Abiding: God’s Plan for Growth

Abiding — God’s Path for Growth          John 15:1-17 

Hiking the Yuan de Fuca:

  • It was a disaster…I was nowhere near prepared. All my stuff got soaked on the first night. The others had everything together and all I could do was watch from my wet sleeping bag.
  • I was not set up for success and it was painfully obvious 

Does this sound like your spiritual experience?  Like you have joined this adventure but you try to follow Jesus the best you can but you feel a bit like you have been set up for failure.  Have you ever felt like me in the wet sleeping bag just watching others who seem have it together and yet you feel like you are nowhere near prepared enough for this adventure.  Do you ever feel ineffective or unproductive as a follower of Jesus, like your spiritual life just doesn’t add up to what you know it should.   

I know that I certainly have felt this way.  We see others who seem to be doing so much better than us or we see the ideals laid out in the Bible and realize that we fall so desperately short of them.  It can seem like an impossible task at times.  Are we being set up for failure?  Well the answer is ‘no’ but if not then how do we do it? The answer lies in Jesus’ encouragement to his followers in John 15, the passage that was read earlier which we will unpack this morning. 

This will be a continuation of our small group 

Summary of the I Am statements 

  • The Bread of Life 
  • The Light of the World 
  • The Gate  
  • The Good Shepherd 
  • The Resurrection and the Life 

Each of these statements reveals more of Jesus’ person and mission.  They are all given for one purpose so that those who hear might believe.  John records how many people hear Jesus’ words and see his miracles and put their faith in him. 

But then half way through the book Jesus’ teaching shifts.  He no longer addresses the crowds with the intent of reaching those who have not yet believed and he focuses on the group of disciples who have put their faith in him and follow him. 

The last two of the seven I am statements are spoken to those who already believe.  Jesus tells them he is: 

  • The Way, the Truth and the Life 
  • The Vine 

The fact that it is assumed that his hearers are already followers will be an important fact to remember.  Let’s take a look at the passage. 

“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.” John 15:1-5 

We are told to remain in Christ.  Many other translations use the word ‘abide’.  I like the term abide because it seems to draw in the idea of dwelling, its where and how we live.  This is the not-so-secret reality of living a life that is not ineffective or unproductive. 

Alright so abiding is the key but what exactly is it and how are we supposed to do it?  This morning I’d like to look at three things: 

1) What is abiding 

2) How do we abide 

3) Three benefits of abiding 

What is abiding in Christ? 

I’d like to suggest that abiding is learning and growing into Christ-likeness through spending intentional time and effort developing an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.  The biblical writer Peter describes this process succinctly as ‘participation in the divine nature’.  We will come back to this definition in a little bit but the first thing to note is that the process of abiding is not just letting go and letting God, it requires intentional effort on our part. 

One of our favourite lines to our kids is ‘Life is work’.  It expresses the idea that nothing worth having comes easy.  Teddy Roosevelt Expressed it this way: “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life.” Theodor Roosevelt.  We comfortably apply this principle to all areas of life; physical fitness, development of professional skills, personal passions like music, woodworking or sports 

My apprenticeship was 9000 hours and that was just the time required to learn how not to hurt yourself badly.  In our company there is a little joke that once you finish the 9000 hours and successfully pass the big test you are still not an electrician…you are an improver.  Becoming a real electrician takes many more years of work, experience and deliberate practice.  And to a great extent this is true.  Ask any seasoned tradesperson if they were a master of their trade when they got their ticket and they will most likely tell you that they knew almost nothing when they first got licensed.   

But do we buy into the concept of something having value requiring work as it pertains to our spiritual life?  The idea of work relating to our faith makes us a little uncomfortable.  After all, doesn’t the Bible say, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…right?  Absolutely!  The Bible is explicit that there is nothing that we can do to merit our salvation.  The verse above goes on to say that our salvation is, not by works, so that no one can boast.” Eph 2:8-9  

Jesus has spent the first half of the book of John explaining that he is the only way to God and the work that we must do is simply to believe if him.  So given this it can be a bit uncomfortable to hear that the development of our spiritual life depends on us doing work.  As soon as we hear the word ‘work’ we can think ‘works’ — that is earning our salvation.  ‘Works’ has us believe that the things we do earn us our good position before God. 

But remember that at this point in the book of John Jesus has moved from expressing who he is to those who might believe in him to expressing who he will be for those who have already believed in him.  When Jesus says we must remain in him it is no longer a question of receiving salvation but rather growing and developing to be more like him.  It is in the process of growth that we are challenged to do something — to work as it were, to engage.    

I mentioned earlier that Peter called this process of abiding, ‘participation in the divine nature’.  Lets take a look at the full passage to see what we an learn about the importance of our active involvement in it. 

