The Necessary Pain of Pruning

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. – John 15:1-2

I, like most Christ-followers, want to bear spiritual fruit for the Lord and be known as one who bears fruit for Him. But like any vine or tree, it is possible for some “dead” stuff to hang on. We may even have some branches (parts of our life) that “appear” healthy, but in reality, have nothing to do with who Jesus wants us to be.

These “branches” (activities, actions, and attitudes) will be “pruned” (removed or shaped) by the Master Gardener. Like an artisan, He knows what must go and what must remain that His image might be perfected in each. This process can sometimes feel like a haircut, painless and necessary. At other times it may seem like an amputation, frightening and cruel, but also required.

The older I get, the more focused I hope to become, that with a laser-like intensity I might pursue the purposes of Christ; however, this desire implies I also submit to His pruning. It will not always be pleasant, but it will always be needed.

He remembers our frame and knows that we are dust. He may sometimes chasten us, it is true, but even this He does with a smile, the proud, tender smile of a Father who is bursting with pleasure over an imperfect but promising son who is coming every day to look more and more like the One whose child he is. – A.W. Tozer

You May Ask

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. – John 14:12-14

Jesus spoke the words (and others) above to His closest followers as they made their way to the Garden of Gethsemane prior to His arrest. Considering that context, is it wrong for us to claim them? Some might say that Jesus’ promise should be limited to these men, but the broader context speaks of the coming Holy Spirit being available to all Christ-followers. With this in mind, I believe that we are right to apply them to our own lives. Whatever a Christ-follower asks, they will receive.

Of course, there are at limits on the “whatever.” First, any request we make of the Lord must be in concert with the content of His character. We cannot expect Christ to provide if we ask for something that is outside His moral teachings and example. Second, the intended outcome of our request must be in line with the purpose given above, “so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” Will God be glorified if Christ honors your request? Finally, our requests should be made in the context of doing the “works of Christ our Head.” As His body, we continue to live out His life until His return. Our prayers should reflect this reality.

With this understanding, we could expect Christ to positively answer this prayer: “Jesus, in Your name cast out laborers, raise up Your harvest, and provide for their spiritual growth in order that Your kingdom might increase, and Your Father be glorified in every place and among every people (ethne) on earth.”

Nothing lies beyond the reach of prayer except that which lies outside the will of God. – Phillips Brooks

No Compromise

Solomon showed his love for YHWH by walking according to the instructions given him by his father David, except that he offered sacrifices and burned incense on the high places. – 1 Kings 3:3

Solomon, son of David, was one of the greatest leaders Israel ever knew, but he had a weakness for beautiful women, and it ruined him. As king and God’s chosen leader, he knew what was right, but still compromised his faith in God and his practice of it.

Those who wish to lead God’s people, who wish to be respected as leaders, who wish to be known as those who love the Lord, cannot be such if they tolerate personal compromise concerning God’s truth. Each of us must walk our talk and practice that which we so often teach or preach. Every time one of us fails, and it isn’t just in areas of blatant immorality but more often honesty and integrity, we harm many others who have looked to us for guidance or as a model of how to live out the Christian life. It isn’t about “perfection,” but rather the willingness to live transparently before God and this world.

Compromise in character or God’s truth will ultimately lead to ministerial failure. God forbid that it should ever be me, or you.

Few things are more infectious than a godly lifestyle. The people you rub shoulders with everyday need that kind of challenge. Not prudish. Not preachy. Just cracker jack clean living. Just honest to goodness, bone-deep, non-hypocritical integrity. – Chuck Swindoll

Never Alone

But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. – John 16:7

It must have been very difficult for the disciples to imagine any positive outcome to Jesus’ departure. They had placed all their hopes in Him, and their still unregenerate minds could not comprehend the magnitude of the future events that He described. How could Jesus possibly leave and yet also remain?

Loneliness and feelings of abandonment are struggles we all face; however, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ guarantees the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit that He promised. Encouraging reminders of His presence are often received by those who believe. They often come in the hug of a friend, a thoughtful note, and a reassuring passage of Scripture.

