There are seasons, they say… seasons in life when things don’t quite fit, come together, or work out the way we had hoped. Frustration soon sets in, and before you know it, the world looks to be a very hostile place. Live long enough during a “season” like this; come through enough valleys “of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4), and not only do we fear evil, we might even fear that we are cut off from God, that God isn’t listening, that God is keeping us arm’s length. In a phrase, we feel all dried up.
I think that pastors are even more prone to this than most. Of course, it is not that we are holier than others, or that we are somehow closer to God such that our feeling of distance seems more intense. No, instead it is that we are expected to be holier or closer to God than others though we are regular mortals. We are expected (paid, even!) to have the right answers, the appropriate theological insight, or the wise saying to guide those whom God has entrusted us. How, then, do we make sense of our own seasons of dryness? Our own experiences of being shriveled up on the vine?
For all of us, pastor and non-pastor alike, how do we know we abide in God when ragged condition of our hearts indicates that we don’t?
It is here that the witness of Scripture is both a warning and a consolation. Take, for example, John 15:1-8:
1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vingeron. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been pruned because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself if it does not abide in the vine, neither can you if you do not abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. The one who abides in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown out like a branch that has withered, is gathered up and thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will come to pass for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
Here Jesus makes it clear that we are to abide in him, and that apart from him, we can do nothing. (v. 4) If he is the source of our life as the true vine, then surely this means that our dry hearts indicate that we are cut off, separated from his loving presence and power. We feel our inability to do anything well, or have it go well is an indicator that we have withered, we have become separated from his life-giving presence within us. How can a text like this speak a word of hope to the barren? The fruitless?
Closer attention to Jesus’ words brings clarity. Jesus reminds us that he alone is the vine, and the Father is the vingeron (one who grows grapes for the purpose of making wine). The first mistake we make in our seasons of dryness is overlooking this basic insight. Our life, our success, our happiness, none of these things are dependent upon us alone. As a friend of mine reminded me yesterday after listening to a sermon by Alistair Begg, at the end of our best week, we are not one step closer to God than when we started. At the end of our worst week, we are not one bit less loved by God. Our relatedness to God is conditioned alone upon Christ’s love for us.
The fundamental reality that all of us must face is that we are radically dependent upon God for all things who, in Christ, has become our true vine. Just like the most luscious collection of branches and their fruit, the entire canopy of the plant – the entirety of our lives – must stay connected by vine and root if it is to have life. Unfortunately, we tend to live as branches who try our best to bear fruit on our own, or at our worst, seek life, success, and happiness attached to other vines. I don’t have to tell you that this rarely, if ever, turns out well. When we attach ourselves to other vines on the path towards self-actualization, our thirst is never quenched, and our branches quickly wither. You can’t grow grapes on a kiwi vine…
The reason we quickly wither and are unable to bear fruit on our own is that branches do not possess the power to bear fruit of their own. The Greek phrase is to klema ou dynatai karpon pherein aph heautou; the branch doesn’t possess the power to bear fruit by itself. (v. 4) Think about that for a second, and then think again. The power, the life, the vitality of the branches and their fruit come from their connection to the vine in organic unity. A grape bearing branch is really just an extension of the life giving power present throughout the whole vine, down to its root. Thus, the power for change, growth and life comes not from ourselves, but from that to which we have attached our hearts. Attached wrongly, we die. Attached to the vine that brought us into being, all things are possible. (v.7) Either way, we don’t have the power in ourselves.
What a profound truth. As my grandma often reminds me, when we worry, we worry about things we don’t have the power to change. We don’t control whether the job is going through a round of layoffs. I can’t control whether someone receives my words in a sermon in a way that is meaningful. Heck, I can’t control whether the pipes might develop a problem requiring a month of turmoil at the church. Stuff happens. Moroever, while we certainly do not have the power to control the contingencies of life, we have even less of a capacity to control how they will eventually shake out when it all goes wrong. Stuff happens, and how others react to or the long-term consequences of life’s curveballs have so many different ways of going, you would probably have better luck counting grains of sand on a beach than covering every base.
Of course, our hearts tell us otherwise. We feel, we know that with just the right mix of diligence, self-care and perseverance we can turn the odds in our favor. In fact, there is an entire industry that thrives selling us this bologna.1 Even more sadly, Christian ministers have latched on to this fluff, and are intent on selling us the lie that God wants us to be happy, wealthy and healthy if only we will “name it and claim it” in Jesus’ name (not to mention investing your faithful “seed” of $29.99 to these hucksters). From my perspective, movements like these are nothing more than clear evidence that our hearts are really good at denying that we aren’t in control, thus we are dependent upon God.
