One of the biggest hindrances to Christian growth is our own pride. As human beings, we often think very highly of ourselves. Our success and achievements are just that… ours. But as Christians, is that the way we should go through life? Is life purely about us?
One of the most merciful gifts God can give us is a deep, keen awareness of our dependence on Him for everything. Living the Christian life relies on our full dependence upon the grace of God we receive through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. Jesus said it this way in John 15:5, “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.”
I believe every professing Christian agrees that we must abide in Christ. But our agreement is only important to the degree we feel it be true. In other words, the less we feel our need for Christ, the less we will abide in Him.
When I work on something, it is easy for me to get engrossed in the task. It might be cleaning or working on a sermon, but I can become so focused I do not feel like eating. I say “feel” because in English this gets closer to the kind of knowledge of our need for Jesus He means us to have. It’s not merely cerebral but experiential knowledge, like knowing we need food.
But it’s one thing to know we need nutrients for our body when we haven’t eaten in 24 hours but it is another thing to know we need nutrients for our body after we’ve just washed down a bag of potato chips with a can of pop. We are not likely to eat food we really need after satisfying our appetite with junk. If we don’t feel hungry, we will not eat, especially the kind of food we most need.
The same thing is true of spiritual nutrition. If we do not feel hunger for God because we have been eating spiritual junk, we are not likely to want to eat the food we need most – the food from the Vine.
The truth is, if we are not connected to the vine, we will not survive. When Jesus issued His command that we abide in Him, he wasn’t giving us a lofty ideal to shoot for, like an inspirational phrase on a poster. Nor did He mean it as an option for more serious Christians who want “the deeper life.” He meant we would only survive if we abide. Like physical nutrition, good spiritual nutrition is a matter of life or death.
That’s why Jesus went on to say in the next verse in John 15, “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.”
These are serious words that many Christians do not take to heart because they miss out the context. Without the context, you miss the heart behind the message. Jesus was just hours away from crucifixion. Everything was about to change radically for His disciples. Jesus was going to die, then rise again, then leave them and ascend to the Father, and then send His Holy Spirit to help them carry on His mission.
Over the past three and a half years, the disciples had learned to depend on Jesus for everything. Now they would have to learn to depend on Him for everything without Him being physically present. But Jesus did not leave them by themselves. God gave the Holy Spirit, would enable them to carry on the mission even through the most difficult trials.
The disciples had to learn that their very survival would depend on abiding in Christ, and by that He meant living, remembering, believing, loving, and banking everything on His words more than themselves. I know we rely a great deal on our natural perceptions, on our senses. Living for God means walking by faith and trusting Him. Jesus said in John 15:7, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
With Jesus leaving, the disciples could not rely on Jesus to turn water to wine or multiply loaves and fishes. They would have to trust the invisible God and to do that and that would mean they would have to abide in Him. If they did not, they would dry up and die. This is no less true for us. Abiding in Christ our Vine is the only way we can spiritually survive.
So how does God increase this faith in us? If our survival depends on our abiding, and we are only likely to abide in Christ when we feel our need for Him, feel hungry for the food only He can provide, then what we really need is a deep, keen awareness of our dependence on Him for everything. We must deepen our dependence, our relationship with the Vinedresser and connection with the vine. This will lead to fruit on our vines.
But when God answers this prayer, what should we expect our increased sense of dependence on Him to feel like? What dependence always feels like: weakness and self-helplessness? Dependence never feels like self-sufficient strength, just like hunger never feels like the self-satisfied spiritual apathy after gorging on pop and chips. Increased abiding is the direct result of our increased felt need to abide. Like marriage, the longer you are connected, the more you want to remain, not leave. The branch most likely to abide in the Vine is the branch that feels its own powerlessness and fears the death that separation would bring.
If we understand this, we will understand what Paul meant when he said in 2 Corinthians 12:10, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong”. God used these things to push Paul to depend on the grace of Christ instead of himself, and so Paul learned to be grateful for them.
And these are the things our Father uses to prune off fruitless things and increase our dependency on the Son. And though at first, they don’t feel like great mercies, they are. Because the difference between a branch that abides in the Vine and grows strong and fruitful and a branch that doesn’t is the degree to which a branch knows, that believes and feels, that apart from the Vine it can do nothing.
Every one of us only clings to or abides in, what we really believe gives us life. And that Vine is the one we go to most often for what we find most life-giving. For us, that Vine must be Christ. Abiding in Him is a matter of life and death. So whatever it takes, we should do it in order to grow and abide deeper in Him.