To put it simply, we may be lonely, but we are never alone.

When Christ returned to heaven, He withdrew His physical presence from our sight. He didn’t stop being with the disciples but by the ascension fulfilled His promise to be with us to the end of the world. As His body was raised to heaven, so His power and reign have spread to the uttermost parts. – John Calvin

Weighing Your Answers

The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil. – Proverbs 15:28

As a pastor, I was (at times) led by the Holy Spirit to lead in ways that were not well-received by individual members of the church. The result was that some the opportunity to “gush some evil.” For example, over the decades I have been called an “arrogant dictator” and a “bulldozer.” One very refined, elderly lady told me that “every dog has his day and that my day was coming.” Another fellow who had decided to leave our fellowship told me, when I inquired as to the reason, that his wife said I couldn’t preach, but he disagreed. He felt that I could preach when I wanted to! I was once even told that I was not worth the dynamite to blow me all to ____ (fill in the blank).

I have always tried my best to “respond” and not “react” to insensitive comments, to “weigh my answers,” but the flesh often cries out against such attacks. Still I am reminded of the Christian leader who, when asked by a young protégée` why he did not answer vicious (and published) criticism by another, said, “O, dear sir, if he only knew the true darkness of my sinful heart, then what could he say?”

We are all flawed, and only able to serve by His grace. I probably deserved many of the rebukes that I received and each one made me “a little more like Jesus and a little less like me.” So, if you take nothing else away from moments like these mentioned, be reminded of your own frailty and faults and seek evermore to be like Jesus who when reviled, revileth not in return.

We must carefully forget ourselves, so that we regard ourselves as an object which has been sold and over which we no longer have any rights. – Jean-Pierre de Caussade

Significant?

My father David had it in his heart to build a temple for the Name of YHWH, the God of Israel. But YHWH said to my father David, “You did well to have it in your heart to build a temple for my Name. Nevertheless, you are not the one to build the temple, but your son, your own flesh and blood—he is the one who will build the temple for my Name.” – 1 Kings 8:17-19

King David desired to build a temple unto YHWH, but God passed the responsibility on to his son Solomon instead. David’s task was then altered to that of collecting all the materials to accomplish the temple project, which he obediently and sufficiently completed, without hesitation.

We each have an innate and very human desire to accomplish something significant in our lifetime. This was placed in us by our Creator. It may look different in each person and it can often be expressed in unhealthy ways, but it is there. Of course, as Christ-followers, we should be seeking significant ways to glorify the Lord through our efforts. The idea is not to build a name for ourselves, but rather to draw people to the Name above all others, Jesus.

In those places where God has privileged me to serve, my desire has primarily been to work with others to establish a healthy, vibrant church and by God’s grace, we have often seen the Lord build His church according to His purpose. Yet, the task has not been completed, nor will it ever be. We all had a “part” to play, to build or assemble, but it was always God’s “project.”

Perhaps in your ministry, be it paid or not, God desires that you “assemble the materials” for another who will come and finish the work. Let us remember that some plant, others water, but it is always God who gives the increase. The Lord is not interested in us raising up monuments to our names, only His.

God has never ceased to be the one true aim of all right human aspirations. – Alexandre Vinet

His Kingdom, Our King

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” – John 18:36

Writing about the kingdom of God, Selwyn Hughes once expressed these three important truths:

  • Since the word “kingdom” implies rule or reign, when we pray for God’s kingdom to come (on earth as it is in heaven) we are asking for Him to be sovereign in all things.
  • God’s kingdom, being eternal, is both a present and future reality.
  • Wherever you find a person surrendered to the lordship of Christ, you also find the kingdom of God.

Jesus’ closest followers (and others) desired to see Him conquer the Roman world and believed that this was His sole purpose, to liberate Israel. Yet, by His grace and Spirit-revealed truth, we understand that His power and reign is infinitely greater than all earthly kingdoms in all of history combined.