And it is here that we come to the hardest truth to hear: not only aren’t we in control of the world around us, we can’t really control our own hearts. When the storms rage, our hearts move about in our chest in whipsaw fashion like waves before a hurricane. Pulled this way and that, we seek any solid ground upon which to stand, and the danger becomes that we will settle for any old false island or shore that comes along. Thinking we have arrived at a safe harbor, our uncertainty and fear doubles in size once the storm front reappears over the horizon, only to sweep us up in turmoil once again.
This is where Jesus’ words count the most, and why he tells us that abiding in him involves his words abiding in our hearts. (v. 7) He begins with and repeats over and over, “Abide in me.” His words aren’t just a generalized prescription, and they certainly aren’t a suggestion among many that might make us happy. No, Jesus issues the imperative, the command that we abide in him (meinate!; John 15:4). As John tells us in 2:24-25, Jesus knows us; he knows our hearts and that they are the weak, corrupted link that keep us separated from God.
But in issuing the command, Jesus reveals two things that ought to bring us consolation despite our deceitful hearts telling us that we don’t abide in God, that we are disconnected and without hope. The first is that the command to abide in Him is given to branches that already belong to Him. He tells us this in 15:5: “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Jesus does not speak to those who cannot hear his voice, and as his prayer to the Father indicates (John 17:6, 10, 16, 21-22), we are His, and belonging to Him, He abides in us, making us one with the Father.
I believe it is exactly at those points of weakness where we feel disconnected from God, though we may feel dried up and possibly undergoing a little splintering, the Spirit is present within us, giving testimony that God’s life is present in us. Though we might need to course correct (metanoeite; repent!), that feeling within us is God’s witness to what our hearts already know but sometimes feign to understand: we belong to God. Paul will put this best in Romans 8: 26-28, 38-39:
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. … 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Nothing. Not one thing can cut us off from God. In fact, that which seems to be wounding us the most is often times the very thing through which God’s good purposes will be worked out. Christ is the vine, we the branches, and the Father is the gardener who prunes and cleanses (vv. 2 and 3; prune and cleanse share the same Greek root kathairo). We remain in Him because God keeps us there no matter what, perfecting us within the vine for future seasons of fruitfulness.
The second wonderful thing we can take from Jesus’ command to abide in Him is that I think this imperative is given as a command to trust more than anything else. Think about it. We are part of the vine only by God’s good pleasure as the gardener. Belonging to Him, we know that we cannot be separated because God is always faithful. Therefore, Christ’s command for us to abide in him isn’t his command to remain connected by our own power. In fact, we can’t have life or be fruitful by our own power, as we have already established.
It is for this reason that I believe that Christ’s command isn’t a set of marching orders by which we are supposed to pull ourselves up by our own spiritual boot straps. Instead, I think Christ’s command here is more akin to his order to the wind and waves: “Peace! Be still!” (siopa pephimoso; Mark 4:39) Jesus’ command to “abide!” isn’t a demand that we walk on water when we feel we are sinking. No. His command to abide is His plea that we trust Him; He’s got our back. When we trust in Him and His care for us, we grow more fully into Him and learn new ways to thrive, grow and bear much fruit. (v. 8)
Peace! Be still! Abide! We can do these things because, as my favorite hymn “Be Still My Soul” reminds us, “the waves and winds still know the voice of Him who ruled them while He dwelt below.” Glory be to God!
1 Michael Daniels, “The Myth of Self-Actualization,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 28, no. 1, January 1, 1988. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0022167888281002. Interestingly, Daniels debunks the modern self-help movement, claiming it has degenerated into a chaos of confused metaphors and religious cults. Daniels will claim that what is needed is a ground, of sorts, an “overarching framework” or “metamotivation” of what constitutes human good to make it coherent once again. Strangely, this job of defining the good is one of the functions typically given to religion. In the Christian tradition, the good is defined by the character of God as we have known him in Christ in terms of self-giving love. Apart from the bedrock of God’s goodness in Christ, we tend, as Daniels ironically states, to open our hearts and minds up to manipulation and exploitation by those who seek their own ends.