One foot in front of the other

I never used to go for walks. Given the choice, I’d rather run. After all, a leisurely stroll brings none of the sweat or red face or pounding heart that come from a good run. (I have been told that this is crazy, but maybe the runners among you can see where I’m coming from.)

Yet one of the gifts God gave me in 2020 was walking. Whenever I needed to think, I shrugged on my jacket and boots, shoved my hands in my pockets, and went for a walk. Once outside, I pulled my jacket tighter around my body against the slight bite of the air. I looked up at the branches and leaves set against the wide-open expanse of sky, and I felt just the right amount of small. At a slower pace, the sky was bluer, the leaves greener. I was not huffing and puffing, and I had no goal in mind. The world looked less like a forest to be fought through and more like a feast to be enjoyed. I didn’t know how to make the choices about career and calling and life that weighed on me, but I knew how to walk. And the comforting rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other gave me space and silence to think.

As I have been learning to walk, I have also been learning to set aside the fear of being “unproductive” that lays underneath my reluctance to walk. I don’t like to do anything that doesn’t immediately create a tangible product. If all I’ve done is put one foot in front of the other with nary a drop of sweat to show for it, aren’t I just wasting my time? And if when I read my Bible I don’t feel overwhelmed by emotion, was it even worth it? And if my daily rhythms are humdrum and monotonous and all I have to show for the last few months are denim jeans worn thin with kneeling and a few journals full of stumbling sentences, am I even bearing fruit?

Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). When I think of bearing fruit, I often picture tangible accomplishments, like the sweat that accompanies a ten-mile run. But abiding in Christ is more like walking. Yes, sometimes you come face-to-face with beauty and it takes your breath away. Sometimes you cry while you sing a hymn or read a Bible verse because it hits you that you’re loved by the God of the universe. I’ve had those moments, and they’re beautiful, and I thank God for them. More often, though, I’ve had moments when I read my Bible and didn’t cry, when I didn’t feel a sea change after I said “Amen,” when no box got checked and no moment of elation or revelation occurred. And in those moments, I’ve thought to myself, If these disciplines don’t bear immediate fruit, why practice them at all?

I want to be careful here, because Scripture does tell us to bear fruit. John the Baptist instructs his hearers to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). Jesus warns that “each tree is known by its own fruit” (Luke 6:44), calls Himself the Vine, and tells His disciples in no uncertain terms that “every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away” (John 15:2). Paul says that “you also have died to the law through the body of Christ…in order that we may bear fruit for God” (Romans 7:4), prays that the Colossians would “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord…bearing fruit in every good work” (Colossians 1:10), and describes the work of the Holy Spirit in believers’ lives as fruit (Galatians 5:22-23). Disciples of Christ bear fruit. But in our eagerness to bear fruit, let’s not overlook the day-in, day-out soil and water and sun that we need to grow. 

Part of that day-in, day-out care involves pruning. As I was drafting this, I wrote, “PRUNING. It ain’t glamorous, folks.” I’m not sure I can say it better than that. Pruning—the act of cutting away dry, dying parts of a plant so that they no longer inhibit the growth of its healthy shoots—is meticulous, thankless, necessary work. And when Jesus talks about pruning, He talks about how God, the Vinedresser, prunes us—how God cuts away our dying, superfluous shoots in order that we might bear more fruit (John 15:2). If we want to bear fruit—and we should!—we can’t forget that the process is going to involve a pair of pruning shears. The consequences of this spiritual pruning aren’t always obvious, but that doesn’t make it useless.

Bearing fruit doesn’t always look like checking off a list of good works or breathtaking experiences. The fruit of the Spirit is not a set of tasks, but a set of postures toward God and others. We can’t check love, joy, or self-control off of our to-do lists. Instead, bearing those fruits is a daily practice of submitting ourselves to the work of the Spirit, steeping ourselves in God’s Word, surrounding ourselves with Christians who aren’t afraid to speak truth with grace into our brokenness, and repenting of our sins. Sometimes those conversations, church services, or times spent in the Word won’t feel wildly “productive,” but that doesn’t mean that we stop showing up, seeking Christ, and putting one foot in front of the other. 

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