In Christ, we not only overcome the passing powers of temporal kings. In Christ, we can even conquer ourselves, we can conquer all.

Jesus made clear that the Kingdom of God is organic and not organizational. It grows like a seed and it works like leaven: secretly, invisibly, surprisingly, and irresistibly. – Os Guinness

The Perilous Path

The man of God said, “I cannot turn back and go with you, nor can I eat bread or drink water with you in this place. I have been told by the word of YHWH, ‘You must not eat bread or drink water there or return by the way you came.’” The old prophet answered, “I too am a prophet, as you are. And an angel said to me by the word of YHWH, ‘Bring him back with you to your house so that he may eat bread and drink water.’” (But he was lying to him.) So the prophet said to him, “Come home with me and eat.” So the man of God returned with him and ate and drank in his house. – 1 Kings 13:15-19

A young prophet was given specific instructions by God on what he should speak as well as where he should travel. He was obediently carrying out God’s instructions until he met an older prophet who claimed to have differing instructions from God. The young man of God wavered, yielded to the older, and the result was disastrous, he died.

This story reveals how easy it is for a false teacher to lead a person who does not know God’s Word to believe God has said something contrary to His expressed will and purpose. People are deceived every single day simply because they are ignorant of God’s teaching in Scripture.

In similar fashion, I am reminded that I must know God’s voice and direction for my own life and never compromise simply for the sake of comfort or expedience. It is easy for my “flesh” to get in the way of a difficult obedience and while it is very human to choose the path of least resistance, God’s commands may require us to walk through a valley of trouble.

Knowledge and obedience to God’s Word is the only path worth taking in this life. All others are indeed perilous.

Trials teach us what we are; they dig up the soil, and let us see what we are made of. – Charles Spurgeon

God’s Side

When YHWH takes pleasure in anyone’s way, He causes their enemies to make peace with them. – Proverbs 16:7

I’ve always heard, and experience has affirmed, that serving Christ is not a popularity contest. It isn’t.

I’ve at times heard, and experience has also affirmed, the difficulty of ministry. Serving the Lord can be difficult sometimes.

I’ve seen and experienced conflict, strife, and opposition. Every “family” has a little from time to time and this includes the family of God.

Yet, in all that experience, somehow, I had managed to miss the biblical truth expressed by Solomon above. If God is pleased with my “path,” then He will bring those who oppose it to my side (either in defeat, agreement, or surrender).

We need to always be sure that when we find ourselves in a conflict, we also find ourselves on God’s side of that conflict. Though God’s side may be a theological position, it also is an ethical one. If our ideas and ways (behaviors, methods) are pleasing to the Lord, then He can receive the glory (no matter the outcome). Though a brother or sister in Christ may oppose you, they will find it hard to dislike you, if you look like Jesus.

Peace if possible, but truth at any rate. – Martin Luther

Are You Where God Wants You?

Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” – John 21:22

For many years, my wife and I attended the annual meeting of our denomination and we would return from those trips a bit confused. This “confusion” was usually instigated by the annual report of our denomination’s mission sending agency. While we had been seeing God at work in stateside places of service, we would always feel the “tug” to go overseas and would inevitably (and continually) ask, “Why not us?” As it turned out, the answer lay in our disobedience (not any confusion originating with the Lord) and we would eventually obey, go overseas, and serve.

It is good for all of us to be reminded of Jesus’ final words to Peter. God has a specific path for each of us and while it may not involve an overseas assignment, it always includes overseas involvement. We serve a King who is eternal in a kingdom that is universal. We must not place geographical limits on our ministry but rather consider the whole world in need of our Savior.

Are you where God wants you? The answer lies in your obedience (or lack thereof). You know the answer, but you must also act on this knowledge (stay, go, but always abide). As long as you continue to follow Christ, you must learn to be content with His path and follow.

Great offices will have great talents, and God gives to every person the virtue, temper, understanding, taste, that lifts them into life, and lets them fall just in the niche they were ordained to fill. – William Cowper