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Trusting the Vinegrower

Tom LinBy Tom Lin, president, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

While my wife Nancy and I had a wonderful ministry and community in Boston when we got married, we sensed that for our own spiritual growth and for our own long-term fruitfulness as a couple, we should uproot ourselves. The morning after our wedding, we packed up our Honda Civic with everything we owned and moved to California.

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship: An Interview with Tom Lin]

In those first few months of adjusting to marriage, we also adjusted to a new job, new boss and work teams, new church, new weather, and new ways of doing things. We had no friends, no community, no familiar church worship, and no weekly small group fellowship.

It was painful and exhausting. But we dug in, trusting that God had brought us these changes for our growth, and recognizing that to grow, new roots were needed.

In John 15, we see a similar vision for long-term fruitfulness. Jesus was preparing the disciples for a major transition. He had just washed their feet, led them through the Last Supper, and now was walking with them to the Garden of Gethsemane. Perhaps they were walking past a Jerusalem vineyard. Jesus said to them:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. (vv. 1–2)

The vineyard belongs to God. He’s in charge of it and cares about the maximum return—receiving as much fruit as possible. Jesus refers to himself as the true vine. Then in verse 5 Jesus describes the disciples, and us: “You are the branches.”

I love this role clarity because I’m sometimes tempted to think I’m the vineyard owner—that it’s my vineyard, my land, my job, my time, my resources—everything is mine; I’m in control.

But branches don’t tell the vinegrower what to do or how to do his job. A good branch simply trusts in the vinegrower—trusts that he knows what’s best. In the first eight verses, describing God’s work, we see the verbs “removes,” “prunes,” “gathered,” “thrown,” and “burned.”

In contrast, when we look at the verbs that relate to the disciples’ work, we only see one verb—ABIDE—repeated 11 times. In fact, Jesus says the only thing we can do is “abide” because “apart from me [apart from the vine] you can do nothing” (v. 5).

Jesus challenges those of us who like our independence; who like being in control. What will help us become better branches is not to be in control but to renounce control: to trust the vinegrower to do his work.

What might it look like to renounce control and trust the vinegrower?

To increase our trust in the vinegrower, we need to understand the two primary things he cares about for the branches—his purpose for the branches: abounding and abiding.

The vinegrower wants us to ABOUND

In verses 2–8 “bearing fruit” is repeated six times in seven verses. Our vinegrower God focuses on wanting to see fruit—not just a little fruit, but an abundance of fruit.

We need this reminder to abound. We’re great at abiding—at “being with Jesus all day.” We might be tempted to forget about abounding; to go without much fruit from our lives—no change or growth in our character, no conversations with unbelieving friends or family members about faith, no taking risks in our discipleship—and not care. But Jesus says to abound, to bear much fruit.

At InterVarsity, we long to see this abounding on university campuses. We want to see more lives transformed, more students and faculty following Jesus. We devote ourselves to this work, taking to heart Paul’s challenge in 1 Corinthians 15:58: “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” And we celebrate the fruit that God has given on campus, such as the 3,140 conversions that InterVarsity saw last year.

[Browse the Back to School resources in the Bible Gateway Store]

But is abounding just about just numbers? Is Jesus just talking about fruit that comes from bearing witness—conversions? Some scholars interpret “fruit” to mean the ethical virtues or the character of the Christian life: the type of person we are becoming.

As a young member of InterVarsity’s staff, I wrestled with an important decision that would maximize fruit. I wrote to former president Steve Hayner about my struggle. I’ll never forget what he wrote back: “Don’t just consider the fruit that God is able to manifest through you, but also the fruit God is able to manifest in you (love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, faithfulness, goodness, and self-control).”

Similarly, Dallas Willard writes: “(In ministry) it is possible to become so obsessed with doing what Jesus says that you fail to become the kind of person Jesus wants.”

One last but important aspect of abounding is one we like to skip over in this passage—the pruning. If you’re abounding, it means more pruning, not less pruning! Verse 2 says: “Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit”!

For those of us who have grown a deeper love and compassion for others, Jesus is saying, “Now let me prune you some more.” Pruning is painful and exhausting. As we experience pruning and long to abound in the years to come, our task is to trust the vinegrower God and his leading.

The vinegrower also wants us to ABIDE

Jesus shares that it’s impossible to abound without abiding. It’s impossible for me to produce any fruit apart from being deeply rooted in him. Paul Metzger writes in IVP’s The Gospel of John commentary, “Apart from the Father’s pruning and Jesus’ abiding presence in and through his word, I can do nothing that really matters for God. I am nothing apart from Jesus.”

