Less is More: Lessons from an apple Tree

We have several beautiful apple trees in our yard, but one is our favorite. It produces crispy, tart-yet-sweet apples in abundance each year. They’re great to eat, to use in baking, to make applesauce or to juice for cider. But in the last couple of years our favorite tree has had issues: it produces way too many apples, so none of them get much bigger than a golf ball, and they’re really not good for anything. Last week I looked up at it, branches bowed and droopy under the weight of huge clusters of tiny apples, and felt an unexpected kinship; I could relate to feeling overloaded and burdened. It was as if God had placed a mirror in front of my face revealing my need for thinning and pruning in my own life. I knew I wanted to help this tree to thrive just as I wanted to do some work on myself. I had a feeling the path to helping myself would be revealed as I pursued answers about how to help the tree – and I was right. 

Lessons from Apple Trees

It turns out there are way more benefits to pruning (branches) and thinning (fruit) an overloaded tree than I originally thought. But before I got to work on the tree, I felt God inviting me to do some self-reflection on why I could relate so strongly to this overloaded tree. 

For as long as I can remember I’ve felt the heavy burden of trying to live up to the expectations of others. As if that weren’t enough, sometimes the expectations aren’t even real, but imagined. I’ll conjure up ideas of what I think others want from me (and many times they’re unrealistic) and hold myself to an unreachable standard, which of course ultimately results in perceived failure. 

Another way I pile up false responsibilities is buying into the idea that busy = valuable. I know my salvation is not dependent on works, but somehow I find myself staying busy and filling every open space with “good” activities. If I’m being honest, I’ve been working for God’s approval and fearing that down time or rest means I’m being lazy, worthless or don’t have anything to offer. I know logically this isn’t true, but still act on the belief so it must be in there somewhere. 

Whether you can relate to my own people-pleasing version of “overloaded” or not, I’m sure you have your own story of burdens you carry. Regardless of the details, one thing is true for everyone: false responsibilities and expectations ultimately keep us from God’s best for our lives. 

Jesus knew the Jewish people of his time were heavily burdened. Laws, ceremonies, bloody sacrifices and the constant scrutiny of the religious leaders and their neighbors, friends and even family. Their lives were weighed down by the heavy burden of the Law – and the knowledge that they could never, ever measure up perfectly. 

Jesus had good news:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

This good news is for you and me today too, my Overburdened Friend! Even if you don’t gain insight today or tomorrow into what needs to be shed and what can stay, keep taking your schedule, your burdens, your priorities and expectations to Jesus and he will lovingly guide you into His best for you as you walk yoked with Him.

Less is More: Benefits of Thinning Apples 

In my quest to help my poor, drooping apple tree I identified three big benefits of thinning apples. As you might have guessed, each of these can apply to our own lives as well: 

Thinning apples allows the remaining apples to receive adequate nourishment.

If you have clusters of apples all over a tree, the total resources will be spread among all of those apples, and none will get adequate nourishment. It makes sense, then, that if you remove all but one apple from each cluster, the one apple left is going to receive significantly more nutrients, water and sunlight than six apples would. 

This principle holds true in our overloaded lives too, doesn’t it? When I’m spread too thin because of a misguided need to always say yes and stay busy for busyness’ sake, my energy, brainpower and time are divided among tons of different responsibilities and activities. Just as the cluster of six apples won’t let any of the apples mature past golf ball size before the growing season is over, none of my activities will really be done well when I’m overloaded. But when I prune my activity list and curate my schedule, it allows for my time and energy and heart to be all-in, resulting in something far better than a bunch of half-hearted attempts. 

There’s one pitfall we need to avoid:  we need to be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that all we need to do is put our whole lives on the chopping block, randomly or even completely cutting things out. If we took that approach to thinning trees, more damage than help would be done, and the tree could end up not being fruitful at all in the year to come. 

