"I am the vine, you are the branches…Apart from Me you can do nothing." John 15:5
One of the most common agreements among people of widely differing backgrounds is they don't feel very satisfied in life. This cuts across all the usual demographics. The gnawing sense that "something" is missing afflicts most everyone, either chronically or at least on occasion.
One of the great themes of Scripture is how we might find a life of meaning. In fact, this is THE theme of scripture. The Bible really doesn't present us with a well-ordered or systematic theology in spite of our efforts to impose one on it. It's a story whose three main points are: Creation, The Breaking, and Redemption. The first two points happen in the earliest chapters of Genesis and reverberate throughout the rest of the Bible. The third point is the entire purpose of God. He is in the business of bring us back to the life He originally created us to have. He wants to make all things right, and Jesus Christ is His ultimate effort to do so.
The Gospel of John, of all the four gospels, seems especially focused on showing us how we can gain this life. Life, the very word, is a major theme of the gospel. Most interestingly for our purposes here is the fact that in John we find Jesus' words "I came that they might have life and have it abundantly" (10:10). He was not speaking of the quantity of life (i.e. we live forever), but the quality of life. God really wants us to LIVE! He wants us to experience joy (another theme in John).
The first few verses of John 15 present most clearly the means of attaining this joy. Jesus is the vine. He is the source, rooted in the eternal soil of God, that supplies every need we have. Our proper place is to be a branch that draws life from the vine. Thus, we abide in Him.
The problem arises when we try to be the vine itself, or abide in ourselves. I've often been in the position of trusting more in the gifts God gave me than in the God who gave them. I lived in my own strength, and the result was inevitably a hollowness which allowed me to have the appearance of life but inside I was spiritually exhausted.
The temptation is subtle. I never set out with fist shaking toward heaven, bent on being the master of my own destiny. No, the emptiness began slowly when I forgot that utter dependence on God is the way He created me to live. Little by little, and then suddenly, I pushed God to the periphery. I felt empty and unsure why. I had all of the theology, all the training, but I did not have the practice of dependence. I was not abiding in Christ.
It's not an unusual progression, or, should I say, decline. The fact is most of us live, or try to live, in our own strength. It is the ego's great deceit that we can make it on our own.
At some point, if we are fortunate, we come to the end of ourselves and recognize it. This is a necessary step in becoming the person God wants us to be. Almost always we arrive at this crisis through what Richard Rohr calls "necessary suffering." The self-willed life always leads to a self-defeated life. I wish there was another way, and perhaps there is, but I don't think so. Our humanity has a gravity to it that seems to always result in trusting ourselves before we come to a total trust in God. Though we could learn the lessons of Eden by reading the story carefully, we seem inevitably to reenact it. Only on scraped knees are we ready to say "Thy will, not mine, be done."
My "necessary suffering" was the rather intense period of alcoholism I went through, but the suffering actually predates the time I picked up that first glass of wine. I had lived in my own strength, trusted in my own abilities. I both gloried in and took the blame for the successes and failures around me. The glory and the blame, I can now see, are both expressions of disabling pride, but I could not see it at the time.
I was a twitching branch lying on the ground, separated from the life-giving vine. Still trying to recover the life I had seen previously, I soldiered on, preached on, and did some things with a measure of effeciveness. Then the sense of failure came on me, the darkness descended, and I drank to forget. Necessary suffering.
Early in recovery a friend gave me a book, and in the front he inscribed the words, "Be thankful to God for the gift of your alcoholism." Being early in recovery and still living with the very fresh memories of the damage I endured and inflicted, these words sounded truly ludicrous. Over the years, though, I see their truth. Only through my brokenness could I learn the absolute necessity of dependence on God, of abiding in Christ.
Now I certainly wouldn't recommend my path! I do, however, want you to look at your present unhappiness and see if it's the necessary suffering that brings you to the end of yourself and deposits you in a grateful heap at God's feet.
This surrender is not the obliteration of self. That fear is simply the howling complaints of a desperate ego. God can't take our hands until we unclench our fists. We can then trust Him to guide us and give us insight. We resist the urge to control and reject the roiling emotions when things don't go our way. Truly it is a much simpler, easier, and more powerful way to live.
A regular prayer of mine is "God give me grace." Whether I'm facing a challenge or blessing, I need God's grace to either endure and persevere or to see and enjoy fully a gift He has brought to me. In this way, I've discovered that being a branch is a wonderful way to live as long as I stay connected to the vine.
Dr. Terry Ellis
January 29, 2017