“The branch does not bear fruit by struggling, but by abiding” (p.29).
Envision you are walking through a beautiful vineyard right around sunset. The lighting is perfect and your senses are overwhelmed by the sweet smells of blossoming flowers and ripened fruits, the breathtaking views of green and purple and brown, the soft sounds of nature as they sing a melodious song, maybe you are sipping the sweet nectar of a recent harvest as you stroll along, and the air is light and clean and just slightly warm against your skin as a gentle breeze passes by. All is calm and at peace and wonderful.
Now imagine the same experience, but this time, instead of the soft sounds of nature, you hear the horrific screams of labor and anguish as the branches among the vines struggle to grow and create and bear life-giving fruit; much like a multitude of women all in the throes of labor with moaning, screaming, and wailing as life is born out of pushing, pulling, intensity and pain. Not exactly calm and peaceful and wonderful this time, huh?
Fortunately for us, branches do not have to go through birthing pains to produce life, and Jesus chose to use their example versus that of a laboring woman to show us what it means to truly live and bear fruit through this concept of abiding. And while the graphic above was mainly chosen because I found humor in its existence (LOL), it actually gives a realistic portrayal of what it means when we truly “abide” as the method to bearing fruit. Instead of struggling and working and trying to make the fruit happen on our own, we are actually encouraged to spend more time resting, calming, and getting as close to Christ as possible (just like branches on the vine in the peaceful vineyard) in order to bear the best fruit.
The Closer the Better
I don’t know about you, but the word “abide” is not a part of my normal vocabulary. In fact, outside of Christian conversation, I do not believe I have ever used it (who knows, maybe you use it all the time?!). So, to really understand it, I had to look it up and get to know its definition. According to a variety of dictionaries, abide means to stay, to continue, to accept, to follow, to remain close to or even within. It implies a measure of proximity, and in this way, to truly abide infers the closer the better. What an amazing concept when we think about our lives: to truly live a productive and fruitful life, we need to abide, to get as close to Christ as possible (the closer the better) and remain there as long as possible.
While this sounds wonderful, and paints a pretty picture for us to visualize, again I press in for the practical. And thankfully, Warren answers with four recommendations on how we can abide in Christ so that we can remain as close as possible and have this closeness, this abiding, infiltrate our every moment.
- Get Close with Meditation: I think I have heard this somewhere before (I guess that means I should take note and listen), possibly in the last book we read. It makes sense that the same process associated with abiding would be involved with ordering our private worlds: both are about lining up our lives with Christ and living out His Will each day. As a reminder, meditation in this context is not the stereotypical yoga pose of clearing your mind for hours at a time. Instead, it is a purposeful, repetitive focus on truth that allows us to integrate whatever we are repeating to influence our hearts and minds. A personal example is from a time when I was actually in counseling (and not the counselor 🙂 ) dealing with a specific type of phobic anxiety. My counselor recommended that I meditate on a truth that I wanted to implement in my life when it came to my anxiety, and she recommended the acronym of CALM, which stood for Christ Always Loves Me. Whenever I started to feel anxious, I was to meditate: close my eyes, repeat this word, reflect on its meaning, and let the truth of these words influence me in such a way as to decrease my nerves. As the practice gets repeated in a variety of situations, this response becomes second-nature and extinguishes the anxiety (which it did for me). To this day, it is a practice I have maintained and love to use with Scriptures, truthful cliches, and important lessons I learn for anything in life (not just anxiety).
- Get Close with Prayer: In addition to meditating, being in conversation with God draws us closer to Him. This just makes logical sense right?! Think of our most intimate human relationships like marriage or parenting (not the friend you only see once a year and can pick right up with; that is a unique relationship and while seemingly close, is a different form of intimacy): it is very rare to find healthy marriages or parent-child relationships when communication is lacking. In fact, I would easily say that this is one of the biggest issues, if not the biggest, that bring families and couples into my office as a counselor. Communication has stopped, and with it intimacy, respect, understanding, and peace have left as well. The same situation can happen in our relationship with Christ. When we stop communicating, we stop getting to know Him and sharing ourselves with Him, and over time, we will start to grow apart. However, once communication has been restored, and when these families/ couples start talking and laughing and sharing once again, you can see the bonds of intimacy rebuild and remain. Again, the same holds true of our relationships with Christ: when we re-establish communication through prayer, in both talking to and listening to Him, its pulls us into intimate relationship with Him. If abiding or getting close is the goal, then communicating is key.