This is why inviting God into the pruning and thinning is crucial. God has very specific plans for you and me. It can be hard, especially at first, to hear His voice among all the other voices out there. It can be hard to distinguish God’s best for us from lots of really good things – especially when it comes to charity, ministry, family and helping people. In thinning trees, care needs to be taken which apple is left in a cluster – it should be a good size and shape relative to the others and exposed to the sun. The timing and method of pruning is also critical to prevent damage to that cluster or branch. Likewise, care should be taken to ask God to reveal what responsibilities can be let go, and which ones need to stay. This takes time, patience, and will sometimes mean weeks or months or even longer of asking for God to guide and direct you toward or away from a specific calling or false responsibility. Timing is also important; you don’t necessarily want to decide God isn’t calling you to teach a class in VBS mid-week during VBS and leave the team high and dry midway through your commitment! 

Something profound I learned about thinning apples is that the one fruit you leave in each cluster is called – get this – the King’s Fruit. Is that appropriate or what?! As you’re seeking to thin some responsibilities and cultivate those few jewels God has placed in your stewardship, remember the King’s Fruit is the goal: using our gifts, talents, time and energy to sow into what God created us to accomplish, for the King’s glory above all else. 

Thinning apples gives you an opportunity to inspect the tree and identify disease or damage.

Sometimes slowing down and taking notice is almost as powerful as the process of thinning itself, whether we’re talking about trees or people. A few weeks ago I was talking to a recently retired friend who said, “Since retiring I’ve been spending so much time reflecting on my life. I realize I’d never done that before because I was just so busy.” Can’t we all relate? Unless we’re really intentional, the default is to be swept along our busy lives reacting and going with the flow without any inward reflection whatsoever. So as you slow down and inspect the overcrowded branches of your life, ask some probing questions. I always like to begin and end with prayer asking God for eyes to see things through “God glasses;” to value the things He values and shed and thin those things that he doesn’t:

  • What are the things that take my time, energy, or brain power?

Then for each one: 

  • Why am I doing this?
  • Am I trying to gain approval through this? Whose?
  • Is this responsibility or activity life-giving or draining?
  • Do I feel called by God to this, or did I fall into it to fill a void?
  • Is there someone qualified I could delegate this to?
  • Can I do this thing more efficiently?
  • Has this activity or responsibility become an idol?
  • Is there something I’ve been feeling called to do for some time but have been afraid to move forward with?
  • Lord, is there something You want me to do or do in a different way that isn’t even on my radar?

These questions don’t have any right or wrong answers. For instance, if you “fell into” a responsibility or stepped in to fill a need, it doesn’t mean it isn’t God’s best for you. Likewise, if you feel drained after an activity, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not something you’re called to (after all, sleepless nights and changing endless diapers is draining – but God calls some to the task!). These questions are far from exhaustive, just a few starter questions to get you ruminating about the way you’re spending your time and energy, and to invite God into that process. 

Thinning apples reduces the weight on branches, preventing limb breakage.

As I stood looking at the bowed branches of my poor overloaded apple tree, I realized a sad but familiar truth: being overloaded can ultimately lead to breakage, or in the case of people, burnout. But long before burnout happens, there can be extremely unhealthy bending. Stress, chronic worry, mood changes, physical illness, strained relationships and more. This is not God’s best, and some of these symptoms are signs that you might need to evaluate your situation and adjust accordingly. This could mean seeking out a counselor or life coach to help you work through steps to become healthy physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. It could mean some fairly heavy pruning or thinning needs to happen. But it all needs to be navigated with an undercurrent of prayer, asking for God’s guidance and direction. 

I want to leave you with one really important truth: no matter how much care you take in cultivating your life-tree and thinning your proverbial apples, there will be absolutely no fruit without the proper rootstock. Some people are surprised that we have apple trees here in Alaska. What many don’t realize is that the only way apple trees can grow at all in this subarctic climate is to be grafted onto cold-hardy rootstock. 

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”

Jeremiah 17:7-8

This passage reminds us of the importance of being deeply rooted in the Lord. Think of Jesus as that cold-resistant rootstock that makes what was formerly impossible (bearing good fruit through connection with God) possible. He is the bridge between us and God, and without a saving faith in Jesus, all of our righteous acts, no matter how good, are like “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). If you haven’t placed your faith in Jesus yet, why not now?

Join the Less is More Conversation

How about you? Is your tree overloaded? What do you feel burdened with? How do you go about discerning what to thin and what to keep? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.