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The Best Fruit is Produced by the Best-Pruned Branch
All the passages below are taken from Elisabeth Elliot’s book “A Path Through Suffering.” It was published in 1990.
One day's sirocco in May will turn a field, bright with the last flowers, into a brown wilderness, where the passing look sees nothing but ruin. Yet in that one day the precious seed will have taken a stride in its ripening that it would have needed a month of ordinary weather to bring about; it will have drawn infinite life out of the fiery breath that wrought havoc with the visible.
THE ANSWER TO OUR WHY about suffering is, as we have noted, not immediate or abstract. It is a call to come follow. As we walk through our common duties in the company of Jesus we learn what the taking up of the cross is all about. In what we thought of as our strong points we find unsuspected weakness---a chance to die! In what we felt quite adequate to perform we discover that we need help---perhaps from someone we thought of as our inferior---another chance to die! It is an unsettling business, this being made conformable to His death, and it cannot be accomplished without knocking out the props. If we understand that God is at work even when He knocks out the small props, it will not be so difficult for us to take when He knocks out bigger ones.
The very week which I had looked forward to, to begin the writing of this book, found me dragging around with what appeared to be merely a heavier-than-usual cold, accompanied by a deep cough. I tried to work at my accustomed place and pace. Somehow I couldn't. I could not grasp a thought, hold onto it firmly, and carry it through to its logical conclusion. A day or two went by with little to show. I took myself by the scruff of the neck---"Get on with it!"---but found that a prop had been knocked out. I had a fever. Only a degree or two, but enough to scramble my brains, and a salutary reminder that normal health and the ability to do ordinary work are gifts from God for which I should thank Him every day of my life. A letter "happened" (was ordained) to come then, remarking that God is much more interested in making us holy than He is in getting a job done. My thought had been that whatever was wrong with me was a nuisance. I was disturbed by my inability to get the job done. The letter made me pause. The interruption was more important (for the appointed duration) than the book. Think, God was saying to me, what you are writing about.
"... in that one day the precious seed will have taken a stride in its ripening that it would have needed a month of ordinary weather to bring about"
A visit to the doctor confirmed that what I had was not an ordinary cold and could have turned into something less than ordinary. I had not been sick for so many years I had forgotten what a degree of fever can do---the restlessness, the impossibility of finding a comfortable position, and the wild, incoherent dreams of half-sleep which awakened memories of my only experience of either, fifty-five years ago. The brief siege effectively knocked out the props, yet its very brevity and triviality made me think of the really ill, and ask myself again whether, in even thinking of attempting a book on suffering, I was perhaps exercising myself in great matters, things too high for me. The answer, of course, was yes. I am always doing that. The subject is far beyond either my intelligence or my personal experience. But the things most worth writing about are all "too wonderful for me," things so high that I cannot attain unto them---nor, I suppose, can anyone who measures his own pain by the pain of the thorn-crowned and crucified King.
Yet I write, drawing on the witness of others who know so much more, with the hope that some who might not have found their writings will be glad to find a few of their treasures here.
Amy Carmichael knew much of pain, many kinds of pain---chronic severe headaches and neuralgia, broken bones, twisted back, cystitis, twenty years of confinement to her room. In her Rose from Brier she writes,
In Southern India the wind is often hot, and a hot air rises like a burning breath from the ground.... Such a wind parches the spirit, drains it of vitality, sends it to seek some cool place, caring only to find a shadow from the heat. But be the wind scorching, or sharp and cold, it can only cause the spices of His garden to flow out.
Her reference is to the Song of Songs, "Awake, 0 north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out" (Sg 4:16, AV).
In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyri’s Cancer Ward, Dontsova, the doctor who had dealt for thirty years with other people's illnesses, reading the X-rays and the imploring eyes of her patients, finds that she herself has a malignant tumor. Until that moment she saw all human bodies as identical, according to the standard text. She knew the physiology and pathology.
Then suddenly, within a few days, her own body had fallen out of this great, orderly system. It had struck the hard earth and was now like a helpless sack crammed with organ---organs which might at any moment be seized with pain and cry out....
