The God who prunes – reflection on John 15:2

Do you have ‘green fingers’? Do you spend hours in the garden? Do you love to watch Monty Don on Gardener’s World? Personally, I have to confess that I know very little about gardens and gardening! I am grateful for the help of my mother-in-law, who is very knowledgeable about such things.

However, one thing I do know about gardening is that sometimes plants have to be pruned. If you leave some plants to grow naturally, they will not bear fruit or flower as much as they could. A wise gardener will know what to prune and when, so that the plant will be as healthy as possible.

To a non-gardener such as myself, the process of pruning might look destructive: cutting off healthy branches seems a strange thing to do! But the wise gardener knows that the pruning is necessary for the plants to grow and stay healthy.

Jesus was aware of this. In John’s Gospel, chapter 15, Jesus says:

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.

John 15:1-4

In this passage, Jesus likens himself to the vine, while those who believe in him are the branches. As the purpose of a vine is to bear fruit, so it is with us: we are to bear fruit in our lives. Elsewhere in the Bible, the apostle Paul describes this as the fruit of the Spirit, which is love.

Jesus tells us that the gardener – that is, God the Father – will prune every branch that bears fruit so that it will be even more fruitful.

What does that mean? It means that we need to be pruned in order to grow. We need to encounter adversity, trials, and suffering sometimes, in order that we might bear more fruit in our lives. To a non-gardener like myself, cutting off a healthy branch seems like a strange and counter-intuitive thing to do. But the wise gardener knows it is necessary for the good of the plants.

It is like that with God. In his infinite wisdom, he sends us times of adversity and suffering which is intended for our good and our growth. His desire is always that we might bear more fruit.

How is this helpful to us? I hope that this changes our attitudes when we encounter times of trial and difficulty. The apostle James said, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (James 1:2-3). Similarly, the book of Hebrews says: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).

When we go through testing times, we can have confidence that our heavenly Father is pruning for our own good. However unpleasant it is, we can trust that the Lord is working for our good.

Many Christians through the ages can testify that times of adversity have been times of great spiritual growth. Personally speaking, I can testify to the fact that I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t been through times of trial and adversity.

The key question for us is, how do we choose to respond in times of trial and adversity? Will we choose to be angry with God, and turn away from him? Or will we choose to respond with faith and trust, knowing that he alone is able to turn our every adversity to good?

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Doubting Thomas: choosing faith over doubt

I’m sure you are familiar with the phrase “seeing is believing”. We often say that we need to see something with our own eyes before we can believe it.

That’s the subject of our Bible reading for the first week after Easter. It’s from John 20, the famous story of doubting Thomas. On the eve of that first Easter Day, Jesus appeared to his disciples while they were together – but Thomas was not present. When the other disciples told him what had happened, he said: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Thomas refused to believe the testimony of his friends, those he knew to be trustworthy and reliable. Instead, he chose to say that he would not believe unless he had seen Jesus with his own eyes.

Perhaps this is an attitude that we can sympathise with: as human beings we can find it hard to believe without the evidence of our own eyes. “Seeing is believing”, we say, and if we don’t see we don’t believe. Even if not believing means we have to distrust people we know well. Perhaps there is something of the “doubting Thomas” in each one of us.

So, how did things work out for our friend Thomas? Let’s look at what happens next in the story:

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Jesus did not commend Thomas for his doubts. Thomas should have believed the other disciples, his closest friends. He should have listened to what Jesus had taught them before about how he was to be killed and then raised on the third day. Instead, Thomas made the conscious choice not to believe. I think this reflects a battle that we all face day by day.

We all face the choice every day to respond to our circumstances with faith or with doubt. We can choose which eyes to see with – eyes of faith, or eyes of doubt. We can choose to see the risen Lord Jesus at work in our lives and trust in his promises, or we can choose to deny him.

Jesus finishes by saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” It is a blessing to trust in the Lord, even though we do not see him. By faith we trust that our sins are forgiven. By faith we trust that he is able to care for us and provide for us. By faith we trust that he is able to direct our lives in the way that is best. By faith we believe that he is willing and able to answer prayer.

We cannot see the Lord Jesus with our eyes, yet with eyes of faith we believe and trust that he is there. And as we trust in him day by day, as we choose to see with eyes of faith, we come to experience that he is faithful, and that he is able to keep his promises to us.

I will leave the last word to the apostle Paul, from 2 Corinthians 4:

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

This was originally written as a ‘Thought for the Week’ for a local publication.

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How to cope with change | Bible Wisdom

A short video from a Biblical perspective about how to cope with change. It’s the start of a new academic year, and there have been so many other changes lately – how do we cope? In this video we think about how we can take comfort from God in these times.

Bible verses I talk about:

  • James 1:17 “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
  • Hebrews 13:8 “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.”
  • Genesis 50:20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
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What the Bible says about Resilience

People have been talking about mental health a lot recently. Resilience is an important part of mental health and a lot of scientists have looked into it recently. The Bible has a lot to say about what we would call resilience.

Here I bring together eight points (briefly!) from a book called Resilience: A Spiritual Project by Kirsten Birkett. They are:

  1. Adversity leads to strength
  2. A sense of meaning and purpose
  3. Transcendence
  4. Hope and optimism and positive emotions
  5. Altriusm
  6. Self- (God-) efficacy
  7. Forgiveness
  8. A social network

The Bible actually dovetails really well with the modern concept of resilience. If you are growing in the Christian faith, you are also growing in resilience.

Explore further

If you’d like to learn more about Christianity, you might like to begin with the What is Christianity? course.

If you want to see how this works out in practice, you might like to see the videos I’ve been doing on mental health during the lockdown. The most recent one was on Psalm 37, but they are all available on this playlist.

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