfulness is diminished. But God is not in a panic; he has his own timetable. Yes there are individuals he ‘throws in at the deep end’ who then seem to mature almost overnight. That is his prerogative. But if we review the biblical narrative we will notice how often his preparation of individuals is slow (sometimes far too slow for their liking!). When our greatest need is to be patiently shaped by the influences of God’s word and providence, we would be foolish to try to run before we can walk!

This is why Paul gave wise counsel to Timothy—counsel he himself had applied in nurturing Timothy—not to place young ­Christians at spiritual peril by exposing them to the temptations of public ­position and the attendant danger of pride (1 Tim. 3:6). Think how long it took, and what pruning was involved, before the young, self-centred, impatient Joseph was fit to bear the fruit he did in Egypt. 1

If we are not patient here with the processes in which the Spirit uses the word to transform us (what Paul calls ‘correction’, 2 Tim. 3:16—the word carries the nuance of restoration)—then our develop­ment will be stunted, our fruit sub-standard. The only plant in Scripture that grew up overnight was Jonah’s castor-oil plant, and it withered the next day (Jon. 4:6-7)!

Our Lord’s parable of the sower and the seed he scattered on various kinds of soil reinforces the point (Matt. 13:1-23). Harvests take time. Seed needs to take root in the soil; weeds need to be dealt with if lasting fruit is to be produced.

The once impatient Simon Peter eventually learned this from his Master’s patient and progressive work in his life. His first letter provides many illustrations of his new understanding. One of the most interesting is the way he responds to the question, ‘How should a Christian woman who is married to a non-Christian ­husband ­witness to him?’

Think about that in the form of a multiple choice question:

Tick the answer you would give to the following question put to you by a young Christian woman converted relatively recently:

Question: I became a Christian recently. My husband is not a Christian, and as yet shows very little interest. What should I do?

Answer:
(1) Tell him if he isn’t converted by the end of the year, you will return to your mother.
(2) Send him Christian literature through the post, anonymously, in an unmarked brown envelope.
(3) Make sure you do your daily Bible reading when he can see what you are doing, in the hope that this will make him see his need.
(4) Tell him as often as you can about the difference Christ has made to you.
(5) Put a different tract under his cornflakes once a week.

Of course these answers are an intentional caricature. But ­caricatures connect to reality. Peter’s actual response teaches us a great deal. He shows us a better way:

(6) ‘Wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives—when they see your respectful and pure conduct’ (1 Pet. 3:1-2).

To many Christians, nurtured on some of the manuals and evangelistic techniques of more recent times, this counsel will run counter to everything they have been taught. But notice the biblical principle behind these words. God provides opportunities for preaching—and he gives men gifts to take the opportunity; God provides opportunities for us to speak with others about Christ, and that is our responsibility and privilege. But our primary task in the basic long-term relationships of life is this: in all of our daily relationships with others to be shaped and fashioned in obedience to God’s clearly revealed will, so that we become living letters to them. We are called to live out the gospel so that others can see that it is God’s saving power and makes a practical difference to us (Rom. 1:16-17). Peter well knew that in our impatience (and perhaps immature zeal) we can damage relationships with those with whom we live long-term.

This is not naïvely to adopt the saying associated with Francis of Assisi, ‘Preach the gospel; use words if you have to.’ But Peter does seem to be saying: ‘Live like this, and you will find that people will ask you questions about the gospel; be ready to answer them’ (1 Pet. 3:14). Notice how different Peter’s expectation is from the pattern that has developed in Western evangelism where Christians are expected to ask non-Christians questions to try to stimulate their interest. Is that the case because the style and quality of our lives does not provoke people to ask what makes us tick and why we are different? Sadly many surveys of professing Christians seem to suggest that this is true.

God’s way provides for the long term. It protects us from the kind of immaturity that ruins relationships before there is time for our witness to have any effect. As brothers or sisters, husbands or wives, parents or children, employers and employees, and as friends, our ongoing witness is to be expressed in the way we live out the pattern of life God has given us in such passages as Ephesians 5:22-6:9, Colossians 3:18-25 and here in 1 Peter 3:1-7. Yes, there will be opportunities to speak, to answer the questions our changed lives prompt relatives, colleagues, and friends to ask. But until people who encounter us daily and know us well see this transformation, our words may seem little more to them than words without weight. Did Peter know that many wives had found that they needed to repair broken relationships because they had spoken impatiently rather than live in patient and expectant godliness?

‘How dull and unspectacular! How dreary! How slow! How unspiritual! How lacking in zeal’, we might be tempted to respond. Yes, it is possible for us to hide behind Peter’s words and never speak for Christ. But by the same token we can ignore God’s long-term designs.

So long-term fruit is God’s goal. That requires pruning in order to produce strength and stability. The ‘Letter of Maturity’ agrees: ‘For the moment all discipline [paideia, child training] seems ­painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it’ (Heb. 12:11).

When we set our hearts on the divinely-planned long-term goals then, when the Father comes, pruning knife in hand, we can say with confidence: ‘Later on … a harvest.’ We may not understand at the time exactly what he is doing but, as Jesus promised Peter in another context, ‘What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand’ (John 13:7).

Notes

  1. The ‘pruning process’ takes fourteen chapters (Gen. 37-50) before Joseph is the right man, in the right place, knowing how to do the right thing.

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