When Our Lives Were Full, But My Soul Felt Empty
I woke sometime around December of last year feeling an overwhelming sense of heaviness. I was physically overweight, while spiritually and mentally malnourished. I was looking back on a year that, to the world, seemed full, but left my soul feeling empty and my heart feeling alone. I was exhausted, discouraged, disappointed, depressed.
Something needed to change.
I went to college at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California, which is a picturesque setting on the central coast of California. I sort of stumbled into the Agricultural Business school, after abandoning my original major in Kinesiology. We grew and raised every crop and animal native to that climate right on campus. I elected to take two semesters of Viticulture–admittedly, at that time, because learning to make wine sounded a lot more enticing that learning how to milk a cow. (Although now, that sounds strangely fascinating. But I digress.)
One semester focused on the science and skill that go into yielding a healthy and usable crop of grapes. Prior to planting the vine, you account for soil type and chemistry, weather, sun exposure, water drainage, and even potential pest problems.
Once the vines are planted, it is essential they are properly pruned for ideal harvest.
If carefully cared for under favorable conditions, it takes an average of 2-3 years to produce high-quality grapes. That idea of pruning has stuck with me, and has proven a powerful illustration in different seasons of life. Pruning a vine is an art of delicate balance, and must be done by a highly-trained eye and a skilled hand. Pruning too much will cause small, uneconomical crops, while pruning too little will cause over-cropping and low-quality fruit.
Proper pruning is essential to a healthy harvest.
Oh, how I related to that overgrown vine. At first glance, everything was growing in our lives, from our business to our bank account to our busy social schedules. On any given day, I could pick of that fruit to present myself to the world as a healthy harvest. Honestly, though, I felt like a phony.
Our lives were full, but everything in my soul felt empty.
We were producing a high-quantity, low-quality harvest. That overgrowth had begun to block my view of the vine. I had bought a lie that the key to growth was more, totally missing the fact that, in order to grow the best, you even have to cut back things which may appear to be good. I knew it was time for pruning.
In order to yield a healthy harvest, pruning a grapevine requires you to remove 90% of your branches.
Ninety percent? That seems a little harsh, right? Or is it?
Matthew 15:1-5 says this: “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. He takes away every branch that does not bear fruit in me. He prunes every branch that bears fruit so that it will bear more fruit. You are clean already because of the word that I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me—and I in him—bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing.”
What does it mean to bear much fruit? Society often paints a picture that looks pretty on the surface: money, fame, followers, friends, things. Jesus distinguishes fruit much differently. He calls it love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
Just after Christmas, Chad and I went through an excercise created by our client and friend, Michael Hyatt, called “5 Days To Your Best Year Ever.” I’ve never been a goal-setter, much less one who follows through, but I was desperate for a change.
The first part of the course focused on past hurts and hindrances that keep you from setting and accomplishing goals. Sounds fun, right? Let’s be honest: this process lies near the bottom of the list of things we like to do.
Pruning requires you to take a good, long, honest look at your life, and that requires being still.
We have all but forgotten how to be still today. It’s a crucial exercise. For me, it was allowing God to examine every square inch of my life. If I was going to do some pruning, I surely wanted the Father to be my gardener. I started with the obviously dead branches. The Bible calls those sin, and they have to go. By nature, I’m keenly aware of my sin and overly hard on myself, so identifying these areas was easy for me. Snip, snip.
I get hung up hanging onto those dead branches, though. We live in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s spring time, which is often accompanied by thunderstorms. Each time a storm comes through, it knocks branches off of our trees. We collect them and pile them in the corner of our yard. Once a quarter, they get hauled off by the city, but that pile of dead branches can get quite high.
It can be the same way with sin. If you’re like me, you’re happy to cut off those dead branches, but you can let them pile up at your feet. We are prone to feel shame, to identify with our weaknesses and our failures. The problem is, that pile can grow so high that it obstructs our view of the vine. Our identity in Christ is clouded by our identity in our failures. When Christ died, he hauled off those dead branches. Join me in embracing the truth: that mercy exists for you as it does for others. It’s for freedom that Christ set you free!
It’s amazing how clearly you can see just by cutting away that which is dead. The hard work of pruning involves cutting off that which is good to make room for what is best. The problem with pruning is it can look like a process leading to barrenness. You can feel exposed, left with nothing to identify with in the world.
In reality, you’re never more like God than when you’re fully surrendered to the work of the vine. His harvest will always sustain. He calls it love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. He calls that freedom.
We went on to set some goals on that day in December. I knew pruning, for me, looked like a whole lot of discipline. I sit here in late April, knowing that on the other end of pruning is a harvest that does sustain. To date, I’ve lost 25 pounds this year. Physical weight may not be your issue, but I knew it was vital for me. I’m more physically, spiritually and mentally nourished than I have been in a long time. The dead is gone and hauled off.
I’m not sure of much in my short time on this planet, but I am sure that I owe everything I have–past, present and future–to Jesus who sustains. He is grace, mercy, hope and freedom. I’m not where I want to be, but I’m surely far from where I was.
I stopped writing regularly around this time last year. I felt like a frazzled mess, and altogether lost belief in myself. But I feel called in some way to share my journey, always with hope that somebody may feel less alone in theirs. We are way more alike than we are different, and far better together than we could ever be apart. As Ram Dass says so well, “We’re all just walking each other home.”
If you identify with any of this, let me know. You’re not a failure, or the sum total of your sins. You ARE a child of God, meant to live in freedom and bear His fruit.
Honestly, I feel rusty, but I’ve resolved to show up. There is a pretty cool little community forming over here. I post bits and pieces of what encourages me daily, in the hope of passing it along to you. My goal is less talking from me, and more hearing from you. I would be humbled if you would join.