Life often works out like an unwritten script, a planned and soon penned timeline of unfolding events and choices that we chance along the way. Without being written down ahead of time, the series of progressions, chances, choices, and occurrences in our lives are sometimes unexpected and only make sense as they build together towards the end. Although we have plans we would like fulfill, few things in life ever work out exactly as we had imagined. We have a whole idea of what the future should be. We hold onto the dreams and priorities that we fascinate our minds with. Then, time passes. When our expectations are not fulfilled, we come to the reality that life may already have had its own path planned for us, and this is the script that we were always meant to follow. We look back and see that the choices presented, the life we once lived, and the plans we had could all change as eternity inched closer. We see that the narrative was already planned, and the unwritten story of life was already being written when we took up an eternal gifting of forgiveness and grace. But at the beginning, it looks much different. Before the narrative unfolds, you have a choice to live on your own or to take part in an eternal plan – the unwritten script that is being copied down day-by-day as your life unfolds. We begin looking at your part in the story & the process you go through to truly find your life beyond your plans.
John 12v23-26 says, “Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.”
When your foundation is in Christ, you come to the realization that this life you have is not your own. You were made for a plan that doesn’t always match your expectations, and we come to this point of submission in our lives. Have you ever been asked the question, “What is your five-year plan?” Among others like it, that question makes quite the assumption about every human who scrambles to answer it.
You’re a person with goals and dreams you want to accomplish. And, like every human, you hold your cards close to your chest. You might have goals that are outwardly communicated because of the plans you have, but the winning cards are more secret, more hidden, and more personal. Those winning cards are ones you cling to, even when other alternatives are presented, simply due to the belief that they will let you have the victory. But you see, if you cling to a hand you’re dealt and trade out cards here & there with the belief that your “winning” cards are going to build the conquering hand, what happens when you accidentally pass up a few cards and, by doing so, a hand that would have been even better? Someone else wins & your cards become useless. Similar to your Saran-like clinginess to leftover food you love & your desire to make it last, food scraps spoil & you’re left with a putrid version of your favorite dish if you try to preserve it too long. Clinging to things with the belief they will always be good is like eating your spoiled leftovers. At one point, that dish was delicious, and it quickly became your next stomachache. You have to toss out things that spoil, and by that, I mean your five-year plan, ten-year plan, and all other plans in general. Your plans were meant to spoil, your cards were meant to lose, and someone else was meant to have it all figured out. You hold your plans, like the cards, so tightly that you’ll never succeed in plans already laid out because of a tightly-held belief.
You believe that your plans are important & will actually lead to the success that you want. What that creates is a slim vision of a grander plan, and we are all guilty of tunnel vision in life. I do not want you to think that I am speaking in the definitive & exhaustive by jumping to a conclusion that all your plans are unimportant & lead to failure by the object presented, or that your plans exist outside of a divine plan. I do not mean that at all. They may co-exist, work hand-in-hand, or not even interact with the divine plan. But, like a card game, you have opportunities to change options as you progress & unless you are perfect, your choices will not always lead to success. Perhaps, coupled with a fame-endowed, none-have-defeated, Guinness-titled card player, your chances of success might improve. When you pair your life’s plans with the Creator, the one who made this reality in the first place, you might be able to really discover your greatest success. To be able to do so, you may have to let go of some of your life choices, plans, or long-held expectations to reach whatever success in God’s eyes looks like.
We have to “let go” for a simple principle: God says that you are not your own & bought at a price (1 Corinthians 6v19-20). By being God’s, you lose your life. That loss is a choice, and Jesus tells us that the first part of the process is to die to your isolation and self-seeking plans. You are, as John said, the single kernel that must first die to its singularity. Otherwise, you act alone, and I’m pretty sure that means you’re not acting in a way that has God’s backup. Otherwise, he would say you are not alone. And, surprise! John 14v18-20 says “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” The one condition here is that you are in Christ, and by doing so, you are not alone. When you become a Christian, you die to your singularity & acting as an isolated soul. Now, living in communion with Christ is also conditional, because you can abide in Christ well, and you can also do it very badly. That leads us into being pruned, and cutting out the parts of our lives that are holding onto our old selves or our own expectations.
Isaiah 18v5-6 says, “For, before the harvest, when the blossom is gone and the flower becomes a ripening grape, he will cut off the shoots with pruning knives, and cut down and take away the spreading branches. They will all be left to the mountain birds of prey and to the wild animals; the birds will feed on them all summer, the wild animals all winter.” God lays waste to the parts of ourselves that draw life away from the fruit he wants to bear. It’s uncomfortable to think of the Christian life as being cut apart & trimmed back. We are in a trade-off with things that we might actually like in our lives, which God deems garbage, to things that we are growing which we never planned a harvest in. That is the beauty, though, in being pruned. While you are going through an uncomfortable process of trade-offs and trimmings – as God is shaping your life – God is also cultivating a harvest. His harvest in you. We trim back plants because obstinate offshoots of the future-producing branches suck energy and valuable resources from viable blossoms that eventually produce fruit, and like your life, there are things interfering with the growth of viable plans & outcomes that God intends for you. God triumphs over those things, leaves them to the birds, and he is cultivating a harvest as a result. Colossians 2v15 says, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” God disarms the things that have power over your spirit, and he makes a spectacle of them by his ultimate victory on the cross.
