June 11, 2008

To Be Like Trees

2008 1516 page15 capCRIPTURE IS REPLETE WITH SIMILES AND metaphors illustrating the qualities that should characterize God’s people. Many erudite writers have left us profound thoughts for contemplation, based on such biblical statements as: “You are the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13); or “You are the light of the world” (verse 14). We readily appreciate what is implied when God promises that the righteous will be “as rivers of water in a dry place” (Isa. 32:2, NKJV).*
But how about being “like a tree planted by the rivers of water” (Ps. 1:3, NKJV)?
At first thought, the imagery is not quite as appealing as being like light or salt or water on dry ground. Yet the tree metaphor is used numerous times in Scripture as a symbol of strength, prosperity, and longevity. References to trees such as the olive, the fig, and the cedars of Lebanon abound in the Old Testament, illustrating God’s assurance of Israel’s promised stability and fruitfulness, if they would remain faithful. When Jacob on his deathbed conferred a final blessing on his sons, he reserved his greatest blessing for his beloved Joseph, describing him as “a fruitful tree beside a fountain” (Gen. 49:22, NLT, 1996 ed.).†
2008 1516 page15Trees fittingly symbolize those who unceasingly contribute to the well-being of others without expectation of recompense. Throughout its life, a tree serves as a source of support for other living things at all levels of the ecological spectrum. Leaves, flowers, pollen, nectar, fruits, seeds, roots, tubers—all serve as food sources for both humans and animals.
Trees serve as choice nesting places for birds and various other animals. No other living thing contributes as much of itself as a tree does in support of other life forms. Appropriately, then, a tree describes one essential characteristic of a committed Christian.
Beyond Food and Shelter
Trees contribute much more than food and shelter to make our planet habitable. Except for a few anaerobic microorganisms, all living “animal” life needs oxygen, and depends on trees and other plants to provide a constant supply of this life-sustaining element. In the process of photosynthesis, leaves release oxygen from water molecules into the atmosphere and take in carbon dioxide, using the latter to make a large variety of organic compounds that also impact the lives of humans and animals in numerous ways.
So in the extremely important process of photosynthesis, trees remove the toxic gas carbon dioxide and replenish the air with oxygen, thus providing a safe, life-sustaining atmosphere for us to breathe. How wonderful it would be if as Christians we could be recognized as indispensable sources of renewal, as are trees to the environment!
By removing carbon dioxide from the air, trees also reduce the rate of global warming, because carbon dioxide is a major greenhouse gas threatening life on our planet today. By our exemplary living, we, like trees, help to dilute the evil influences around us, creating an atmosphere of goodness to enrich the lives of others.
Trees promote rainfall. During transpiration, trees give off large quantities of water in the form of vapor. That vapor condenses and falls back to the earth as rain. Measurements have shown that a large tree can transpire as much as 40 gallons of water in a 24-hour period. Thus by planting more trees and preserving the existing ones, we may counteract drought and global warming. With trees contributing in so many ways to life on our planet, they certainly become fit symbols of what we can be if, each in our own way, we would be like trees.
Other Comparisons
To be like a tree, for a Christian, goes beyond contributing to the material welfare of others. It also means having the capacity to face the vicissitudes of life with fortitude and resourcefulness. Fixed as they are where they happen to grow, trees must make the best of the prevailing conditions, however hostile.
Pine trees, for example, will grow out of small crevices in solid granite, while managing to stay green through months of rainless weather and excessive summer heat. The giant saguaro cacti and the paloverde trees growing in the desert remain green and produce their beautiful blossoms under the most demanding climatic conditions, drawing from water stored in succulent tissue or by sending their roots down as much as 30 feet to tap the water in the subterranean aquifer.
As Christians, we often must face life’s demanding stresses. We face them best if, like trees, we keep a good store of the “Living Water” in our hearts, sending our spiritual roots deep down into the Word to draw water from the wells of salvation—water to sustain us during the difficult times.
Trees encounter more than drought in their struggle to survive. In regions of the world frequented by hurricanes, trees are often torn apart, leaving bare branches and ugly scars on battered trunks. But soon they begin to sprout new buds and become flushed with new branches—often becoming more beautiful than before. Such resilience is an object lesson for us as Christians as we face life’s misfortunes with courage and fortitude. As Rudyard Kipling suggested somewhere, “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same . . . Yours is the earth.”
