The growth rings of a tree trunk intrigue me. These contours compile the life story of the tree in the lines left by nature’s faithful seasons of wet and dry. Years of plenty leave thick lines, years of lack leave thin lines. Yet more than mere rainfall history is recorded in these contours: forest competition leave elliptical lines of asymmetrical growth, while the trauma of forest fires, animal damage, pests or sickness leave permanent stains or scars in the tree trunks. These lines, scars, stains and blotches portray the life of the tree: it is the record of events the tree witnessed, what it encountered and what it survived. Just like our fingerprints these contours distinguish one tree from another – what a tree lives through lends it its distinguishing marks; its experience lends it its beauty and character. As these pictures show[i], each tree is known and valued by its marks.
But note that the lines and marks in a tree are the trees response to its environment – not the environment itself. We don’t see the rains, droughts, fires, bugs or animals. The contours only record the tree’s growth because of a wet season, and its hardening because of a dry season. We only see the elliptical contours because of the tree’s self-adjusting growth for a few years in its fight for better sunlight. We only see the darkening as it healed from the heat and flames, the recovery scars left from animal damage and the discolouration caused by other environmental conditions. In essence, the trunk of the tree is a witness to how the tree coped with its experience, how well it adjusted to survive in its environment and how it was strengthened through it. Indeed, these contours are aptly called the “growth rings of a tree”.
If your character could be dissected as a tree trunk, it might reveal similarly distinguishing “growth rings” – the marks that show how each season has impacted you.
As I reflect on the past year I am struck by how deeply it influenced me – both for the good and the bad. A few family traumas of people within our church community has left a heightened appreciation for my family and my health, with a deliberate response to cherish the precious time with those I love and make the best use of my health and fitness. Frequent reports of leadership failure have heightened my awareness of my own fallibility and the traumatic impact it has on many; this sparked renewed study and intentional growth in Christian leadership practice as well as intentional accountability as I see the need to allow others to speak into my life. The development and facilitation of a marriage intimacy course has made a lasting impact in my attention to and intention for growth in marital intimacy. A demanding season has highlighted the dangers of isolation resulting in purposeful pursuit of healthy friendships for me and my family. But the business has also caused me to reevaluate my life, reconsider my efforts and remind myself where I should be heading, so I can readjust my course now.
Sadly I am also aware of some less noble responses to events in the past year: I recognise a mounting degree of cynicism due to frequent disappointment by certain people, coupled by latent anger and even bitterness in my heart. I notice a resistance to spontaneous generosity because of perceived entitlement and misspending of some with whom I have supported. I note the signs of compassion fatigue because of seasons of overextending myself. And sadly I am aware that I laugh and play less because of the impact of the serious things that I deal with. These responses are not good for my soul, my family and my relationships.
Thus the events of the past season has touched me personally and impacted my character. I have grown grateful and humble, more relational and accountable, vulnerable and intimate, and more purposeful. Yet I have to acknowledge that I have grown more cynical, less innocent and less generous, less compassionate and less joyful. My growth through the last season has been both good and bad; in some ways I have grown to resemble Christ my Lord better and in some ways I have grown to represent him less.
Although the memories of our experiences remain with us, it is our own responses to those experiences that ultimately impact us and those around us greatly, because how we respond shapes us for the long run. Our responses to life’s significant moments and seasons lay the contours that make up our character – and our character shapes both our consciousness (how we view life) and our course (where we end up in life).
That is why we need to “guard our heart above all things, for from it flows the issues of life.”[ii] We cannot control or undo what life’s seasons throw at us, but we can and should control our response to those moments.
The Bible teaches that one is “blessed” (or better off) when in spite of injustice one remains kind and merciful; when in the midst of cruelty and betrayal one remains pure in heart; when in the midst of conflict one pursues reconciliation and peace; when in the midst of hardship one remains faithful and true to God.[iii] In fact, the Bible shows that regardless of what life throws at us, a godly response always leaves one blessed – in this life and the life to come.[iv] And that although everything seems hopeless, there is a very real reason to be optimistic, because God can and will bring beauty out of every situation.[v] Although there are things that challenge us in every season of life, God’s grace in that season is enough to carry us through.[vi]
It’s a new year. Another year is over and it left its marks on your life. Was it a year of plenty or of want? A season of vigorous growth or a tough season of hardening? A festive time or fiery trial that left its stains? Regardless of what the year brought you, its impact on your life will prove significant in the shaping of your heart.
How will you allow your experiences to impact your character for good or bad? Consider it carefully, because your response to this season will determine your consciousness in the next season and ultimately your course in life.
[i] Images from online article in Mizzou Magazine https://mizzoumag.missouri.edu/2013/05/if-trees-could-talk/
[ii] Proverbs 4:23
[iii] Matthew 5:7-9; James 1:12
[iv] Romans 8:28
[v] Jeremiah 29:11; Revelations 20:5
[vi] 2 Corinthians 12:9