Winter of the soul
Seasons. Seeds sprouting and withering. Trees, branches and fruit. The birds of the air and the flowers of the fields. Streams of water and drought-ravaged land.
To anyone who’s familiar with the Bible, these are not just nature images; they are metaphors that carry enormous spiritual meaning.
They speak of life’s unpredictable ups and downs in contrast to God’s unchanging love; of the painful, yet paradoxically precious, pruning process and of glorious growth even in times of drought.
If your soul is weary due to difficult life circumstances and your heart’s springtime seems like a distant memory, read on. Let me tell you about my own “winter of the soul” and share the comfort that God brought to me during those bleak years of loss.
No longer useful…
When adjusting to life with a disabling chronic illness, one of the highest emotional hurdles for me was the feeling of fruitlessness: where my life was once blooming, it was now painfully bare.
The things that used to fill my days with a sense of purpose and pride were no longer part of my life. I didn’t feel useful anymore.
About two years into my illness I sunk into a deep depression. I sorely missed being busy and active and productive. Hopelessness engulfed me for a season. Not only did I feel like a burden to family and friends, I also felt pathetically un-useful to God.
… but still fruitful
During this heatbreakingly barren season, God brought me great comfort through Jesus’ teaching about fruitfulness in John chapter 15:
Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. – John 15:5.
Gradually — through the blur of grief, as I tried to make sense of my new normal — a very important spiritual reality came into focus: I may not be productive anymore, but I can still be fruitful.
A seedling of hope took root as I began to understand that my life was not without purpose (contrary to what my grieving mind had been telling me!). Although my body was failing me, my spirit — who I am — could still thrive.
Slowly, I started to believe, deep in my heart, that it was still worth being alive (something I hadn’t been so sure about when I realised, at age 35, that I may never be well again).
God: Gardener of our souls in seasons of grief
If you feel like you’ve lost your usefulness or your vitality or your reason for waking up each morning, please don’t give up.
I know you feel like giving up, but God has so much in store for you. Yes, in heaven; but there’s meaning and new life to be discovered here on earth, too.
God is the gardener of our souls. He is a master at making beautiful things grow within — not in spite of, but as a result of — the bleakest seasons of our lives.
Suffering is not an obstacle to God’s plan for your life. You are just as valuable to God now as you ever were, and you can still be renewed inwardly day by day. (2 Cor 4:16)
Jesus expands the metaphor of the vine and branches to illustrate this truth:
I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. – John 15:1-3
Here are two things to keep in mind during your own seasons of fruitlessness.
1. Fruit takes time to grow, and not every season is fruitful
Picture in your mind a tree that’s been pruned. Not pretty, is it? In the place of luscious, green leaves are bare, brown stumps. Where sweet fruit once grew, nothing remains to show for it.
But wait a season or two and what will happen? The branches that are now bare will bloom again — and they won’t just return to the way they were before; they will be even more fruitful than before!
During some seasons in life we might feel particularly bare, no matter how much we’re trusting in God. Try not to lose heart in those tough times; God is pruning you.
When all seems to be lifeless, all that is beautiful withdrawn and shrouded, the invisible, miracle-working power of God has not come to a halt. It operates silently, secretly in the seed, and in us.
I pray that I may be responding now to all the Lord’s dealings, for I know that the best fruit will be what is produced by the best-pruned branch. The strongest steel will be that which went through the hottest fire and the coldest water… The greatest joy will have come forth out of the greatest sorrow.1Elisabeth Elliot, A Path Through Suffering, Chapter 23 loc 1792, Chapter 21 loc 1653
2. Compost is stinky and unpleasant, but it makes plants more fruitful
Have you ever walked past a garden that’s been fertilised with Dynamic Lifter (chicken poo)? Not a pleasant smell.
A good gardener knows how to enrich the soil, and excrement is one extremely effective option! Another is compost, which is equally unpleasant.
Waste and refuse making beautiful things grow… Isn’t it a strange paradox?
The writer of Hebrews instructs us to “endure hardship as discipline” (in the sense of training, not in the sense of punishment).
