John 15:1-17 talks about abiding in Christ:
“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. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.
This is one of the densest passages of Jesus’ words, so I want to focus on abiding. This translation renders the word abiding as “remaining in me,” and variants. One of the most striking parts of the passage is the use of passive verbs, primarily ‘bear,’ and ‘remain.’
“Bearing fruit” is a passive activity. A branch is where the fruit is located, but the nutrients and supplies come from the roots via the trunk and from the leaves. This seems to say that our job is to be the conduit of God’s work, rather than straining to ‘produce fruit’ like it was up to us.
Similarly, a branch doesn’t have to work to remain attached to the plant. It can neither leave nor stay of its own accord. Remaining implies continuing in the state in which you find yourself at the time the command is given.
Nearly all active work in this passage is done by God and Christ. Pruning, speaking, throwing away, burning, choosing are all activities Jesus is reserving for the Godhead.
That said, there are two active verbs given for us to perform: love and keep (obey) His commands. Yet these are given fully and deliberately in the context of our abiding, which is His primary command in the passage. Thus, the ability to follow the active commands comes from following the passive ones.
What’s the point? Someone has quipped that we are called ‘human beings,’ not ‘human doings.’ The command to abide recognizes this, and in a way that no other religion, faith system, or worldview has—that it is God who is the active agent of our redemption and sanctification, not us. Just as a surgeon does not need (nor want!) our help during surgery to remove a tumor, God wants us to get out of His way to remove our sin nature. Once the surgeon has permission from us to cut, our job is to give him complete free reign to do it, and any resistance from us makes the job harder on both him and us. In the same way, once we invite Jesus into our lives as our Saviour, we need to let Him work. He did all of the work on Calvary, and now we need to let the work be completed in us.
Surely it isn’t that easy! Yes, and no. Yes, in the sense that there really is no thing that we can do to improve our position spiritually apart from His gift of salvation. No, because that goes completely against our feeling that we have to do something to earn back favor. But there isn’t. Scripture is abundantly clear on that point. The Laws and commandments provide the proof that we can’t attain to His standards. We are impotent, and our efforts actually get in His way of redeeming us.
So what are we to do? There must be something. Well, yes, but it isn’t what we would expect. Healing and growth occur not by our willing it to happen, but by taking care of ourselves—eating right and exercise, and growth and healing follow from that. Once we are alive (born) we maintain it and the internal systems largely function on their own. However, once our rebirth happens, we are born spiritually as part of a larger organism, union with Christ and other believers. Thus, our maintenance is largely more passive than in biological maintenance. The key activity for maintenance is to abide—to allow sustenance into ourselves and pass on to others in the organism. We do this through things such as Scripture reading, worship and maintaining fellowship with other believers.
But what about evangelism, ministry and all the other ‘oughts?’ If anesthesia isn’t available, a surgeon has the patient distracted by other things, so she can work in a more unobstructed manner. Since God can’t easily just knock us out and cut out our spiritual tumor of sin, He distracts us by focusing our attention on Him and others. Not only do these things distract us from the transformation He’s working in our lives, but it also aids Him, because as we focus externally, we effectively relax our grasp on ourselves. Just as unclenching muscles allows a surgeon to do less damage as the surgery progresses and makes tissues easier to separate from each other, as we focus on others and let go of our agenda, our selfish interests, it is easier for God to separate them from us, and we miss them less when they are gone.
To put it another way, from behavioural psychology, we know that in order to take something away from someone, we must replace it with something else, and hopefully with something better. Thus God removes sin and gives righteousness. He replaces selfish indulgence with selflessness. However, He does not take away self, but redeems it. We are still us, but a re-formed us.
Here’s another cool thing—God is incredibly efficient. When He has us outward focused to complete the redemption of our spirits, He is also working through us to do the same in others, so that His redemption is ‘multiplexed’ if you will, knitting souls back together dynamically and from multiple angles so that the new whole is stronger. It doesn’t matter, really, that we don’t see it with our own experience—We see healing and growth over time, usually through ‘snapshots’ rather than visible changes. In fact, we are more apt to notice it the less we concentrate on it.
Thus, our spiritual growth is accelerated the less we focus on it and the impeded the more we focus on it, which is why Christ calls us to abide, instead of calling us to grow.
In a practical sense, then, this can be achieved by living our lives daily—doing the things we need to do, and open to special instructions when they come, but not trying to ‘over-spiritualize’ things. In fact, the better we get at abiding, the easier it is to see spiritual opportunities He wants to show us.
It is like being an expert driver. A good driver is focused on the road ahead, but also has an high awareness of what is going on around the vehicle in all directions, so that if a sudden change is needed, the driver already knows the available options and can act immediately without having to deliberate. As we are better at abiding, we can be focused on whatever our daily task is, but also aware when a spiritually significant opportunity arises and hear the Lord’s voice directing us to meet it.
A plant doesn’t plan out a strategy to turn its leaves toward the sun—it is aware of where the sun is and moves to maximize light exposure to the leaves, and tracks with the sun. Abiding is being aware of God’s actions around us and moving with them. This is achieved best when we aren’t worrying about if we are tracking with Him or when we aren’t too busy being our own sunlight. When we are tracking with Him, then praying and asking Him to act are actually responses to what He is doing and the direction He is moving, and it becomes a dialogue.
Let me close with this thought. Abiding is passive in a real sense, but there is a reason why Jesus compared us to branches on a vine as opposed to something like an algae bloom. A vine is a single organism, with distinct parts, that is fast growing, flexible, with a structure, and works together for the benefit of the whole. An algae bloom is a chaosed mass of single celled organisms that once formed compete with each other and are solely concerned with their own individual survival and choke off life around it.
Someone once described the Christian as a glove. A glove is completely limp and useless until a hand is inserted into it, at which point the glove becomes as strong and useful as the hand that wields it. So there is a difference between the passivity of abiding and the passivity of apathy, lifelessness, and abdication. It is a mistake to think we have to do enough to earn salvation and reward, and it is a mistake to think we can get away with ignoring the world around us and live in a little bubble unaffected by (and unaffecting) our surroundings.
Abiding is allowing His strength and His purpose to move us and move through us rather than ginning up our strength and purpose. His Life produces much better fruit than ours can, so it is better that we bear His fruit than produce our own.