To flourish or wither (John 15)

I have a confession to make.  It won’t be easy; some of you will never forgive me for keeping so dark a secret.  But here goes: I kill plants.  Like, all plants.  I used to own a houseplant.  It died under my care.  I did all I could, but for the life of me (and the death of the plant…) I had no idea if I was overwatering or underwatering or if the poor thing really just wanted a cup of coffee or something.  A year or so ago my neighbors asked me to water their plants while they were on vacation.  I ended up praying that they would return soon because I was already starting to see some brown leaves emerging.  All of this would be perfectly understandable if you didn’t know that my first job out of college was working with plants (including in a greenhouse) for the USDA.  C’est la vie, or something like that.

Plants really have only one of two fates.  They thrive and flourish, or they wither and die.  There’s no real setting for “neutral,” at least not for very long.

Jesus seems to be saying something similar in his message to “abide.”  Yesterday we talked about how to “abide” in Christ means to be connected and committed to Jesus in a personal way.  Today I thought we’d take a personal look at the results of this.  Let’s revisit the passage, this time paying attention to the results of abiding (highlighted in bold) and the results of failing to abide (underlined):

 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:1-11)

(On a side note, this is actually a good exercise for things such as family devotions, etc.—an easy way to practice the habit of simply observing the text)

If you focus on just the highlighted portions, you get a snapshot of the mature Christian life.  Abiding produces growth.  “Fruit” is a symbol for life, a life that begins with our walk with Christ and stretches onward into eternity.  And it is a life, Jesus tells us, that is marked by the fullness of joy.  Jesus even promises that an abiding person can expect answers to his prayers—though we should note that the condition is a heart that is truly abiding in Christ.

Negatively, look at the underlined portions.  I don’t think Jesus necessarily means a loss of salvation, though he certainly emphasizes a loss of fellowship, a loss of effectiveness, a loss of joy.

It’s cliché to say that our world suffers from a lack of devotion to God.  Devotion to self is a cancer that causes our nation to wither like a bundle of drying branches.  Our notion of “progress” is often a myth, and every news cycle, every election cycle proves that indeed, history truly does repeat itself, often transfigured into an uglier form than it was before.

The gospel makes no promises of our happiness, but it makes a powerful promise of lasting joy.  Imagine that—on the night before he was publicly tortured and killed, Jesus promises joy for those who abide in him.  The problems that flicker across our television and computer screens are not interruptions in our call to joy; they are reminders of the sheer necessity of joy.  “Abide in me,” Jesus asks us.  “Stay close…that’s where joy is found: fresh and wild and alive.”



6 thoughts on “To flourish or wither (John 15)

  1. I had to check YouTube to find out how to determine if a plant is being over-watered.

    The link above is to a 45 second long video teaching that “soggy black leaves” and “wet dirt” indicate overwatering. He squeezes the soil and water drips out of it.

    I can’t help but wonder if the gardener is taking a simplistic obvious indication of overwatering and applying the lesson across the board. For example I assume the threshold for overwatering a cactus is much less than the wet soil indicated in the video.

    Got to admit, I had an instinct to tease you. The apostle Paul said

    5 “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe– as the Lord has assigned to each his task.
    6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.
    7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.
    8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor.
    9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Cor. 3:5-9 NIV)

    I don’t remember ever reading anything with both bold text and underlined text to convey meanings like that before. I commend you on being inivative although you probably saw that done before.

    • That video may have saved many lives. Sadly, I’m seeing it too late. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. Or at least de mortuis nihil nisi utile.

      I doubt I’m the first; John Piper has some videos where he uses some sort of electronic pen to underline and circle words and phrases and such.

  2. I have always been concerned by the phrase “as whatever you wish and it will be done for you” part of this scripture. So, if we diligently pray for healing for a loved one and it doesn’t occur, does that mean our heart isn’t right with God? Because if you read this scripture it seems to say that if you are abiding and you bring your petition it will be granted.

    • This is a hard issue. On the one hand Jesus seems to be offering a rather sweeping promise, yet scripture is full of examples of Godly individuals whose prayers went unanswered (Habakkuk prayed for deliverance from Babylon, Jeremiah prayed that Jerusalem would not be destroyed, and both prayers went unanswered). So we don’t necessarily need to see unanswered prayer as our own moral failing, but rather unanswered prayer lies outside the will of God.

