Tree Growth and Spiritual Formation: An Illustration

Photo by Angie Muldowney on Unsplash

An acquaintance and former associate of mine, Matt Johnson, helpfully made a connection for me between spiritual growth and the life cycle of trees. And here is Mandy Brown, deepening that connection:

In the spring, when the weather is (hopefully) warm and wet, a tree will grow rapidly, forming large, porous cells known as “earlywood.” Later, as the weather cools, it will grow in smaller, more tightly packed cells known as “latewood.” You can spot the difference when looking at a tree’s rings: earlywood appears as light-colored, usually thick, bands, while latewood shows up thinner and darker. What doesn’t show up in the rings is the dormant period—the winter season, when the tree doesn’t grow at all, but waits patiently for spring.

I think this is a useful metaphor for thinking about how we grow, too. There are times and seasons when the conditions are right for earlywood—for big, galloping growth, where you learn a lot in short order. This is often the case when you first step into a new role, or take on a new and challenging project, or start at a new organization. But those periods of rapid growth are often (and ideally) followed by periods when the growth is slower, more focused, moving in short and careful steps instead of giant leaps. These latewood periods are when the novelty of a new situation has worn off, and the time for reflection and deep-skill building arrives.

In the Christian spiritual life, growth doesn’t happen all at once, nor does it take place at a steady, constant pace. There are times when it seems like nothing is happening at all, but that isn’t necessarily true. Rest, or patient waiting, is preparatory for the growth ahead, big leaps and the small steps. Smith is again helpful: “[W]e must remind ourselves that growth occurs in intervals: there are times of growth, and there are times of non-growth. The latter isn’t a failure so much as a necessary period of rest. Dormancy isn’t stagnant; it’s potentiating. It’s patient.”

If you’re growing, great! Celebrate. If you’re steadying and solidifying, great! Stand firm. If you’re “potentiating,” wait! Be still, and know that God is God.

Discern, then Respond

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