One day a man visiting a logging operation up north watched with curiosity as a lumberjack occasionally jabbed a sharp hook into certain logs and separated them from all the others floating downstream. When he asked about this, the lumberjack answered, “These logs may all look alike to you, but I can recognize that a few of them are quite different and more valuable than the rest. Most of the logs are from trees that grew in a valley sheltered from storms; their grain is rather coarse. The ones I’ve pulled out came from trees high on the top of the hills. From the time they were small those trees were beaten by strong winds and baked by the sun; this toughened them, giving them a fine grain—and so we save them for our choice work; they’re too good to be used as ordinary lumber” (Michael P. Green, 1500 Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, p. 381).
In the same way, the trials of life can prepare us for something out of the ordinary, or for a better way of serving God and His people. This requires us, however, to do less complaining, and more appreciating. A woman named Eileen Egan learned this lesson from Mother Teresa, with whom she worked for thirty years as a lay member of the Missionaries of Charity. She wrote, “One day, after my conversation had been filled with a litany of problems, Mother Teresa remarked, ‘Everything [with you] is a problem. Why not use the word gift?’ With that began a shift in [my] vocabulary. Shortly thereafter, we were to fly from Vancouver to New York City. I was dismayed to learn that the trip had to be broken en route, with a long delay, and was about to inform her of the problem. Then I caught myself and said, ‘Mother, I have to tell you about a gift. We have to wait four hours here, and you won’t arrive at the convent until very late.’ Mother Teresa settled down in the airport to read a book of meditations, a favorite of hers. From that time on, items that presented disappointments or difficulties would be introduced with ‘We have a small gift here,’ or ‘Today we have an especially big gift’” (Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations, & Quotes, p. 745). As Eileen learned, whenever something goes against our wishes, we can let ourselves become annoyed or upset, or we can freely choose to accept it for God’s glory—and it’s the latter choice which helps us grow in love, peace, and unity with God and with one another.
Jesus speaks in the Gospel of how His Heavenly Father prunes away our barren branches, so that we might bear more fruit. Pruning is rarely pleasant, but it’s usually productive. We see that as a new Christian, Saul of Tarsus—the future St. Paul—had to find his way and discover his calling, and in the process he got into a lot of controversy and made quite a few enemies. The difficulties and opposition he experienced, however, helped mold and prepare him for his ministry as an apostle and as the Church’s greatest missionary. St. John speaks to this when he urges us to love not merely in word or speech, but in deed and truth—in other words, we must let our faith in Christ be genuine and life-changing, instead of simply giving Him lip-service and taking the easy way out when it comes to sacrifice and commitment. If our allegiance to Jesus is authentic, much will be asked and expected of us—and Our Lord warns us we will only be able to persevere if we remain rooted in Him. He is the Vine; we are the branches, and only through Him can we bear fruit and become fully alive.
There was once a family forced to move from their home due to circumstances beyond their control, though none of them wanted to; the experience required each member to undergo a somewhat difficult and painful conversion. The husband and father had to let go of his need to make all the decisions; the wife and mother had to surrender her habit of subtly controlling her husband without him realizing it. The in-laws had to allow themselves to be positive and supportive, even as their daughter and grandchildren would be moving far away; the children were required to say goodbye to all their friends and leave the only house they had ever known. Each person experienced a form of pruning—but, through God’s grace, they all came closer to one another as a result, and as someone said, “The family, which was always there, became a family which decided to be there for each other” (I Have Given Them Your Word, p. 107, quoting Rosemary Haughton in The Transformation of Man).
Every day we choose whether our experiences of being pruned are going to be resented as problems or accepted as gifts; we decide whether life’s inconveniences and sacrifices are going to bring us closer together or pull us apart. If someone is rude to us, instead of automatically responding in kind, we might ask ourselves “What would Jesus do?,” and then act accordingly. If one of our loved ones annoys us, we can remind ourselves, “Yes, but he has so many other good qualities,” or “Her irritating quirks are more than made up for by the many favors she’s done for me.” If we’re having one of those days when everything seems to be going wrong, we can choose to offer up each worry and problem as a sacrifice and prayer for any intention we wish. If we’re feeling ill or miserable or tired, instead of complaining, we can remind ourselves, “This is only the tiniest fraction of the agony Jesus endured on the Cross for me.” If we suffer a major disappointment or failure, we can humbly reflect on the truth that neither this nor anything else that happens to us truly matters as long as we one day reach the joys of Heaven.
Our Heavenly Father knows us far better than we know ourselves, and—if we allow it—He’ll gently but firmly snip and prune away our bad habits, our sinful attitudes and behaviors, our selfish feelings and tendencies, our comforting illusions and self-deceptions, our lame excuses and rationalizations, and anything else that’s holding us back from true spiritual growth and holiness. As Jesus warns, this is necessary if we are to avoid becoming withered branches destined to be thrown into eternal fire. God loves us. Because of our sinfulness, experiencing His love is sometimes painful, but always cleansing and life-giving. The more we open ourselves to His grace, the more we are united to Him and one another, the more we are able to bear much fruit, and the more we are able to achieve our mission in life and satisfy our hearts’ deepest needs and desires.