There’s an azalea bush on the side of my house, nestled under the canopy of a large Colorado blue spruce.
I don’t know the history of this particular shrub, but I do know a thing or two about the landscape that surrounds it. Long-time neighbors say it used to be quite impressive, with expansive flowerbeds, outdoor lighting and a water featuring running down the entire right side of the backyard.
By the time we moved in almost five years ago, though, there wasn’t much evidence of the yard’s former grandeur. Besides the mammoth clump of ornamental grass in the front, some flowering trees in the back, and a lone perennial here and there, most of the landscape consisted of overgrown weeds, bare mulch and way more periwinkle than anyone would ever want.
Bit by bit, I began to renovate the garden spaces that had so attracted me when we first looked at the fixer-upper we now call home. Along the way, I discovered a few pleasant surprises, like the prolific clematis on the side fence and a host of flowering bulbs that seem to pop out of nowhere in early spring.
But the azalea bush was not on my list of favorites. Crowded there under the spruce tree, it looked like a misshapen umbrella, with a few inches of growth on top and a mass of bare branches underneath. Thankfully, it was hidden away in an obscure section of the yard, so I mostly just ignored it for the first few years.
I considered moving it, but that involved more work and care than I was willing to exert for a shrub I didn’t really like. So eventually, I decided to dig the whole thing up, pitch it in our city-issued yard-waste cart and be done with it.
Around this time, my azalea-loving younger sister happened to be visiting. When I told her of my plan, she suggested that, instead of digging up the hapless bush and throwing it away, I should chop it back almost to the ground and let it grow again.
I’m not a risk taker, even in the garden, and her recommendation seemed a bit drastic. But since I was planning to get rid of the whole thing anyway, I decided to prune back half of the bush and see what happened.
Sure enough, the following spring the pruned side of the azalea sprouted a lovely crop of new leaves and bloomed nicely. I cut back the rest of it later that year and trimmed the spruce tree that had been crowding it for years.
Today, the azalea is significantly smaller, but it’s also greener, fuller and has a much nicer shape. Thanks to severe pruning, the bush I almost threw away has become a source of joy for this once-timid gardener.
When it comes to this little gardening anecdote, the theological analogies are numerous.
I could write about how the Master Gardener often wields His pruning shears when He needs to discipline His children, cutting out the sin in our lives so new growth can occur. Or how He gets out the clippers when we’ve grown cold or lazy in our faith and need the deadwood removed from our hearts.
But when I think about my azalea bush, something else comes to mind. You see, as obvious as this might sound, it wasn’t the bush’s fault that it wasn’t thriving.
I’m guessing this shrub was a glorious specimen early on. But it had been neglected by previous owners of the house in recent years. The nearby fence got in the way of its growth. It had been planted too close to the spruce tree, which had all but choked it out by the time we moved in.
The azalea had no control over any of these factors. The only thing it could do was eke out a pitiful existence and hope (if plants are capable of such feelings) that a gardener would come along one day and rescue it.
Something similar can happen to us, I think. When we are adopted into God’s family, we become new creations. The old goes away as we become firmly planted in our new lives (see 2 Corinthians 2:17).
But over the course of the years—as life goes on in us and around us—what was once new can become worn, thin underneath, or even flat crowded out. Like the azalea bush, we can stop thriving like we once did.
Our condition might be due to our own sins and choices, but the choking-out also can be caused by external factors.
And sometimes, the only thing that will revive us is a whole-life renovation.
Sometimes God has something else in mind for us to do, so He allows or orchestrates the circumstances of our lives to cut us way back. He doesn’t do this to be mean or to punish us, but to allow new growth to occur—growth that often prepares us for whatever comes later in our lives.
It’s not always comfortable to think like this. It might be easier to believe that the difficult things that shape us just happen or are merely the result of a fallen world—that God can certainly use them, but that He doesn’t orchestrate them.
I don’t have all the answers to these theological puzzles. I’m just speaking from the perspective of a gardener. And here’s what I know about that.
The azalea couldn’t prune itself.
It didn’t even know it needed pruning.
I had to do it.
I had to conjure up my confidence and hope that the drastic measures I was about to take would, indeed, transform the bush into something beautiful again.
My efforts worked with the azalea bush. Now I need to do the same thing with the row of boxwoods that line the front of my house. They look good from the top and front, but underneath, they, too, are a mass of brown branches.
Given their prominent spot in our landscape, it will take some serious guts for me to prune the boxwoods way back. Honestly, I’m not sure when I’ll be ready to initiate that transformation.
Thankfully, when it comes to the whole-life renovations of His children, God doesn’t need guts or hope.
He knows the outcome before He begins. And everything He does, He does out of unconditional love for us.
P.S. Linking up this week with Kelly Balarie at Purposeful Faith, Jennifer Dukes Lee at #TellHisStory, Lyli Dunbar at #ThoughtProvokingThursday, Holley Gerth at Coffee for Your Heart, Missional Women and Grace & Truth.