“His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.  Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, (think Jesus’ promises in John 15) so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measurethey will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.”  2 Peter 1:3-11 

This passage is rife with references to our responsibility in growth.  Right from the start note that Peter doesn’t say that God’s divine power has given us a godly life. He says that we are given everything that we need for a Godly life.  I could give you everything that you need to accomplish a specific task but that does not mean that the task has been accomplished — it requires engagement on our part.  That is why he continues to say that we must participate in the divine nature.  Participation requires involvement on our part.  This becomes even more clear when he says that we must ‘make every effort’.  This is not a theoretical concept it is a concrete reality — we must engage if we are to grow.  This growth is implied when he says we can possess these qualities in increasing measure. 

This abiding in Christ and therefore Christ-like character is what will keep us from being ineffective and unproductive in our faith journey with Christ.  Peter uses the word knowledge but in light of all the action words in the passage this is not just a head knowledge.  It is, rather, an experiential knowledge that comes from living out our faith journey.  It is growth.   

Notice what Peter says, “but whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins”.  Again, in Peter’s mind this is not something that we do to acquire our salvation.  The person who does not make every effort has already “escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires”.  Instead those who do not make every effort short-sell their true nature forgetting the great opportunity for growth, and therefore are essentially spiritually nearsighted and blind.   

So Jesus said that he is the vine and we are the branches.  I’m not neither a biologist nor a farmer.  As a casual spectator of plants I might be tempted to say that growth just happens all by itself and that there is really nothing special about the growth of a branch on a vine.  However, Dave, being a biology major has in past messages told us about the amazing and marvelous processes that occur in plants.  And I do remember one!   

Think back to school and photosynthesis (and yes, I did have to google this).  In this process the leaves on the branches take in carbon dioxide and with the help of energy from the sun and water from the roots they convert the CO2 into glucose which feeds the plant and helps it grow.  So the branches must participate with the vine in order to grow.  While to the untrained eye and mind it may seem that the branch does nothing for its own growth we know that is certainly not the case.   

While the first century hearers of Jesus’ word picture might not have had smart phones to look up the process of photosynthesis they were probably more intimately connected to the life cycle of the world around them and the vivid imagery of necessary growth would not have been lost on them. 

So keeping the red ball on top involves some work on our part.  Ok, got that.  So we know that we need to do something but what exactly do we do and how do we do it? 

How do we abide in Christ? 

How do we keep this order of priorities in our life (reference the magic trick).  The passage gives us the answer.  Jesus said, “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.” Jn 15:9-12 

So all we have to do to abide in Christ is to keep his commands and to love each other as Christ loved us.  Easy right?  Not so easy is it?  Trust me I am well aware that I make it difficult for my wife to love me.  And that’s not to mention all the people in our lives that drive us nuts.     

Fortunately we are not left alone in this seemingly overwhelming task.  Remember that Peter said that [God’s] divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our [experiential] knowledge of him.  The Holy Spirit residing in the the follower of Christ is our greatest help when it comes to this.   

But this morning I would like to share a bit about some amazing tools at the disposal of believers that can train us to abide in Christ.  We had a bit of a sneak preview of these tools in last weeks interview.  When Kate interviewed Katie they spoke of their desires for how to grow in their faith walk this coming year.  What Katie was referring to is what for the last couple thousand years have been known as spiritual disciplines. 

In his book, “The Spirit of the Disciplines”, Dallas Willard defines spiritual disciplines this way: “A discipline for the spiritual life is, when the dust of history is blown away, nothing but an activity undertaken to bring us into more effective cooperation with Christ and his kingdom…[they] are only activities undertaken to make us capable of receiving more of his life and power without harm to ourselves and others.” Dallas Willard 

It needs to be understood up front that these spiritual disciplines are means rather than ends…they are merely tools to be used in order to help us abide in Christ.  We do not engage in spiritual disciplines to merit God’s favour but rather to train ourselves so that when we face a choice in life we are prepared to make a righteous choice. 

Disciplines of Abstinence  

  1. Solitude 
  1. Fasting 
  1. Silence 
  1. Frugality  
  1. Chastity 
  1. Secrecy 
  1. Sacrifice 

Disciplines of Engagement 

  1. Study 
  1. Worship 
  1. Celebration 
  1. Service 
  1. Prayer 
  1. Fellowship 
  1. Confession 
  1. Submission 

Obviously we wont have time to drive into each one but I wanted to highlight four that have been important for me.  In my reading I keep coming back to Psalm 4, especially verse five which says, “Offer right sacrifices and trust in the Lord” Ps 4:5.  There is no doubt that if we really dig into the items on these lists it will require sacrifice on our parts — sacrifice of time, our pride, our energy and even of our material possessions.  I have found that as I pursued some of these things I have had to give up other things.  However, I have found that it has been well worth the trade off. 

The first discipline that I have endevoured to practice is solitude.  Willard states, “in solitude, we purposefully abstain from interaction from other human beings, denying ourselves companionship and all that comes from our conscious interaction with others.  We close ourselves away…”  The idea is that as we remove ourselves from interaction with others we create the vital space for interaction with God.   

