You cannot be successful in effectively allocating your limited time if you are not willing to prune the vine of demands that are continually made on your life. As limited beings there is only so much we can do and some things are just more important than others. The important point is that only some things advance the essential meaning or purpose of our lives.
A well traveled Biblical image is that of the vine keeper pruning his vines, removing the deadwood (non-productive branches) so that the available nourishment will be focused on the remaining productive branches. Vineyards know that is the way to better wine and to take that image into the arena of human aspirations, to a better life. However, the Biblical image of pruning, as applied to the lives of believers, admits that the process is inherent painful. It hurts to let go of what we have invested in, even if that investment is draining our resources with no real redeeming purpose.
With grape vines the choice is pretty simple. The purpose of a grape vine is to produce grapes to make wine. Anything on the vine that diminishes that purpose is essentially deadwood and needs to be pruned. Our lives are not so straightforward, since defining a workable purpose for an individual life is inherently a complicated task. It is not for naught that a favorite question many adults ask and keep asking themselves is “What do I want to be when I grow up?” despite the fact that they may be long past the age where the question should normally apply.
One of the central philosophical and religious questions of those inhabiting our post-modern age is what should I do with my life? What will give me meaning? What will satisfy me? How can I realize my full potential. Those questions presuppose the right and expectation of individual choice; that I can decide, I can determine what I am to be. Those are thoroughly modern questions, aided and abetted by the fluidness of our social structures and the exceptional opportunities provided by the dominant capitalistic economic system. There is a predominant belief, specifically voiced in America, that describes the ability of anyone to become anything they want to be, to go from bottle washer to President, to leave behind rags and rise to riches by the sheer force of their own sustained effort. The choice of our destiny is considered to be ours to make and if one has the essential health and mental acuity, any limits on our accomplishments are mostly viewed as self-imposed. We think that these questions are meant to be answered only by the internal desires and will of the individual.
The interesting thing about the Christian tradition is that it believes that these questions are not internally determined. Instead, the Bible argues that it is God who directs the course of everyone’s life. A fundamentally Christian idea, gleaned from the framework of the whole of scripture but best said in Proverbs 16:9 “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps,” was made popular by Thomas Kempis (13801471) in The Imitation of Christ, Book One, Chapter 19 where he says, “Man proposes, while God disposes.”
James in his epistle also adds strength to that idea in 4:13-16
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil.
With that in mind, we as Christian are continually brought back to the necessity of pruning. However, it seems to me that a Christian should make every effort to consider the steps the Lord has determined for him, before applying a shear to his branches. If God is indeed directing our course then that course includes what to prune. A fair question then is it any easier for Christians to determine their God-given direction in life than it is for secularists to determine their private inner-directed course? Judging by my life and that of most of my Christian and non-Christian friends I honestly don’t think so. While there are some in both camps who seem singularly directed and assured, it appears to me that on average Christian angst is every bit as complicated and real as secularist angst. Yet, I believe that there is one significant difference. The Christian at least believes in the possibility of finding an external answer, a God-given direction. The secularist must come up with his own solution and even if he gets advice from those around him, it is only advice, and as such subject to the whims and vagaries of all human expression. In the end it is still a decision he alone has to arrive at.
This thought process is important to me since for several years now I have been working at pruning the vine of my life and one thing above all others I have learned from this experience, that this pruning is an exceptionally difficult task. I don’t think I am unique in this revelation. Despite that, one thing keeps me hopeful. As a Christian I look to the promises of Scripture that assure me that God will “direct my steps” and if I ask He will give me the wisdom I ask for. So, if I can learn to get out of my own way, the wind of the Spirit will fill my sails and the rudder of God’s providence will send me in the direction of His chosen course. And, anything that inhibits progress in that direction will need to be pruned.
Now let me see, what seems to be blocking the wind?