Abiding requires intentionality. It requires not simply believing in Christ, but being in union with him, having Jesus’ words constantly at hand, sharing his thoughts, emotions, and mind. It requires being caught up into Jesus’ focus on doing his Father’s will. It requires praying for his purposes rather than for our own selfish purposes.

Abiding in Christ alone isn’t easy. We’re tempted every day to be connected to multiple things that we think will give us life rather than being solely connected to the true vine. We build a lot of other vines around us (social vines, family vines, money vines), but ultimately they don’t bear fruit.

I’ve been challenged in my temptation to abide more in technology vines than the true vine. I’m on my phone 24/7. (I’m in union with an iPhone instead of Christ!) In Andy Crouch’s book The Tech-Wise Family, he suggests taking a Sabbath from our devices: one hour per day, one day per week, one week per year.

Another area where I’m challenged is to intentionally invest in spiritual disciplines—to build deeper roots in Christ through Scripture study, theological study, prayer and time with God, and healthy community and relationships.

ABIDING is also critical in our external context today in our nation. We see neither witness to Christ nor the character of Christ in many of our national leaders. The church has also been complicit, perhaps reflecting our shallow roots.

We need to ABIDE in the midst of chaos—in the midst of diverse political perspectives and words from the media—to abide in the one true vine, in his Word. From God’s Word, we believe that every person is precious and made in the image of God. Any ideology based on the superiority of one race or the inferiority of another rejects the true vine.

At the same time, we also believe that Christ died for all of humanity—including those who promote racial hatred—so that they and we could be in union with God. We’re all sinners and invited to abide in Christ, confess our sins, and receive his pruning, and we’re called to something challenging in verses 9–14 and 17—to love one another as the Father has loved us.

Love is repeated nine times in these verses. Abiding in Christ’s love is caught up with loving others—they go hand in hand.

Four practices help us to both ABOUND and ABIDE.

1. Attentiveness: practice being attentive to God, your relationships, and yourself

What if we took a few moments every day to be attentive? Leave our to-do list, our next errand, our multitasking behind, and instead be fully attentive to our brother or sister. Pause and be attentive to what God may be speaking; to an issue that God may be pointing out to us (whether an issue in our own character or in our ministry).

I’ve found Leighton Ford’s book The Attentive Life very helpful. One of the simple practices Leighton recommends is a form of Examen—pausing before you sleep at night and asking yourself two basic questions: “When did I sense God most today and when did I miss him?” and “When was I most fulfilled and when was I most drained?” (You could also ask, “When did my actions reflect/not reflect being connected to the vine?”)

2. Prayer rhythms: practice regular rhythms of prayer as an expression of dependency on God for fruit

That rhythm might be a daily early morning prayer, weekly prayer with friends, or a monthly prayer retreat. I first learned prayer rhythms as a student through daily noon prayer meetings with my InterVarsity chapter at Harvard. It helped keep me connected to Jesus in the midst of classes and pressures. It helped our chapter grow in depth and breadth.

3. Abide and abound by practicing your gifts

God has given you specific gifts and every gift is needed in the body of Christ: gifts of hospitality or prophecy, administration or accounting, counseling or coding, giving financially or giving compliments, organizing files or organizing game nights. You may have networking gifts, shepherding gifts, or preaching and teaching gifts. All of these gifts build the community of Christ.

4. Practice keeping the Father’s commandments, even when discouragements come

In John 15:18–25, Jesus speaks of the persecution and hatred his followers will face as they obey him. In the midst of being pruned—being persecuted—it’ll be tempting to give up, to become careless about our tongue and words, to believe in lies about our self-worth. It’s most difficult to lean into obedience when we’re tired and discouraged.

When we keep the Father’s commandments, when we lean into obedience amidst struggle, an interesting benefit happens to us as branches—we share in Jesus’ joy: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (v. 11). As Jesus’ words abide in the disciples through their obedience, they share in Jesus’ union with the Father, which is characterized not only by obedience, but also by joy. When we obey, we’re swept up into this beautiful and intimate union, which brings deepest joy into our lives.

May we abide in Jesus, the true vine, and may we trust in God, the vinegrower.

[This article is an abridged version of its original]

Bio: Tom Lin (@TomLinNow) serves as president/CEO of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, with previous roles as vice president of missions and director of Urbana as well as country director of the student movement in Mongolia. Tom has served on the boards of Wycliffe Bible Translators and Mission Nexus, and currently serves on the boards of the Lausanne Movement, Fuller Theological Seminary, and Crowell Trust. He’s the author of Pursuing God’s Call (IVP Books, 2012) and Losing Face & Finding Grace: Twelve Bible Studies for Asian-Americans (InterVarsity Press, 1997). He has a BA in economics from Harvard University, and holds an MA in global leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary.

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