One of my earliest childhood memories is of my grandma and I sitting in the living room, staring at the tree outside the window. It was a younger tree, standing a proud 10 feet tall. Its branches were long and wiry. Its leaves were scattered and, instead of blocking the sun, they would make elaborate patterns across the living room floor. It made me feel small, but in a good way. The way a big hug envelops you and makes you forget about life’s troubles.
Ever since then I’ve had a fascination with trees. If humans are a little lower than angels, I’d like to think nature is a little below us (Hebrews 2:7). And even if nature cannot talk or read or think, it can celebrate its Creator, and teach us something about life.
Like humans, nature is confined to a lifecycle. It grows, reproduces, and eventually, dies. Nature lives in our world, is affected by the decisions we make, yet somehow survives. The tallest trees are over 300 feet tall. The oldest have stood their ground for thousands of years. They are monuments of fortitude.
As a northerner growing up near Lake Erie in Ohio, I have seen my fair share of harsh winters. Snow can pile up so high it has to be counted in feet rather than inches; and temperatures can drop so low, you’d wish negative numbers didn’t exist. Yet through all the snow storms and cold bouts, trees survive.
During the past month I have spent a lot of time studying how a person grows: physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. I want to understand why Christian growth is so difficult, and why it can feel like we are making no progress at times.
I believe nature, specifically trees, have something to teach us about growth. Especially growth during cold, hard seasons. There’s a method to their fortitude, and hopefully one we can apply.
There are three steps every tree takes when it is faced with the seasonal change to winter. These three steps are not necessarily sequential. Instead, they work in tandem. Each one spurring on the next until the tree is as secure as it can be.
Step 1: The tree slows (or stops) growing.
The process for a tree is similar to that of an animal. Except, instead of calling it hibernation we call it dormancy. When a tree goes dormant that just means it has significantly slowed the process of growth. All of the food and energy it consumed are now only there for reserve and survival purposes.
Growth is an “expensive” endeavor in terms of what it requires of the living organism. If you have ever looked up the diet plans for professional athletes or bodybuilders, it’s almost unbelievable how much food they have to intake in order to achieve and maintain their results.
In the same way, a tree consumes enormous amounts of energy throughout the year. However, since winter brings along less access to sunlight and water, the tree has to prepare to “eat” less and begins to slow down and hit pause on its growth.
Step 2: The tree loses its leaves.
This process only occurs in deciduous (regular, leafy) and not in coniferous (evergreen, pine needle) trees. Deciduous trees lose their leaves in order to preserve moisture and retain water. Leaves help trees grow during the year, but without the process of growth occurring, they just become a drain on the entire system.
Our bodies mimic this activity in the winter. When we are cold, our extremities (fingers and toes) will go numb first. This happens because the blood flow becomes concentrated around our vital organs. In order to protect the person, some parts have to be forfeited. Same with the tree: in order to preserve it through the winter, the beautiful leaves have to be abandoned for a time.
Step 3: The cells adapt.
There are at least three processes which could occur at the cellular level once a tree is on the verge of preparing for winter. But there are only two possible outcomes. One, the cells become more pliable (like Playdoh) so that they can adapt to the formation of icicles. Two, the cells become harder (like a rock) so that they will not be harmed by the harsh temperature and ice.
It comes down to making sure the cells stay alive: “That’s the key for the tree; don’t allow living cells to freeze.” The tree will accomplish this either way it has to. Of the different processes, it doesn’t appear one is better than the other because, in the end, they change back.
Without these three steps, the tree would not survive the winter. If a tree were purely concerned with growing, it would expend itself to death. In nature, there has to be a balance between longevity and growth.
Now let’s take a minute and think about how these steps can apply to us as Christians.
Spiritual growth does not occur in a straight line.
The church has developed many words to characterize Christians who are not consistently experiencing victory and showing fruit. Backslider, lukewarm, etc.
But maybe these episodes are not hindrances to the process of growth but necessary milestones. I know in my own life there have been a number of times where I have fallen into a rough patch only to catapult forward afterward.
Sometimes growth can be dangerous. If a human grows too quickly, or too much, it puts so much stress on their body that serious complications can arise. Just because we cannot see our spirits does not mean they do not have their own limitations as well.
I believe growth comes in seasons. There are times where we sprout up and out and stretch ourselves without hindrance. Then there are other seasons where growth is difficult, or even non-existent. And we are forced to shrink back, to conserve energy, and pause so that growth may start again.
Christian growth can be summarized in a single word: surrender.
I began tithing when I was very young. About 5 or 6. My allowance at the time was $5 a week. I was told, by my parents and pastors, that 10% of my money belongs to God. So I believed them, and gladly gave my tithe to the church. Over time, as my allowance turned into a salary, I continued to tithe. It wasn’t really a sacrifice in my mind because I was simply giving to God what was already His.
But then I started to grow up and God began to ask for more than just my 10%. I felt called into certain ministries. I felt called to leave jobs, schools, relationships and follow Him. I started to feel that God was overstepping His bounds. He was not only asking for what was His. Now, He was asking for what was clearly mine! My love life, my ambitions, my plans…these were my leaves.
In order to become who I was supposed to be and in order to “preserve” my life according to His purpose, He asked me to surrender. I don’t believe trees can feel pain, but if they did I imagine they would feel each leaf as it fell. Like a pluck or a pinch. Each one a reminder that surrendering to something greater comes at a cost.
Life will either make us pliable or hard.
I recently took a cooking class and they explained the art of making bread from scratch. As part of the process, we learned to knead the dough, which is essentially massaging it (breaking it down) to a certain point until its ready to bake and will rise correctly.
If the dough is under-kneaded, the dough will be too fragile. Yes, it will be pliable, but it will tear easily and be too weak to rise as needed. If the dough is over-kneaded, it will become hard and too stiff to take the proper shape. The perfect spot is somewhere in the middle, where it is kneaded just enough to hold up. Pliable enough to accept change, but hard enough to not be torn.
God allows life to knead us. To break us down before He can call us to rise. The question is how will we adapt? Will we become too hard or too soft? Or will we accept the kneading process as necessary to our survival and His glory?
Trees survive the winter because they have too. If they do not survive the harsh seasons, they will never reach the points where they can grow and bear fruit. But how they survive those periods looks drastically different then when they are green and bearing fruit.
I don’t know what your life or walk with God looks like at this moment, but I want to encourage you. If your leaves have fallen, that doesn’t mean they will never sprout again. Maybe you’ve pulled back from ministry commitments, switched churches, or have experienced a drought in your prayer life. None of these make you a bad Christian. None of these make you weaker or less loved by God.
They make you human.
They make you a work in progress.
They mean you’re growing.