      Lewis said it this way: that God answers the prayers of God’s “fellow workers,” for whom “something of the divine foreknowledge enters his mind.” I realize this might sound like circular logic, but that doesn’t make it untrue. In other words, God answers the prayers of those who pray according to his will. Those who abide in Christ are most in tune with God’s will. When prayers go unanswered, it is because these prayers are not in tune with God’s will, and this strains us to readjust our expectations and understanding that we might “abide” more deeply.

      Practically, this means that while we might pray for good things (like healing, job promotion, etc.) they aren’t necessarily part of God’s directive will–for reasons we won’t always know. And if our prayers go unanswered, it might mean that we are not fully “immersed” in God’s will–though I wouldn’t go as far as to call that a moral failing; it’s just a basic feature of being human and not knowing the plans of God. But this does mean that unanswered prayers offer us a chance to realign our understanding of God, to trust his goodness, and to abide more deeply.

    • I’ll pray a little prayer for you in case you are going through anything like you described “if we diligently pray… for a loved one and doesn’t occur.”

      This scriptures though are not meant to be a reason for anyone to look anyone down upon anyone else for not being healed. Paul was not healed of a thorn in his flesh, (God had a special purpose for Paul’s suffering). 1 Corinthians 2:1-7 states that Paul suffered so that he could better learn (or be able) to comfort others. In 2 Cor 12:7 Paul mentioned that his suffering also kept him from becoming conceited. In the case of Paul and each of us, character (which is eternal) is better than comfort which is temporary and only lasts for this life.

      God’s purpose is for us to build character and somehow or other to serve in him in a way that he prepares in advance for us.

      Never-the-less it is also good for us to pray for physical things for each other, like John prayed.
      “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.”
      (3 John 1:2 NIV)

      We each have a mix of promised blessings and also promised trials and persecutions and hardships. Even the most righteous people have times of confusion, doubt and uncertainty about whether God will do something or not.

      Luke 7:18-23 shows that John (the baptist), who was in prison, sent messengers asking Jesus who he was. John had already pointed other people to Jesus, but in his distress John had some doubt while he was imprisoned. Jesus sent back to John an encouraging message but he did not end John’s hardship.

      I now remember that even Jesus fervently prayed that God would take away the trial of his crucifixion but he also prayed “may your will be done.” (Matt. 26:42 NIV)

      This post was written overlapping some of the time Chris wrote his. Since this was a tough question I spent a few hours working on this comment. Before pushing the “POST COMMENT” button I had opened this blog page in another browser tab and had the opportunity to read what Chris wrote. I am in total agreement with what Chris wrote, and I’m only posting this now because the scriptures that I came up while working on this question might possibly add something helpful in addition to what Chris had written.

      It is also cool for me to read how Chris answered and see how his answer was better than mine … maybe something for me to aspire to someday!

      And I especially like where Chris wrote, — “And if our prayers go unanswered, it might mean that we are not fully “immersed” in God’s will–though I wouldn’t go as far as to call that a moral failing; it’s just a basic feature of being human and not knowing the plans of God. But this does mean that unanswered prayers offer us a chance to realign our understanding of God, to trust his goodness, and to abide more deeply.”—

      Chris articulately pointed out what to me echoes this scripture — “We all stumble in many ways.” (James 3:2 NIV) Or we all have so much to learn and so far to go. Isaiah 55:9 reminds me of how far I have to go, —”As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa. 55:9 NIV)— and yet God from time to time extends a little bit of his grace in the intellectual or spiritual realm … causing Paul to remark “But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Cor. 2:16 NIV)

      It sounds so arrogant though to write or say that. Particularly as I just quoted James as saying we still “stumble in many ways.”

      So, I figure we might have great blessings of knowledge, though in some other ways we yet still struggle to understand things.

  3. Such a charming and funny way to begin. I must admit that I too…

    Am a plant killer.

    And any time I read this particular passage I find myself grateful. Yes, it’s true that HE said apart from HIM we can do nothing but I find myself even more willing to lean on HIM. Being in a craft where I speak in front of groups and have a sickening level of stage fright it’s great to know that I don’t have to lean on me, that I can place my faith, hope and trust on the vine. That HES got me, even in the darkest of times. Growing up where bullets flew constantly by my head I must say that I remain ever grateful, for THE VINE.

What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s