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Lessons From The Fig Tree

I don’t know much about fig trees. As a girl from Iowa, there hasn’t been much need to ever learn about them. For one, I’m not even sure if they grow in Iowa, and why should I care anyway? It’s not like I live on a farm or vineyard or wherever fig trees are really grown. Here’s the extent of my knowledge of fig trees or fig-related things:

  • Some people say, “I don’t give a fig.” However this is an expression I’ve never used, and I don’t think I will until I’m 74.
  • It’s not a cookie – it’s fruit and cake. That’s the Fig Newton slogan, but I always thought those were old lady snacks. Just give me an Oreo.
  • Jesus cursed a fig tree in Mark 11:12-14.

That’s really the full range of my fig tree facts, and as you can see, it’s apparently limited to the negative and the elderly. I found out recently however, that I can actually learn a lot from the old fig tree.

In order to fully appreciate the fig tree lesson, you must know that they take three years to grow enough to start producing fruit. Until then, fig trees seem rather useless — especially to the untrained, misunderstood and impatient. If you don’t see the fig tree with the right frame of mind, then you won’t see the necessary maturing process. You’ll see only apparent idleness and disappointment.

Look at the vineyard owner in Luke 13:6-9. He had a fig tree planted, imagining the massive number of fruit it would produce to sell at a reasonable price. He was a good businessman perhaps, but he was no green thumb. He didn’t understand the fig tree’s process, “For three years now, I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?” (7).

The hired hand who did work at the vineyard knew better and knew that the tree would bear fruit soon enough. He calmed his master down without belittling him, “Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit, fine! If not, cut it down” (9).

Think of it this way — you’re the vineyard owner, in charge of your life (that’d be the fig tree), but certainly not entirely capable or even sure of yourself. You feel like you’re doing what you’re “supposed to,” but you’re not seeing the tangible results. You’re still struggling with that one sin (for me, it’s spiritual complacency, pride and comparison…ok, that’s several sins).

There’s a Caedmon’s Call song that hits on the frustrating, learning cycle:

I ran across an old box of letters

While I was bagging up some clothes for Goodwill

You know I had to laugh that the same old struggles

That plagued me then are plaguing me still

You just want to get over that plague, but the sin keeps attacking in different, surprising ways. You want to scream, “But I’m doing everything I know how! I’m reading the Bible, I’m praying, I’m honestly seeking you, God! So why isn’t it doing any good? What’s the point if I’m just going to keep re-learning these same dumb lessons?” You’re the vineyard owner, unsure of why it’s taking so long to become who you want to be inside — that ideal, shining Christian that can’t ever seem to be reconciled to who you actually are.

Enter the hired hand, the guy really doing all the work around here, the guy who really knows what’s going on. The hired hand – a.k.a., God – gives you the gentle reminder (sometimes, of course, it’s not so gentle) that growth and maturity take time. They also take a little work – his work on you. He has to dig around you, tearing away everything that refuses to bring glory to him. Then you can learn to be dependent on him alone (sometimes, I want nothing more than for God to dig around me so much that I’m an island with him alone). He has to fertilize the soil around you so that instead of just passively accepting lessons, you’re ingesting them and using them to help you grow.

Yeah, it’s a combination of work – yours and God’s. Then the fruit comes, but not until after patience, endurance and dependence. Keep in mind that a fig tree doesn’t bear fruit all the time. There’s more growing, there are rest periods, there are droughts, there is blooming without fruit (never good – that’s like in Mark 11:12-14 when Jesus cursed the fig tree). However, through all that, the fig tree is still a fig tree doing what it can to fulfill its purpose – to bear fruit.

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As a Christian, you have to bear fruit for God. That’s why he digs around you, fertilizes the soil, prunes you – so that you’ll work for him and reflect his glory. You have to trust that the fruit will come in his time (an easy thing to say and a hard thing to practice with honesty), so don’t torture yourself feeling worthless for God because you never seem to grow past the same temptations and disappointments. You are growing, but generally it’s a long, growing process like the fig tree’s. Before bearing the fruit that God wants you to, you have to work on responding to his care.

Who knew that fig trees offered such reassurance?

[Kamiah Walker just graduated from Truman State University and is currently interning at InterVarsity Press. In the fall, she’s heading to northern France to teach English for the year. ]

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