Now, if you think that something like sinful distractions, self-doubt, unfulfilled hopes, or strongly-held expectations are going to get in the way of a greater plan for your life, then the only thing stopping you from growth is your very own resistance to God’s plan or a desire to cling to your own hoped-for reality. God yearns to prune away anything that is drawing away from his harvest in your life. This is not supposed to sound like some form of prosperity-Gospel, because I’ll tell you that growing and reaping a harvest takes hard work, and the death of parts of your plans, expectations, and distractions (a.k.a. the trimmings) is going to be frictional. It’s going to create discomfort that brings great reward. Those trade-offs and trimmings usher in space for God’s plans to grow, and it is revealing to let him lay those out or “all be left to the mountain birds.” Things will be revealed you may rather wish not to see or expose, and it may last from summer to winter, as he says. There may be an extended season of pruning, but hold on in the process. As those trimmed branches die & the harvest of ripened fruit leaves behind seeds that will die, another season of greater growth proceeds. It multiplies.
As Jesus said in John 12, those who truly love life will look like they have lost all temporary life here in comparison to how much they are clinging to an eternal life. You literally trade the things in this world that are preferable to you for a life that will be lived for eternal purposes, and you go through a process of weighing the cost. Luke 14v16-30 says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’”
I think of it like this: you sit down at the beginning of the pruning process, when you start to feel there are things God is working to trim back, and you take an honest look at what the cost of trading your life plans for God’s expectations will be. You take inventory of what you have to give, and at the very beginning you start out with a decision made to know the cost & take that on. You don’t buy a new house without considering what the cost will be & assessing how much you can really put in. Likewise, you don’t trade your heart in for a new life in Christ without having considered some of the trades you will make and whether you can really give up the sinful parts of you for that! That is part of the process of pruning away your old self & clinging to the new plan. You assess the cost & you plan out your end of the bargain. Your plans then surround carving out parts that need to go as God is working to cut things away, too – and the hatred begins. The image of hatred is strong, and Jesus used that to reinforce that your love for his plans and purposes should make your human pursuits far beneath the value of God’s pursuits. He says carry your cross and leave the plow, and that’s later stated to be a daily process.
Luke 9v57-62 says, “As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ He said to another man, ‘Follow me.’ But he replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Still another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.’ Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’” The first man wants to follow, but Jesus knows he’s concerned about leaving comfort. The second man wants to follow, but Jesus knows he will make excuses down the road. The third man wants to follow, but Jesus knows he is wanting to hold onto his own priorities and his intangible assets (i.e. those things we struggle to even place value on for their significance to us).
Then, Jesus reminds them all of the prophet Elisha in 1 Kings 19v19-21, “So Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him. Elisha then left his oxen and ran after Elijah. ‘Let me kiss my father and mother goodbye,’ he said, ‘and then I will come with you.’ ‘Go back,’ Elijah replied. ‘What have I done to you?’ So Elisha left him and went back. He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his servant.” Elisha made the classic move of thinking about his priorities first, and when Elijah doubled back from his call to action, Elisha quickly jumped to eliminate the object of his plans & priorities in order to follow God’s plan. I’m not saying that you literally have to destroy everything you hold dear, but I am saying that there are parts of your life that inhibit your ability to fully be released to God’s plan in your life. Those are things you hold dear – the love to have, want to get, plan to keep kind of things. But in that, you must recognize that the call is to lose your life to find it, and your highest calling is the one that takes you to wherever Jesus leads.
Jesus has called us to follow him, because his servants follow to where he goes & God honors them. He says that to follow, you must deny yourself & take up your cross. Your vision of your life becomes like a narrow vision that opens up to a grander plan. You get to a point where you must submit. You’ve been trimmed, you’ve recognized areas God wants you to lay your life down, you’ve weighed the cost of trading your pursuits and priorities, and you’ve realized that nothing in this life is withstanding or worthwhile enough to hold out against the call of Jesus. The final step is submission. You decide, with every day that goes by, where and who you abide within. Luke 9v23-25 says, “Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?’” The last part in the process is the denial of yourself – the things you want, desire, plan, expect, dream, and hope for out of your life. God does not require you to be wholly devoid of those things to pursue his plan, but he does require that you trim back the areas that are draining your energies or focus away from his plans or his purposes. Ask yourself, “What have I been so focused on lately, that it might actually be impeding my growth in the image of, firm rooting in, and daily pursuance of Christ?” By narrowing those things, you find the areas you need to deny yourself, where the trade will seem the highest price, where the trimming will be the most painful, and where your truly weighty cross will be to bear. As you bear that cross daily, you are submitting those areas to God’s control & handing over the weight of the world as he replaces your sense of desires with a new sense of yourself. This is how, when you gain the world, you lose your soul. For when you trade the things of the world & all your pursuits for God’s plans, then you find your life.
So, I ask you today, have you let God tear apart your branches in his season, laying them waste to the creatures who will eat your rotten despair & leaving behind only the blossoming hope of a fruitful tomorrow? Have you decided that your isolation or comfort is worth trading in exchange for the future harvest that God may yield by his plans in your life? Do you have an inventory list of what it has cost, might cost, or will cost as Christ prepares more room for his pursuits to replace yours? Have you finished making up excuses for the things you haven’t changed, or are you simply weighing the cost of denying your life as you consider moving back to your plow? I challenge you today. Don’t look back at your life at the end & say, “I wish I only realized sooner what God was doing in the midst.” Instead, say Psalm 46v5, “God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns.” Tomorrow arrives as a fresh start to deny yourself and take up your cross. The script is being written – how God plans to use you, grow you, and lead you as you follow your Savior throughout your life. You were meant to exceed beyond your own expectations, and God has intentions for you to find your life within his own narrative. Your choice can be to choose your things no longer, so your own life reflects the unwritten script God planned to transcribe from your start. Your greatest success will be understanding that his plans can become your own humble undoing, the pruning of your self-made expectations, so that you will blossom and his plans for you will flourish.