John 15 is one of those chapters I come back to again and again. Each time I read it something fresh and new appears that I hadn’t noticed before. Most of us are familiar with the passage. Jesus takes an example of everyday life: a vine with its branches, leaves and fruit and uses it to teach his disciples the importance of remaining or abiding in him.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me that does not produce fruit he removes, and he prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me.” (John 15:1–5, CSB)
We need to stay closely connected to Jesus. That’s the point. We need the life of Jesus, pulsating in and through us, just as the life of the vine pulsates through the branches, to enable us to bear fruit and be the people God intended us to be. If we don’t, we will fail again and again.
The Christian life is not me doing my best for Jesus. It is Jesus doing his best in and through me. Apart from him I can do nothing.
So far so good. I get that. Then comes the next part. The Father, says Jesus, is the gardener (or vinedresser). His role is to prune the vine. Notice however, which branches he prunes. It’s not the barren ones. It’s the ones that are producing fruit.
That was something I hadn’t really noticed before. And it got me thinking… hard. If I’m on the vine – if I truly belong to Jesus, then I’m going to be pruned – regularly. And if I’m not pruned regularly, something is wrong.
So, let’s think about how this works. I’m no expert in the area of viticulture, in fact, the joke in our house is I’m a real nog when it comes to anything to do with gardening. I have two gardening instruments in my tool-shed, a chainsaw and a big pair of loppers and I’m dangerous whenever I get hold of either of them. My wife tells people we make a great gardening team – I destroy things and she rebuilds.
OK, so I’m no gardener but I did some reading on this. There are actually several stages when it comes to pruning a grapevine:
- There is what’s called pinching – that’s when you remove the little tips at the end of the branch so it won’t grow too rapidly
- Then there’s topping, when a foot or two of new growth is removed to prevent the loss of an entire shoot
- Then there is thinning where you remove entire grape clusters so the rest of the branch can bear more fruit as well as better quality fruit
- And then there is cutting away of suckers to give more nourishment to the whole plant
And all of this pruning doesn’t happen all at once, but in stages. Now I’ve watched someone prune a grapevine we had once, and I tell you, I got a real shock. It was brutal. He didn’t just snip off a little leaf here and there. He chopped off entire branches. But he knew what he was doing. He knew what was necessary in order for my plant to grow healthy, juicy fruit.
The same is true for the Christian life. God knows what is best for us. He knows what to cut away. Sometimes God prunes because there is sin in our lives. Sometimes there is a relationship that needs restoring that we have been ignoring. Sometimes it might be because there is fruit in our lives, but God wants us to bear more. So, he picks up the knife and he begins cutting.
Now I think I can speak personally here. I don’t mind sharing something of God’s work in this area in my life. The most recent “pruning” I have experienced would be my son’s motorcycle accident. But that’s still going on. I have no idea of what God wanted to accomplish with all that. I know I have a lot more understanding of what it’s like for people to go through trauma or loss. I don’t know what the Father is up to, but he does.
Sometimes it’s only by looking back, years afterwards that we see what he was doing – like my first year of marriage. When Francelle and I got engaged, we were the postcard couple. The day we announced it at church a bunch of our friends made this huge placard and held it up and hooted and whistled and made a huge scene. How I passed any papers at Seminary that semester I have no idea; I walked around half the time in a daze. We were both utterly smitten. We got back from the honeymoon and the whole thing crashed. It was like, this is not the same person I married? Someone has done a dirty and made a swap. I was expecting lovely evenings gazing at each other across the table and instead I got plates thrown at me. NOBODY told me about that in the premarital counselling!
What we had there was two very determined, headstrong, independent people trying to forge out a new life together. There was pride and stubbornness and pig-headedness (more on my side than hers) that needed to be named, exposed and repented of. Fruits of love and patience and kindness needed to grow in its place.
Snip, snip, snip. The Father was very carefully, wisely and lovingly tending to his vine.
Perhaps you are experiencing a season of pruning in your life right now. It might be relational conflict like it was with me in my first year of marriage. Or you’re experiencing financial difficulty – you’re finding it hard to make ends meet week to week. Or you are having to watch someone you love suffer. That is almost as hard as going through it yourself. It doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. It doesn’t mean you’re being punished or that you’re not performing in your Christian life to the extent God wants you to. You’re being pruned – that’s all. You’re part of the vine and God’s vine gets regularly pruned.
During a very difficult season in my life I was handed a little hard-covered book called Streams in the Desert, by L.B. Cowman. Inspired by her experience as a missionary to Japan and China, it is filled with spiritual riches of God’s provision and purpose for our lives, particularly during seasons of suffering.
I’ll leave you with an excerpt from February 19:
A CHILD of God was dazed by the variety of afflictions which seemed to make her their target. Walking past a vineyard in the rich autumnal glow she noticed the untrimmed appearance and the luxuriant wealth of leaves on the vines, that the ground was given over to a tangle of weeds and grass, and that the whole place looked utterly uncared for; and as she pondered, the Heavenly Gardener whispered so precious a message that she would fain pass it on:
“My dear child, are you wondering at the sequence of trials in your life? Behold that vineyard and learn of it. The gardener ceases to prune, to trim, to harrow, or to pluck the ripe fruit only when he expects nothing more from the vine during that season. It is left to itself, because the season of fruit is past and further effort for the present would yield no profit. Comparative uselessness is the condition of freedom from suffering. Do you then wish me to cease pruning your life? Shall I leave you alone?”
The comforted heart cried, “No!”
It is the branch that bears the fruit,
That feels the knife,
To prune it for a larger growth,
A fuller life.
Though every budding twig be lopped,
And every grace
Of swaying tendril, springing leaf,
Be lost a space.
O thou whose life of joy seems reft,
Of beauty shorn;
Whose aspirations lie in dust,
All bruised and torn,
Rejoice, tho’ each desire, each dream,
Each hope of thine
Shall fall and fade; it is the hand
Of Love Divine
That holds the knife, that cuts and breaks
With tenderest touch,
That thou, whose life has borne some fruit
May’st now bear much.
—Annie Johnson Flint.
 Cowman, L. B. (1925). Streams in the Desert (pp. 56–57). Los Angeles, CA: The Oriental Missionary Society.