by Brad Beals
Thus says the LORD:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the LORD.
He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.
Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose trust is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
~Jeremiah 17: 5-8
I would not have done 2020 like that. If I were all-sovereign over the events of last year, I would have skipped global pandemic and widespread social unrest. I suspect you would have too.
But thankfully, we are not sovereign and God is not like us. He does not think as we think. He does not do things as we would have him do things. And though it may be hard to see blessing in 2020, and though we may already be wondering how the events of 2021 could be for our highest good, that’s ok. Our call is to trust Him. We don’t have to be able to see what He sees.
That being said, there is much in God’s word to help us see, in a very general sense, HOW he works. For example, throughout scripture we see a common image for how God deals with people: we are as fruit-bearing plants. We might be trees planted by streams of water, branches abiding in the Vine, and wild olive shoots grafted into the holy root. But hang on. We might also be shrubs in the desert where we will see no good, diseased trees bearing bad fruit, and fruitless branches thrown into the fire.
The first lesson from such a repeated image is obvious: We should pay careful attention to the kind of trees we are and strive to be counted among the former group. The second lesson is not as obvious. As we the church see ourselves in this imagery as being the good kind of tree or vine, we can also see that there is no getting around the fact that God uses a particular method of keeping his flora healthy – He prunes. We’re being pruned. Individually, this local church body, the Western church, the entire global visible church — all of God’s people are getting a severe pruning this year. And it hurts, as pruning should.
But while it’s true that pruning produces fruit and that good fruit takes time, it’s also true that we can see even now places in the branches where fruit is likely to grow.
1 “Keep close watch over your life and doctrine.” (1Tim 4:16) Consider this: at no time in recent memory (my memory, at least) has the church expended such deliberate and continuous effort in looking into vital doctrines of the faith. Sphere sovereignty, ecclesiology, justification by faith alone, law and gospel, loving God and neighbor – It is good that we’ve had to go deep into such things. May God keep us at it!
2 “…that the things that cannot be shaken shall remain.” (Heb 12:27) Churches that have remained closed, may not ever re-open. This is sad. Every shuttered church building, whether a cathedral in some European city or the corner church that let covid have the final say, is a sad story. But these are very likely branches that had to be, or will have to be, removed. Jesus is building his church, and there’s demo work to be done.
3 “…scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.”(Acts 8:1) For three centuries, the caesars tried to put out the pernicious cult of Christianity, but their efforts always seemed to have the reverse effect. The lesson is clear: church and state are truly not of the same kingdoms. As Christians become increasingly marginalized, if real persecution should break out, we should look for God to grow even more fruit.
No doubt you’ve seen the memes. 2020 craziness was just a warm-up for whatever 2021 has in store. No matter. Our God does not think as we do, so be hopeful, joyful, and do not despair. If 2021 lives up to the hype, it is likely to be our most fruitful year so far.