- Get Close with Confession: One aspect of communication that is not always easy, but incredibly freeing and healing, is that of confession. When we leave things in the dark or hidden, it keeps us from authentically sharing who we are when we communicate. And this always keeps us from genuine intimacy or closeness, which is necessary for abiding (remember, the closer the better). This is where another metaphor, the elephant in the room, helps us to understand the importance of acknowledgement and confession. Imagine God is inviting you to come and abide with Him in the living room of your house. You hear Him calling to you while you are in your bedroom, and you desire to go spend time with Him so you set out for the door to make it to where He is. However, the thing that you do not want anyone to know about (even though technically He does know about it) is an elephant blocking the door to your room. Until you acknowledge that the elephant is there and deal with its door-blocking presence, you will only be able to hear the Lord calling from afar. This is done through the process of confession, where we invite the Lord into our room, the most intimate of intimates, and let Him see the elephant and mess we call our own and find forgiveness and redemption and intimacy as we break through any barriers keeping us from Him. Once we confess and invite Him into these things, we can get as close as possible without these hindrances.
- Get Close with Focused Intent: Getting close to God does not just happen on accident (although it might be nice if it did). Because our God is all about free will and choice, He allows us to choose whether or not we want to abide in Him. Just like many things in life (obtaining an academic degree, remaining faithful in a marriage, losing weight/living a healthy exercise of proper diet and exercise, etc.) it all begins with a choice. I can choose to eat doughnuts all day long and hang out on the couch and watch my waist size increase while not enjoying the process (although the doughnuts and couch do sound tempting) or I can choose to have an occasional doughnut, enjoy occasional movie nights on the couch, and still exercise, eat right, and enjoy a certain level of fitness. Similarly, for many in the world, the choice to pursue a relationship with Christ is an obvious “No” and they utilize their intent and will for things outside of fruit bearing and abiding. However, if your heart’s desire is to have meaning through a fruitful existence, and you want to know and grow in God’s presence, then you have the ability to focus your intent on getting to know Him. You can choose to spend time meditating, praying, confessing, and intentionally seeking out opportunities to get as close as you can to Him this side of heaven.
When we make the time and space for each of these important practices in our lives, it allows us to stay close to Christ and truly abide in Him and His love. And according to both Jesus and Warren, the closer we get and the longer we stay, the more fruit we produce.
How does this apply to me?
So, not only do we have a why/reason for living in this goal of fruit bearing, but now we also have the how, or method of living, through the process of abiding. Sometimes having the how does not feel like enough though. Sometimes we meditate, pray, confess, and focus our intent but are not sure if it is really making a difference. Sometimes the world still gets to us and lies to us that God is far away or distant or maybe your abiding just really is not working. I know that sometimes I fall into this trap and faulty line of thinking, and so I am thankful that Warren speaks to that as well in this chapter.
As both a challenge and an encouragement, Warren reminds us that “we never have to ask ‘Am I abiding in Christ?’ because there will be several [more like six 🙂 ] evidences in out lives when we are in communion [abiding] with the Lord” (p.33). If you are feeling discouraged in your abiding or have just started this abiding adventure, look for these things in your life to affirm that there is evidence of “the closer the better” in your own life:
- There will be fruit: See previous post on fruit bearing (LOL). For real though, if you are truly abiding and getting as close to Christ as possible, it will be natural to bear the fruit we discussed in the first chapter. You will naturally start seeking to help others and show them Christ, begin operating out of a holy and honorable character, seek to share your possessions with others, produce good work, and assume a stance of gratitude in all things. If you see these blossoming within and around you, you are on the right track!
- There will be pruning: Aw yes… the dreaded d-word: DISCIPLINE. As you get closer to Christ and stay there, He will begin to reveal things in your life that are not helpful for your own growth process, maybe a weed here or there or a stem that it not being used or a bit of old fruit that was not picked, and He will prune them to allow further growth and health. Sometimes this process can be painful or discouraging in the moment. I know when my mom comes and prunes my rosebushes (I do not garden remember), I always feel so bad for the poor things. They go from being HUGE and beautiful and flowering to being cut down almost all the way to the ground. After pruning, they appear small and naked and I am just a tad hesitant that maybe they will not come back. But every year, they grow back bigger, stronger, and more beautiful than ever, because the pruning process has allowed them to conserve their strength, survive during the winter, and flourish in the spring. If it is your season to be pruned, there may be some pain involved and you may feel naked or small or question your own resiliency, but I encourage you to trust the gardener, as He definitely knows what He is doing. Take heart, your season of growth and health and flourishing is coming!
- There will be humility: Warren calls this a “growing sense of weakness” (p.40) and while I have always loved the idea that in our weakness, He is strong, I actually prefer the term humility here because it is really less about strength and more about recognizing we need more of Him and less of our selves. We are quickly understanding that in order to bear the best fruit and be the best branch we can, we have to be connected to something outside of ourselves that is thriving and healthy. We need something outside of us to care for us and give us all that we need, including a good pruning here and there. We admit that there are many things we cannot do on our own, and we humble ourselves with the recognition that He truly is the vine and we truly are the branches. Apart from Him, we cannot do anything substantial and so we recognize our place/position in life as one of humility.
