Last night I was talking with some friends about how God often brings us ‘back to zero’ as we follow him. Some people get called to move away from a country and into new territory just as things were starting to go well, they had gotten comfortable in the language and culture, and they were seeing wonderful fruit. Families sometimes have to give up their houses, careers, and possesions, empty their bank accounts and start from zero, with no jobs, no house, and no clear plans for the future, multiple times in their life. Often we’ll get good at a certain type of ministry, only to be called to let go of it and do something else we’re not very good at. “But I already did that whole sacrifice thing 5 years ago!” we might be tempted to say. No, our God is more gracious than that. He’s constantly hacking good things away and pulling us towards the edge, where we have to trust him, and not ourselves, our abilities, or our accomplishments. He’s always keeping our trust in him fresh.
He calls us away from good and helpful things like boats, and asks us to step out onto the water, where we have seem to have nothing that should keep us afloat. Every step out on the water is impossible and ridiculous. But every moment that we have our eyes locked on his, it’s life-giving and thrilling.
Andrew Murray wrote a wonderful explanation of this pruning that Jesus talked about of John 15:2. This is an excerpt from The True Vine.
“Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” John 15:2
“There are two remarkable things about the vine. There is not a plant of which the fruit has so much spirit in it, of which spirit can be so abundantly distilled as the vine. And there is not a plant in the world which so soon runs into wild wood, that hinders its fruit, and therefore needs the most merciless pruning. I look out of my window here on large vineyards: the chief care of the vinedresser is pruning. You may have a trellis vine rooting so deep in good soil that it needs neither diging, nor manuring, nor watering: pruning it cannot dispense with, if it is to bear good fruit. Some trees need occasional pruning; others bear perfect fruit without any: the vine must have it.
And so our Lord tells us, here at the very outset of the parable, that the one work the Father does to the branch that bears fruit is: He cleanseth it, that it may bear more fruit.
Consider a moment what this pruning or cleansing is. It is not the removal of weeds or thorns, or anything from without that may hinder the growth. No; it is the cutting off of the long shoots of the previous year, the removal of something that comes from within, that has been produced by the vine itself. It is the removal of something that is a proof of the vigor of its life; the more vigorous the growth has been, the greater the need for the pruning. It is the honest, healthy wood of the vine that has to be cut away And why? Because it would consume too much of the sap to fill all the long shoots of last year’s growth: the sap must be saved up and used for fruit alone. The branches, sometimes eight and ten feet long, are cut down close to the stem, and nothing is left but just one or two inches of wood, enough to bear the grapes. It is when everything that is not needful for fruit-bearing has been relentlessly cut down, and just as little of the branches as possible has been left, that full, rich fruit may be expected.
What a solemn, precious lesson! It is not to sin only that the cleansing of the Husbandman here refers. It is to our own religious activity, as it is developed in the very act of bearing fruit. It is this that must be cut down and cleansed away. We have, in working for God, to use our natural gifts of wisdom, or eloquence, or influence, or zeal. And yet they are ever in danger of being unduly developed, and then trusted in. And so after each season of work, God has to bring us to the end of ourselves, to the consciousness of the helplessness and the danger of all that is of man, to feel that we are nothing. All that is to be left of us is just enough to receive the power of the life-giving sap of the Holy Spirit. What is of man must be reduced to its very lowest measure. All that is inconsistent with the most entire devotion to Christ’s service must be removed. The more perfect the cleansing and cutting away of all that is of self, the less of surface over which the Holy Spirit is to be spread, so much the more intense can be the concentration of our whole being, to be entirely at the disposal of the Spirit. This is the true circumcision of the heart, the circumcision of Christ. This is the true crucifixion with Christ, bearing about the dying of the Lord Jesus in the body.”
According to this, pruning is not just removal of sin and bad stuff… it’s removal of wood that forms from the very life of the vine, it’s removal of good, wholesome stuff that was built in the process of good life and fruit bearing. God’s constantly pulling away old growth, accomplishments, wealth, accrued ‘skills’ and strength, so that more fresh, life-giving fruit an come forth.
Here’s a picture from an excellent article about pruning. A vine without pruning quickly turns bulky and dead-looking.