I’m not sure why I thought pruning would be easy, but when I used to read John 15 when Jesus tells us that “I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.” (John 15:1-2 NLT), I never heard “pain”. I tended to think of it more like a haircut – the dead ends come off and it feels great, and unless the hairdresser cuts your ear, there isn’t any pain. A quick in and out and you’re better than ever.
A few months ago, I was struggling once again with staying put. Every Saturday night for months, something would come over me and I would suddenly want to do anything BUT go to church the next day. All these excuses would be in my head. That I was tired, that I wanted a break, that I had been to bible study two times the week before and so the people who hadn’t were the ones that needed to go hear a sermon – not me – because I had put in my time already. Or my personal favorite, that someone was annoyed or angry with me (paranoid side coming out!) because I must have done or said something that week to make someone upset so it would be better for everyone if I didn’t go.
One of those nights, after complaining to everyone (not so sure my friends are as grateful for text messaging as I am!) and asking everyone else what I should do first before I even thought of asking God for help. I had calmed down enough to sit still and pray for a moment. I knew I was supposed to read John. Now, I hadn’t read John for probably a year, and I’m not necessarily one of those people who can fire off where particular stories or passages are in the bible. I know a general location and I can usually find things reasonably quickly thumbing through the pages. That night, I started reading and got thru Chapter 14 with no revelation, no insight, and honestly fell asleep thinking that I had heard wrong.
The next morning, I did skip church. I found out later that the subject matter of that mornings sermon would have done me a lot of good to hear. I had to work that afternoon and although I don’t particularly remember, I probably spent my time at work sulking and angry with myself. Thinking that I had finally done it and I might as well give up and run away because I had just proven that I was no better than I had been in the past. That I was just as flaky and unwilling to submit, to put God first, as I ever had been.
That night, I again heard that John was what I was needing to read, and I am so thankful that I picked up my Bible that night. I started reading Chapter 15, and immediately knew why I had been directed to the Gospel. As I once again read those words Jesus spoke so long ago, I knew it was a lesson He was wanting me to hear now.
“I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.
Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.
I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandment and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. yes, your joy will overflow! This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me. You didn’t choose me. I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce lasting fruit, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask for using my name. This is my command: Love each other.”
John, chapter 15 NLT
“Remain” shows in that passage 10 times, and that struck me right between the eyes that night. The word used here by Jesus was “menõ” translated is the New Living Translation as “remain” but also meaning “stay” or “abide”.
Jesus doesn’t just talk about remaining as a passive act. I don’t believe he used the word 10 times in a few sentences as an accident. When we choose to stay, choose to follow Him, He brings about the fruit, the changes that we are powerless to do on our own. It’s also not a one-sided choice. When we remain in Him, He promises to remain in us. He’s already chosen us. The greatest love story in the universe has already chosen us, chosen me. I don’t have to be the strong one that holds on to him through my own strength. Jesus, being the grapevine, is the one that provides the strength, the nutrients that hold life. The branches don’t carry the nutrients to themselves, they can’t hold themselves up, but it’s the strength of the vine holding it all and linking it all together. I don’t have to be strong. I don’t have to produce fruit on my own. I can’t wait until I have everything all together and then come to the Lord, believing that I have something to offer Him in that moment. It’s after I call out to Him, that my life can produce anything truly good.
Even the people who do good things apart from Jesus, they volunteer their time, donate money, work hard at their jobs, the motivation is usually out of a desire to feel good about themselves or look good. Perhaps make themselves feel better because they’re in a better position than the person in the soup line they’re serving. But that’s coming from a position of need, not love, and will eventually bear fruit that shows in the areas of bitterness that they aren’t getting any recognition, or anger, or some other difficult emotion. With Jesus’ life giving nutrients flowing from the true vine, we are able to grow strong and hold up the good fruit, that because of Him, can even grow.
But pruning doesn’t mean only cutting off the dead ends. It means cutting off anything that keeps the vine from reaching its full potential, its true purpose, and that can require cutting off parts that look healthy on the outside.
When I’m too close to see that a habit or a relationship, with from my perspective looks fine, can actually be harmful to myself or the people around me, He’s a good and gracious God that wants to prune that out of my life. For the good of myself and others. My responsibility is to respond willingly to that pruning – to trust that He knows what He’s doing. Grateful that He wants to bring out the best. After all, sick, unhealthy, un-pruned plants are not what bring glory to the gardener – it’s the best of show, those fair worthy, blue ribbon type of plants. That’s what we’re meant to be. He wants us to look like Him, to look like the true vine, bearing the fruit of the spirit.
The purpose of pruning in an agricultural sense is for the plant to be able to obtain its maximum yields of high quality fruit and to allow enough room for growth for the following season. If you’ve ever seen firsthand or looked at the before and after pictures of a properly pruned grapevine, it almost looks demolished afterwards – sparse and empty. Even healthy looking branches have been completely cut off because if it was left to grow wild, the final outcome is never good because eventually it chokes itself out. The sunlight and the nutrients wouldn’t be enough to support the wild growth and not only does the plant end up looking like a mess of weeds, it stops producing any good fruit. Then, for the sake of the entire vine and to bring it back to health, sometimes everything but the chute must be cut off to allow for all new healthy growth.
I find it absolutely amazing that Jesus gives this vivid snapshot here. We constantly grow as people – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually – either with healthy growth, or by our own choices we can grow hate and deceit and all of those negative unhealthy parts of us. We like it when God shapes and molds us in ways that are good and healthy. But sometimes how we get there is just plain painful. When He asks us to surrender up our lives to his skillfullness, His vision and to trust that He cuts away only what is necessary, but WILL cut what is necessary. Even if what He’s cutting out looks healthy and fine to us.
A good farmer will also cut away anything that is growing downwards. The new growth may be healthy, but he knows anything that grows downward instead of towards the sun is something that is just not in the best interest of the whole. With each new lesson I’ve learned, sometimes God asks me to give up something that’s not bad or unhealthy by itself, but if it’s taking my growth in the wrong direction, that branch is only going to weigh me down and take away from the maximum reward found only with fully abandoned submission, the best fruit He can harvest in my life.
Long ago I broke the yoke that oppressed you and tore away the chains of your slavery, but still you said “I will not serve you” On every hill and under every green tree, you have prostituted yourselves by bowing down to idols. But I was the one who planted you, choosing a vine of the purest stock- the very best. How did you grow into this corrupt wild vine? Jeremiah 2:20 – 21 NLT
He planted us, chose us. And now with the completed work of Jesus, we’re given everything we need to flourish. And when those thorns start to rise again? When I focus on money or TV instead of my relationship with Him? When I get short-tempered with the kids, frustrated by my desire to “feel” accepted, when I let my hurt feelings start to grow bitterness and anger, when the growth is corrupt and wild? God’s still the master gardener. Jesus is still the true vine. And the Holy Spirit still works to bring about the fruit in our lives to be the very best, free of the snares and thorns that bind.