- There will be answered prayers: When we are spending time in prayer and abiding in Christ, we will be able to take note of the answers to these prayers occurring in the world around us. We will see God at work in our hearts, our minds, our circumstances, our loved ones, and anything we bring to Him in prayer. Remember though, sometimes these answers will not be what we had hoped for or wanted. There are definitely a few things that have been on my prayer list for years and I know without a doubt that they are not going unanswered, but the answer is “not yet.” I know this, because I have observed the power of prayer in my life for quite some time, and I can see the confirmations of what is to come even though the answer I am looking for has not yet happened. Same with the answer of “no.” Although it is difficult to hear most times, a negative answer is still an answer, and if we are truly abiding, we will see this as answered prayer in our lives as well as guidance and direction about what not to do next.
- There will be love for others: If you have been in church or in Christian circles for some time, you will have probably heard the verse “God is love” (1 John 4:8). In fact, it is often one of the first verses I have seen children learn because it is so foundational and also nicely short and sweet. But this little verse has a huge truth behind it, that God not only loves us, but IS love and this love is so big that it is contagious. Thus, when we spend time with Him and in Him and get as close as possible to Him, we cannot help but overflow with this same love for others in our lives. This means we genuinely care for people we have not even met as well as the people that are closest to us (although sometimes loving strangers is easier) and this love influences our daily interactions. We operate with the loving characteristics described in 1 Corinthians 13 in that we are patient, kind, honorable, secure, selfless, protective, trustworthy, steadfast, and hopeful.
- There will be joy from the inside out: And finally, if we are truly abiding, we will have this crazy joy that starts from the inside out, regardless of whatever is happening around us. I always envision someone totally at peace and smiling in the midst of utter chaos (miraculous mayhem anyone?) or Paul singing while in prison when I think about peace and joy that surpass all understanding. When we are rooted and grounded by abiding in Christ, we are not moved by our present circumstances, but we get to operate out of the joy that comes from knowing Him and remaining in Him.
The beauty of these six evidences is that they are very difficult to create on our own (they have to come from an external source) and they are seasonal (much like fruit bearing). Thus, it is rare, but possible, that we will be experiencing the full force of all six at once. However, as you continue to abide, you will be able to observe all six present in your life at specific times. For instance, I am currently in a fruitful season in my life where love and joy and being humbled by what God is doing and all of the answered prayers are all around. This is not my season of pruning (last time I checked, it is not wise to prune something while it is bearing fruit), but I had been in a difficult season of pruning leading up to this time. And I know that I will enter into a pruning season once again, but for now am going to enjoy the fruit for as long as I can!
What do I do now?
As a recap: Last week, we were challenged to spend some time pondering our own meaning of life and determining if fruit-bearing was a good fit (while I believe it is, this is a choice we each have to make and determine for ourselves). If that decision has been made (even if it is only for a trial run 🙂 ), then you get to move on to the next step which is to look at abiding as the means to which we bear fruit. In doing so, I encourage you to take time this week to review your life (maybe during your Sabbath time??) and see if any of the six evidences above are present and how. Are any not present? Any thoughts as to why?
Maybe, like me, the majority of the six are present, and you are excited because you have been desperate to be abiding with Christ and have really been getting as close as you can and are seeing the fruits of this time with Him. Enjoy this realization, but also be cautious! I find that when things are going great like this, I need to PERSEVERE in my abiding time, as it often gets pushed aside because things are going so well. I do not want to stop abiding because things are good (could you imagine if the branch just left in the middle of the harvest?) but instead want to press in deeper and bear as much as I can during this season of productivity.
Maybe, like other times in my life, you are in the middle of a pruning season, which I know from experience can be difficult and sometimes discouraging. I encourage you to take heart and continue to abide, even if it is out of desperation. I have often found that these are the times when I really build up my spiritual reserves, when I find the joy welling up from the inside out (even though it does not make sense), and the humility that presents is actually a relief because I can rest in the fact that God is in control and there is nothing I can do but wait on Him, abide in Him, and get as close as I can during this time.
Maybe you have never really understood or heard of this whole abiding thing, other than in passing, and have noted that pretty much all of the six or at least most of them are missing from your life. This would not surprise me at all, given the current state of our world and even the current state of most Christians. Abiding is not something we talk about very often, especially since it requires time and rest, two concepts we know are significantly lacking in most of our lives. Be encouraged; if you are reading this then the option to abide and draw close to Christ is still available if you are willing to embrace it and move towards Him.
Regardless of your current situation, I challenge all of us to focus our intent 🙂 on abiding in the next month (feel free to keep it going for the next year and beyond but it is good to start somewhere) as we finish out this book. Refer back to the four ways we abide and resolve to intertwine them in your daily life. Start with only one if that is most manageable, but then look to add in the others until all four are regularly present. In doing so, my prayer is that we will all begin to enjoy abiding in its fullest sense… and experience the truth of “the closer the better.” ♥