Where Does Your Life Need Pruning?
The following column, by Mike Cosper, originally appeared in The Roadstead, our weekly newsletter. To have Mike's column delivered directly to your inbox, subscribe here.
For most of this summer, when the weather has been bearable to do so, my wife and I have spent our evenings sitting on our front porch. The sun sets behind the houses across the street, often turning the sky gold or pink. Neighbors drift by with their dogs. Our kids read in their beds upstairs and we try to breathe away the day’s stresses.
The other night, Sarah brought up the idea of pruning, and the role it plays as part of the spiritual life. Jesus talks about it in John 15, where he describes himself as the True Vine and his Father as the gardener who prunes away branches that don’t bear fruit so those that do bear fruit are more, well, fruitful. We often think of this in absolute terms – being pruned means being completely cut off – but she was thinking about it as something we all experience. There are branches of our lives that have to be cut away so that the rest of our life can flourish.
The image has been with me for a few days. I’ve come, more and more, to think about the Christian life in terms of the “with-God life”, a life in which we collaborate with God’s Spirit and presence in order to be remade in the image of Jesus. It’s very clear, biblically, that change happens by grace. It’s also very clear that we’re told to do certain things to change – to put off this and put on that (as in Colossians 3).
I’m also increasingly of the opinion that our spiritual formation is a whole-life project. In other words, God doesn’t just want to make us into better Christians in some abstract sense. Rather, he wants us to be made into the best version of ourselves – our particular selves with our particular callings. This includes everything from our relationships to our vocations and more… all of life. I don’t mean this to sound like some Joel Osteen-ish “best life now” kind of nonsense. Rather, I mean it the way I’ve heard Dallas Willard talk about it (yes, him again) – that God’s will is that we would live our lives as Jesus would, were he in our place. His character. His care. His attention to craft in his work.
Which brings me back to the concept of pruning. If our transformation is a with-God project, then completing that work – including the transformation of our vocation – is going to demand a certain kind of pruning. We have to be willing to cut off certain branches in order for the others to thrive. This is something every business leadership book describes in one form or another. You can’t be good at everything, so don’t try. Rather, you have to learn to entrust others to do the work that you can’t, and you have to empower them to do that work. There’s a similar principle in writing research papers: you have to narrow, narrow, narrow your focus. You can’t say everything.
If there’s one thing people take away from Cultivated, I hope it’s a vision for their work and their presence in the world that can make a difference. That might be on a grand scale – like Bret Lott’s success as an international bestselling author – and it might be on a smaller, quieter scale – being an indispensable member of your team in the office, school, or hospital where you work. It will likely demand that we accept our limitations as we do this, and that means pruning away some branches: Fantasies of what might have been; Envy over others’ success. God has given us this life in this place. How do we make it thrive?
Another kind of pruning – one that’s top of mind for me at the moment – is cutting off external influences that hinder our formation. For me, lately, I’ve found a desire to limit the amount of noise in my life from media of all kinds, whether it’s the ongoing political outrage machine or the noise of celebrity and self-promotion. Both sap the joy and energy out of me, leaving less attention and less fuel in the tank for the creative work I’d like to be doing. It is definitely a pruning, though, because if I’m honest, I like the outrage machine. I’m entertained by celebrity nonsense (sometimes). And I’m as content as anyone to be numbed into inactivity by watching Netflix. To get where I’d like to get, creatively, I’m going to have to cut off some of those branches.
I realize I’m stretching the biblical metaphor, here, but I think it’s a general truth about the way the world works. Our capacities are finite. We cannot worship more than one God – which is more directly what Jesus was saying – but we also cannot spend our lives branched in every direction if we want to flourish.
My guest on the podcast this week is Justin Forsett, and as you’ll hear, he certainly did some pruning in order to become an NFL Pro Bowl running back. As he describes it, while other kids were out partying in high school, he was at home doing 1,000 pushups and situps a night. His story is one of faithfulness, determination, and incredibly hard work.
In an interesting move, Facebook and iTunes have taken steps to ban (or limit) Alex Jones and InfoWars. If you’re unfamiliar with Jones, congratulations. He’s a nasty extreme-right conspiracy theorist who, amongst many other vile statements, has said that the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre was a hoax. The moves by Facebook and iTunes signal a shift on both platforms. It’s interesting to watch this with Facebook in particular, as they are grappling with how to steward their enormous platform. They’ve been criticized for their role in spreading fake news during the 2016 elections, and for the tolerance they’ve shown to extremist groups and abusive characters like Jones.
I’m all for banning Alex Jones, but it will be interesting to see how far Facebook takes this. There’s a concept called the Overton window, which is a way of describing the range of ideas that the general public finds acceptable. Conspiracy theories, racism, and sexism would lie outside the Overton window. Ideas that are up for debate, like mainstream conservatism and liberalism, are inside of it. Jones is decidedly outside the window.
I say it’s interesting to watch because the window has shifted rather dramatically over the last two decades. Gay marriage, for instance, was outside the window twenty years ago, as was the idea that transgender individuals should be allowed to use the public bathroom of their choice. The window has shifted to the point where both of these are, in many places, not only acceptable, but a matter of policy (at the very center of the Overton window). As these ideas move into the mainstream, more traditional ideas about marriage and gender move towards the edges. Today, I think it’s still inside the window to hold on to these traditional ideas, but it may not be for long, and I can’t help but wonder what that might mean in the future for Christians who hold those beliefs. Again, I in no way am arguing for Jones to stay on the platform! I can’t say that emphatically enough. I am simply wondering, now that Facebook is moving towards censorship (something that is entirely with their rights), where they’ll draw the lines.
More disturbing news came out about Bill Hybels this weekend. Hybels, founder of the enormous Willow Creek Community Church, has been accused by multiple women of inappropriate sexual contact. The latest victim to come forward makes the most damaging allegations yet. This Twitter thread is helpful context for understanding how profound the damage can be from this kind of abuse of spiritual authority. I’m afraid that this isn’t the last we’ll hear about Hybels, and I’m certain that he won’t be the last pastor to be exposed by the #metoo movement. As damaging as it is to the church’s witness for this news to be exposed, it strikes me as utterly necessary for the sake of the victims and for the purging of the church of it’s secret sins.
Lastly, Recapturing the Wonder turns a year old this month. In this book, I try to describe how the culture around us has shaped us in profound but subtle ways, and how the Spiritual disciplines can reorient us to another way of experiencing the world – one in which the presence of God is real and knowable. Thanks to everybody who’s read it and shared about it.
See you next week,