No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way. – Hebrews 12:11
The Bible teaches that suffering is an unavoidable part of living in a broken world. Thankfully, God doesn’t abandon us when we’re at our worst; he has promised to always be with us (Rom 8:22-39).
Like a skillful gardener, God is able to make beautiful things grow from our painful experiences. I’ve certainly seen this in my own life: as I’ve stayed connected to God, he has used hardship to help me grow.
In what ways can seasons of loss help us grow?
Now I’m a more compassionate person than I used to be. Because I’ve experienced long seasons of grief and depression, I intuitively empathise with others who are grieving.
Thanks to God’s painful pruning of my soul during those barren seasons, a spiritual harvest is now growing, just as Hebrews 12 promises. God has carved his character deep into my heart, and made it possible for me to comfort others with the same comfort he has given me. (Rom 5:3-5, 2 Cor 1:3-4)
Take heart! God can do the same work inside of you as you stay connected to him.
Now that I’m physically weak, I am forced to be more reliant on God. My self-reliant, stressed-out spirit is slowly becoming a more God-dependent, peace-filled spirit. My weakness has served to strengthen my trust in our all-powerful God, who never grows weary (Isaiah 40:28-29, 30-31).
Be encouraged! Our great God can do the same work inside of you as you stay connected to him.
How to achieve growth
Did I become more compassionate by being a super strong and amazing person? No! I’m a very average person. (Just ask anyone who’s ever lived with me!)
Did I gain more inner peace by following special techniques and being spectacularly self-disciplined? Ha! You’ve never met me but I can tell you: self-discipline is not one of my fortes…
Well then, how did I produce this spiritual fruit?
By staying connected to Jesus. By screaming out to him when the sorrow hurt too much. By asking him to keep hold of me when I wasn’t strong enough to hang on to him.
Jesus has achieved these things through me, because he is super strong and amazing. The good news for you is: Jesus has promised to achieve the same things through you when you stay connected to him. (John 15:5)
Stay connected to Jesus in seasons of grief
As we keep our eyes on Jesus, spiritual fruit will grow in our lives – because God is able to make it grow.
Fruit that can sustain us through the hardest of times: joy, peace, patience, self-control.
Fruit that can nourish others, for God’s glory: love, kindness, goodness, faithfulness.
Fruit that is sweet and good, in bodies and hearts that are broken.
“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit.“ (John 15:5)
Father God, it’s so hard living through painful losses. We miss feeling strong and productive and in control. Thank you for your words of encouragement today, from our Lord Jesus. Help us to remember that he is the vine and we are the branches. We thank you for being the source of life. Please help us stay connected to you. And thank you for promising to make us fruitful. We want to keep growing, for your glory. Please sustain us. Please help us. We need you and we love you. Amen.
How can I help you grow?
1. Printable Resource Bundle
I pray this resource will help you to persevere, and to find a sense of purpose, within your pain.
2. Cheat Sheet
“Connecting with God” is a high-resolution graphic that’s suitable for both downloading and printing. It’s designed to be a quick reference resource, to help you stay connected to God (1) in little ways, and (2) even on bad days.
But God, Wouldn’t I Be More Useful to You If I were Healthy? is written by Esther Smith, who blogs at Life in Slow Motion.
It’s a super helpful guide to that special kind of grief that Christians with chronic illness experience: mourning the fact that we can no longer serve God in the ways we’d always hoped and dreamed. My only regret was not reading it sooner! It was published in the fourth year of my illness, after my most intense grief had passed (and after writing the first three posts in my Fruitful Series).
The e-book costs around $3; and if you find reading a challenge, you can download a professional-quality audio version of the book instead, for around $2.
(I’m not affiliated with this link in any way, and Esther hasn’t asked me to promote her book; I just found it so helpful that I couldn’t not mention it here!)
Images to share on Pinterest
Want to continue?
Go to Fruitful #2: How to Be Fruitful, Even When Your Life Is a Mess!
Pruned willow tree: By David Hawgood, commons.wikimedia.org
Willow tree in bloom: By Terrence Hatch, publicdomainpictures.net