Deciduous broadleaf trees in cold climates provide a further object lesson on facing life’s misfortunes with faith and courage. They must shed their leaves before the winter to avoid being dehydrated by excessive water loss when groundwater freezes.
In the process, however, their green chlorophyll breaks down, revealing brilliant colors in various shades of red, yellow, and gold, producing unforgettable autumn splendors. Finally, the leaves fall and the trees are left bare and dull. But then comes spring; and as if resurrected from the dead, new buds arise from seemingly dead branches. Once again, the trees become emblazoned with an extravagance of colors that exceeds the excesses of autumn. This visual invitation to pollinators is often accompanied by the effusion of a fragrance that is irresistible.
2008 1516 page15This capacity of trees to bounce back after severe environmental stress aptly illustrates Paul’s words: “We are . . . struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8, 9). As Christians we refuse to wallow in discouragement when circumstances knock us down; we keep going with renewed energy and fresh courage, knowing that our God is in control. We are buoyed by Habakkuk’s firm trust in God when he declared: “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; . . . Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation (Hab. 3:17, 18, KJV).
Scripture affirms that God is a lover of beauty (see Ex. 28:2, 40). Among all the beautiful things He created, trees stand as prime examples. What’s your choice: a peach in spring bloom? a dogwood blossoming among the pines? a blue spruce with its perfectly symmetrical cone shape? or the giant redwood towering some 350 feet into the sky, straight as an arrow?
I’d settle for the spreading and pendulous poincianas of the Caribbean islands with their flaming red inflorescences flaunting their splendor in the tropical sun. And if “a thing of beauty is a joy forever” (Keats), then mine is that O’Tahiti apple tree of my childhood backyard, with its crimson powder-puff blossoms, my swing hung from its lowest branch (and the scissortail hummingbirds challenging me for right of ownership). That’s a memory that will long remain with me, though the tree has long ago been toppled by a storm. By way of contrast, we may not be physically beautiful; but if we reflect the beauty of Jesus in our character, we too will be seen as beautiful people. Beauty, after all, is more than skin deep.
The Blessing of Longevity
Psalm 91 records various blessings that God promises to the faithful. Among them, longevity (verse 16). A long and healthy life is certainly among the greatest of blessings. So to be like a tree in this respect would be most blessed.
Trees are unquestionably the longest living things on earth. Many of the coastal redwoods of California were already more than 200 years old when Jesus was born. And some have been shown by dendrochronologists to be as much as 2,500 years old. But some bristlecone pines were already more than 2,000 years old when the redwoods were small saplings, many shown to be as much as 5,000 years old. To be like a tree in this respect, we must await our new-earth experience.
Places of Shelter
The scene is familiar to those accustomed to the pastoral setting of rural communities: a large spreading tree at one corner of a grassy meadow where the cattle feed. As the heat of the midday sun or the pelting rain shower intensifies, one by one the cows move toward that tree where they huddle together to shelter from the heat or the rain.
Or what traveler on a tiresome trek does not welcome the sight of a shade tree by the side of the road, hastening their steps toward it? They sit down to rest and get up refreshed and rejuvenated for their journey. Wouldn’t the world be a kinder place if each of us, or our church community, could be known to provide such respites for others on life’s stressful journey—for people seeking shelter, solace, acceptance, encouragement?
Our first parents began their life’s journey in a garden among the trees, and lost their innocence eating from the forbidden tree. When Eden is restored, there’ll be another tree in Paradise beside the river of life that will bear 12 types of fruit each month (Rev. 22:2).
I look forward to meeting you under that tree. Meanwhile, may God give us grace to become more like those beautiful, resilient, ever-giving trees.
*Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright ” 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
†Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ” 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.

Norman L. Mitchell is a retired professor of biology. His last assignment was at La Sierra University in Riverside, California.