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Learn from the Trees

In The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, former forester Peter Wohlleben shares what he has learned from 20 years of managing a forest nature reserve near the tiny village of Hummel, Germany. In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Wohlleben describes the community life of trees like this:

“Some are calling it the ‘wood-wide web,’” says Wohlleben in German-accented English. “All the trees here, and in every forest that is not too damaged, are connected to each other through underground fungal networks. Trees share water and nutrients through the networks, and also use them to communicate. They send distress signals about drought and disease, for example, or insect attacks, and other trees alter their behavior when they receive these messages.”

What can we learn from trees, and why would we turn to them for wisdom? Trees live an interdependent life – trees survive much better and grow much bigger in community, in forests, and the more interconnected their root systems, the stronger their community. There is a wisdom in the way that taller trees share the chlorophyll they gain from sunlight with their smaller brethren who are hidden away under the canopy, unable to receive sunlight themselves. We can learn from the strength of a root system that is hidden away, but strongly connected, and therefore able to withstand high winds and storms. 

God created us to live in such interdependence and interconnectedness, and perhaps it is a symbolic lesson that He used trees to offer us the choice between life, relationship and interdependence, or independence, rebellion, and death. The Tree of Life represented our opportunity to live connected to His life, dependent on Him, and interdependent with others. I say “interdependent with others” because Adam and Eve could have chosen life in one of two ways – immediate dependence on God, or the interdependence of consulting each other before choosing the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Interdependence is a safety net; staying connected with both God and His people is wisdom. We can learn from the trees. 

The Greek word sark or sarx is most frequently translated “flesh” in our New Testament, but also indicates that part of us that is stubbornly independent – that part of us that has followed Adam and Eve into independence, convinced we can choose for ourselves what is right or wrong, what is the best path for us to follow. This choosing for ourselves leads to all kinds of death: relational, mental, spiritual, and physical. Living by the Spirit, on the other hand, is choosing not to choose for ourselves, living in dependence on God. Romans 8:5-6 tells us;

“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.” 

Skill 14 is “Stop the Sark,” and this means we must be actively involved both in resisting those ways of thinking and behaving that we learned outside of Christ, and in building new neural pathways that rely on Him for guidance, that live strongly connected to others. We are indeed new creations in Christ, but like a newly transplanted sapling in the forest, we are learning to draw sustenance from a new source, learning to live an interconnected life. 

Neuroscience can help us understand the flesh – even after salvation, the patterns of behavior and neural pathways that have formed throughout life are still present, and it takes time and effort to build new neural pathways of dependence on God and others.  Our sark (our old patterns of life) will resist this dependent life with Him. One reason for this is that our brain is built for efficiency and more easily follows the well-worn paths of habitual behavior rather than the wispy, barely-there new paths of life in Him.

In John 15, Jesus used a tree illustration to help His disciples understand this new, interconnected life:

“You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.’”

We are cleansed and saved because of Jesus, but living as a branch that is firmly connected to Him takes time, just as a newly grafted branch takes time to become part of a new vine. Our new life can be awkward, uncomfortable, and challenging, but as we repeatedly choose new behaviors of dependence and connectedness, these paths of life become more clear, stronger, and more easily chosen. 

In this new life, we can learn from the interdependence of trees, which recognize and utilize their interconnectedness rather than standing alone. We can choose to plant ourselves firmly in the midst of a “forest” of fruitful, interconnected trees, which enables us to grow with them. In other words, life in the Vine means looking for other believers who are committed to joyful life in Christ, a life of loving God and others, a life of healthy growth and interdependence.

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