02 April 2012

i don't give a fig: lessons from the fig tree

The summer after I graduated from college, I was in a waiting room. Not a physical one—I mean this metaphorically.

That fall, I was going to Rouen, France, for a school year to be a language assistant in a French high school.

In between graduation and France, I was an editorial intern at InterVarsity Press—living in the suburbs of Chicago and trying to decide if marking up copy was indeed what I did want to do with the rest of my life.

I was plagued with all those typical post-college questions:
  • How do I know which job is right for me?
  • Was British literature, French, and linguistics really the smartest thing for me to study?
  • When will I feel like a real grown-up?
Questions like that can make you impatient and nervous, and when I look back on the me of eight years ago, that's what I see: someone who was scared about making a wrong choice. I was petrified that one false step and I'd be off the path to success and happiness and the house with a white picket fence and summer vacations.

What I couldn't see then—but I can see now—is that life isn't so black and white.

Life isn't a "one path cut through the dark forest" kind of thing. It's not a fairy tale story where if you wander from the path, you'll be lost forever among the wolves and wolves in sheep's clothing.

It's a journey, yes, and there are different paths to take and you do sometimes find yourself in a dark forest. But as you grow older, you begin to trust that there will be a sunny meadow somewhere on the other side of that dark forest, even if you have to take five different paths to get there.

Okay, so all these deep life thoughts were precipitated by re-discovering something that I wrote when I was in that metaphorical waiting room. It was this thing on the fig tree that I wrote for the online version of Relevant magazine, and re-reading it, I crashed right into my petrified self.

In it, I'm writing about what it means to see growth in your life. How do you know that you're doing all right? How do you know that you're on the right path, even if you can't see any signs that are saying: This is the way; walk in it?

I was worried about those things, but I was trying not to let it show. My 30-year-old self can see all that clearly in this piece, although I'm sure that in eight years or so, I'll look back on stuff I've written here and say: Oh my dear little Kamiah, CALM DOWN. Also, don't try to talk like you have it all figured out.

I'm posting this today for two reasons:
  1. To make it easy on myself in eight years or so when I'm looking back on my writing and trying to find proof that I have actually matured since college.
  2. Because today, the Monday of Holy Week, is the day that Jesus cursed the fig tree. So timely!
And now, a note from my 22-year-old self trying to sound mature:

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 limited to the negative and the elderly. I found out recently however, that I can actually learn a lot from the 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 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).

You just want to get over it, get past it, mature away from it—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—aka, 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. 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 develop.

And keep in mind that a fig tree doesn’t bear fruit all the time. 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.

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?

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