“No. A nursery is no place for them,” he said as we stood on the African rain forest gazing up at a giant mahogany tree. The Cameroon Minister for Forests continued, “These beautiful trees are almost extinct. Maybe one day only old furniture will remind us they once existed.”

Some mahogany trees are so big that about eight people can hold hands and surround their trunks. The tops tower so high they are often hidden by the leaves and branches below.

But these magnificent trees, harvested for their wood, are sadly vanishing from the forest. We shared the minister’s concern after witnessing these rain forest giants being felled and cut into sections. Heavy machinery, brought in to cut them down and to make roads for transporting the enormous trunks, plundered the forests because the mahogany sells for a lot of money. There’s a big risk that soon there won’t be any more of the huge inspiring trees we saw.

“We thought that we would just grow more,” out friend explained. “We planted seedlings, and they started out well enough as we gave them every encouragement, but they remained small and stunted—nothing like their parents, the great giants of the forest. At last we realized the problem. They need all the challenges of the forest to grow to their full potential. A nursery is no place for them.

God taught us something through those trees. What does the baby mahogany do when it meets problems, when other trees crowd out the light, when strangling vines cling around its trunk, when insects attack its leaves, and when monkeys steal its fruit? Does it hang down its head and think of giving up? Not at all! It struggles to grow and sense where the light is shining through the forest; then it reaches its branches heavenward, always upward, toward that light (as if to shout Hallelujah!) until it finally breaks into the sunlight above the lofty canopy of the forest.

We, too, should continually seek “the light of the world” (Jesus) as stated in John 8:12. 1 Chronicles 16:11 encourages us to “Seek the Lord and his strength, seek his face continually” (KJV).

Of course, the tree cannot realize that its trunk is growing stronger and straighter or that it has reached a dizzying height. It simply remains drawn to the light above. It doesn’t know, as it sinks its roots toward the moisture underground that it is a blessing to the many creatures making their homes in the intertwined roots. Creeping vines take their food and support from the trunk and branches, but the tree appears not to notice. Monkeys and birds know where the fruit grows near the top as they swing or swoop from branch to branch seeming to immensely enjoy themselves, but it doesn’t mind. The tree gives freely, like its Maker, and so can we.

Our mahogany memories occurred while we were working in the African nation of Cameroon. When our mission director visited, we told him the story about the trees. Later he wrote asking how things were going, and we replied, “We’re growing into big trees!” He would smile and know that things were not easy, but we were growing, not in spite of but because of the problems of missionary service. God put us into this part of the world with all its challenges so that we can seek His light and grow into big, sturdy servant-like trees that bear fruit and spread the truth of the Bible like seeds scattered in a field.

In fact, did you know that the seeds of the mahogany tree even have wings? Well, one wing anyway. Each little seed spins away from its host tree to reproduce seedlings far away so the cycle of life can start all over again where sturdy, light-seeking trees will rise above their challenging surroundings.

God has planted us in this world, with all its pressures and problems, so that we, too, can grow into big trees. But we must plant the seed of God’s Word in our hearts and then be willing to fly far from home to grow strong and spread more seeds of truth in faraway lands. Like the apostle Paul says, it is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). Isaiah calls us “Trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified” (Isaiah 61:3).

We all have our problems and frustrations, but as we sink our roots deep into the wellspring of God’s Holy Spirit and lift up our heads heavenward to seek His light and rise above the challenges, we will grow into our full potential and have plenty of seeds to share. While we may begin life in a nursery, we grow strong and tall like the mahogany trees by being in the world but not of the world.

This article was originally published in Creation Illustrated