“This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”—John 15:8
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”—Matthew 6:25
Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.—1 Peter 5:7
It has been a stressful week.
I sold my truck last week, with the goal of saving money by finding something a little more economical. Also last week, I was preparing a sermon on spiritual warfare, about the reality that there are very real spiritual forces out there seeking to do us harm, to tempt us, distract us, and discourage us in our faith. At the time, the two things seemed pretty unrelated. Looking back, I think next time I decide to buy or sell a vehicle, I’ll do it on a week when I’m preaching on something a little less intense.
Selling the truck was only a little stressful. Everything went smoothly, and I got a fair price, but just working out the details was an added burden on top of all the ministry and life stuff already going on in the first week of September. But the real stress came in trying to buy a car. We had to decide what exactly we were looking for, what our financial boundaries were, and then we discovered that, of course, the car we want for the price we want doesn’t exist. This bank won’t lend for cars over 10 years old, that one charges ridiculous interest if it’s over 100,000 miles. This car looks perfect but it doesn’t have a tow hitch. That one is just right until we discover it’s not all-wheel drive. Do we care about that? How much do we care? What if it doesn’t have a roof rack for my kayak? Is that important? What if this one, which is not quite perfect but pretty close, is the right one, and someone else grabs it while we’re being indecisive? Ugh.
Of course, all of those details were being worked out through online research, and by email and phone calls with dealers, in conversations between me and Carey squeezed in between the needs of our children and the demands of life and work. Somewhere in the middle of it all, as I was still trying to work out what I needed to say Sunday about spiritual warfare, one of my kids made an entirely reasonable request and I had a strong impulse to jump in our one remaining car and go to the office to hide. That’s when I realized that I might be a little stressed out.
Then I remembered hearing something from a Bible teacher once: in the winemaking industry, grape-growers know that the vines have to be a little stressed to produce the best fruit. If you give them all the water and nutrients they want, they produce lots of foliage, but not the best grapes. They have to struggle a little bit. Given everything the Bible has to say about Jesus as the vine and us as the branches, living fruitful lives, etc., it’s an excellent illustration, but I had never done my own research to see if it’s actually true. A few clicks on the internet, and here’s what I found:
“It is the extremes that cause problems. Vines with too much water and nutrients grow too much green canopy that shade fruit so grapes are big, low color with diluted flavors. Vines with too little water and nutrition don’t have enough leaf area to ripen the fruit and may leave the clusters exposed to sunburn. Both extremes make for low quality wine.
“The ideal then is to have the vines balanced and in a Goldilocks condition (“not too much, not too little, just right”). That means enough foliage to provide photosynthesis and intermittent shade, and enough stress to yield small berries getting enough sunlight to trigger the ripening process. Vines seem to know that if conditions are too good, they don’t need to produce sweet fruit and mature seeds.”-Tom Myers, veteran winemaker
It’s the extremes that cause problems. If life is too easy, we won’t be fruitful, and if life is too hard, we won’t be fruitful. Maximum fruitfulness comes when there is “enough stress” and conditions aren’t “too good.” Wow. It’s an uncomfortable thought, but I’m guessing that most of us can sense the truth in it. I know that I can look back at my life and see examples of times when life was easy and it led to selfishness, not wholehearted surrender to Jesus. I can also think of times when the burdens of life seemed to choke out the possibility of fruitfulness; I was too focused on survival, on my own problems, to be all that useful to Jesus or anybody else.
Sometimes those hard times are unavoidable. And sometimes life is sweet and it’s a gift from God to be enjoyed for a season, a time to be refreshed. But the goal, it would seem, is that most of the time we would have just the right amount of stress in our lives. Just enough challenge to keep us praying. Just enough need to keep us working. Just enough responsibility to keep us focused. Just enough frustration to keep our eyes on eternity. Just enough stress to be fruitful.
I wish it weren’t so. I wish the Bible would tell us that the goal is perfect peace and comfort. And in a way it does, but those things come with the new heaven and the new earth. For now, fruitfulness, not comfort, is the goal. This challenges me to think about how much time I spend looking forward to an imaginary time when the stresses of life will be less. “As soon as we get settled into the routine of the school year.” “Once we get through the holidays.” “Once the kids get a little older.” Who are we kidding? Life is stressful. It always will be. If it gets to the point that it’s not, we’re doing it wrong. This week, may your life contain just the right amount of stress: not too much, and not too little.
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”—Matthew 6:34