Her world had capsized, the entire arrangement of her existence was disrupted. She was not yet dead, and yet she had had to give up her husband, her son, her daughter, her grandson, and her medical work as well, even though it was her own work, medicine, that would now be rolling over her and through her like a noisy train. In a single day she had to give up everything and suffer, a pale-green shadow, not knowing for a long time whether she was to die irrevocably or return to life.
It had once occurred to her that there was a lack of color, joy, festivity in her life---it was all work and worry, work and worry. But how wonderful the old life seemed now! Parting with it was so unthinkable it made her scream.
(Bantam Books, Grosset and Dunlap, New York 1969, pp. 445f)
I was reminded of St. Augustine's words, "The very pleasures of human life men acquire by difficulties." Sometimes we recognize them only in retrospect. On one of those terrible days during my husband's cancer, when he could hardly bear the pain or the thought of yet another treatment, and I could hardly bear to bear it with him, we remarked on how wonderful it would be to have just a single ordinary day. Some who read this may be in just that sort of place, the entire arrangement of existence disrupted. It makes you scream. God speaks to you: It is I. Do not be afraid.
Paul found Him in his hunger, shipwreck, floggings, imprisonment. "I have been very thoroughly initiated into the human lot with all its ups and downs" (Philippians 4:12 NEB). The winds of God had blown upon him in many ways---handicapped, puzzled, persecuted, knocked down. Yet he was able to say that he was never frustrated or in despair, never had to stand it alone, was never knocked out. And here's why: "Every day we experience something of the death of Jesus, so that we may also show the power of the life of Jesus in these bodies of ours" (2 Corinthians 4:10, JBP).
The winds of God blow on all of us. When it is the hot sirocco everything in life turns into a brown wilderness, nothing but ruin. But that is only the visible. Remember that word about the outward man suffering wear and tear while the inward receives fresh strength (2 Corinthians 4:16)? Remember the little, transitory troubles (the thousand deaths), the mere visible things, and what they will win for us? Remember the psalm which says, "For Thy sake we are killed all the day long. ... Wherefore hidest thou thy face and forgettest our affliction and our oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust" (Psalms 44:22, 24-25, AV)? Remember the promise of the weight of glory, the permanent, glorious, solid reward out of all proportion to our pain?
Find a quiet place. Be quiet. Ask God to help you to look entirely away from the visible to the invisible. Look away from the transitory to the permanent. All influences, circumstances, and conditions (yes, all of them) are designed with the glory of infinite life in mind---in the Mind that knows it all from beginning to end.
Old age can seem like a hot wind, whistling in from some unseen desert, withering and dessicating with a speed that takes our breath away. Wear and tear make their indelible marks on the face in the mirror which (weirdly and shockingly sometimes) becomes the face of a stranger. Fear grips us as we take note of what has gone and contemplate what is to come. The spectres of loneliness, illness, abandonment, and the serial deprivation of our powers stare back at us from the furrowed and sagging face. But God will be there. There is no need to fear the future, God is already there, and God's promise for us is, "They shall still bring forth fruit in old age (Psalm 92:14, AV).
I have not quite reached the biblical norm for man's lifespan, so perhaps I have a few more years. I will not be growing younger, but I want to be growing holier. When Malcolm Muggeridge returned to his cottage in Sussex after his last trip overseas he said he was going home to get ready to die (or something to that effect). He is an old man, but hear the words of one Jim Elliot who died at twenty-eight: "When it comes time to die, make sure that all you have to do is die." The only way to make sure of that is to live every day as though it were your last.
I pray that I may be responding now to all the Lord's dealings, for I know that the best fruit will be what is produced by the best-pruned branch. The strongest steel will be that which went through the hottest fire and the coldest water. The deepest knowledge of God's presence will have been acquired in the deepest river or dungeon or lion's den. The greatest joy will have come forth out of the greatest sorrow.
Let no one think that sudden in a minute
All is accomplished and the work is done.
Though with thine earliest dawn thou
shouldst begin it,
Scarce were it ended with the setting sun.
(F.W.H. Meyers: St Paul) [151-157]
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