Dave has often spoken about ‘having a place’ where we can get away and be with God.  This is an intentional, physical space that we can go back to time and time again in order to meet with God.  Now my life does not afford me the luxury of journeying to the mountains or the wilderness or the ocean…I have to work with what I’ve got…and I’ve got my garage.  So that’s where I go, to be in relative solitude in order to create the space to meet with God.  Now you may not be lucky enough to have a garage but with some creative thinking you can probably come up with a place that you can practice solitude, if only for the limited time that you have.   

It has been in my sacred space of the garage that I have practiced the second discipline, that is study.  Willard comments, “In the spiritual discipline of study we engage ourselves, above all, with the the written and spoken Word of God…in study we also strive to see the word of God at work in the lives of others, in the church, in history, and in nature.  We not only read and hear and inquire, but we meditate on what comes before us.” 

I’ve been a believer in Jesus just about my whole life.  But it has only been in the last couple of years that I have really studied God’s word.  And the effects have brought huge changes in my life.  Just like watching a plant grow these changes may not be glaringly obvious to those around but I can feel the growth that has happened as a result.   

Solitude and study have required sacrifice on my part.  It is time that I could be spending with my family, accomplishing projects around the house (also a sacrifice on my wife’s part) and sacrifice of developing my self in any number of different ways.  But if we take Jesus’ words seriously that we can’t bear fruit if we do not remain in him then it is well worth the sacrifice. 

The third discipline that I have tried to intentionally develop is prayer.  Now it should be noted that prayer is not just a discipline.  The Bible teaches us that prayer makes a difference in the world.  The biblical writer James said that, “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” Jas 5:16b.  And even in the passage we read earlier Jesus says, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Jn 15:7.   

But the spiritual discipline of prayer focuses on what conversing with God will do for increasing our intimate relationship with God; for how it allows us to abide in Christ.  With reference to prayer as a tool for making a difference in the world he writes, “the more we pray, the more we think to pray, and as we see the results of prayer — the responses of our Father to our requests — our confidence in God’s power spills over into the other areas of our life.”  Answered prayer certainly is a faith builder.  However, there are few things that can discourage us more quickly than unanswered prayer.  I will touch on this a bit later. 

But for the me greatest benefit of prayer is the quiet, regular conversation with God.  I find myself more quickly and easily slipping into conversation with God throughout the day.  But even prayer has had it’s sacrifice.  I have had to give up my self sufficiency.  When I pray I must recognize that the best parts of me are not because of me — they are God living through me.  Prayer involves the uncomfortable and sometimes painful process of handing over the reigns of control in my life and consequently the bragging rights.  I have to think that it abiding in Christ through a vivid prayer life that the apostle Paul was able to truly say that if he boasted it was only in Christ Jesus. 

Ok, so I’ve mentioned solitude, study and prayer.  The forth discipline that I want to talk about is probably the most difficult — and that is confession.  Willard defines confession as that in which, “we let trusted others know our deepest weaknesses and failures…we let some friends in Christ know who we really are, not holding back anything important, but, ideally, allowing complete transparency. We lay down the burden of hiding and pretending, which normally takes up such a dreadful amount of human energy.  We engage and are engaged by others in the most profound depths of the soul.”  Traditionally confession is done person to person but I’d like to talk about confession towards God as a spiritual disciple.  

I believe that the only way we can get to the place of not holding back with others is to have done the hard work of not holding back with God.  I have done a great deal of hiding from and pretending with God.  Yes, I believe that God knows every part of my life but there has been quite a bit of ‘let’s not talk about that right now’.   

When we trust God enough to engage him in conversation regarding our brokenness the power of shame begins to melt away.  I believe that it is only when we have practiced confession to God that we have the confidence to practice it with others.  Because if God doesn’t have my back then who will? 

Asking forgiveness from God is not the spiritual discipline itself, but just as prayer is both a powerful tool and also a discipline so confession both serves to clean our soul but also, over time, develops the trust so necessary to abide in Christ.     

David, who Paul spoke about last week, knew the importance of not hiding but bearing all before God.  After some of his darkest days he wrote the follow: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.  My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” Ps 51:16-17.  David trusted God to have his back even when he knew he had turned his back on God. 

For me the greatest sacrifice in confession is autonomy.  My life is not mine to live as I please.  But through continued confession, to God and to others, I have begun to learn that by forgoing living to please self you find your life can please God. 

 I share my own journey not as a point of pride but to encourage.  As I have practiced solitude, study, prayer and confession I have become acutely aware that without the space that they allow for me to abide in Christ I am completely inadequate.  I have come to see that without these things, even on a day to day basis, I become, as Peter puts it, near-sighted and blind.  The disciplines are like corrective eye wear so that, over time, God can perform the real work of corrective eye surgery. 

Willard emphasizes that fact that we need to approach the list of disciplines with a prayerful and experimentally attitude.  My list of four will most likely not be the list that you need most.  They are like tools for doing the job of abiding and each person’s unique personality and circumstances will find different tools useful.   

I think that you can tell by looking at me that fasting is not high on my to do list.  Yeah, that’s gonna wait a little longer.  But celebration, that sounds fun, maybe I’ll check that one out next. 

If this list seems to daunting to even consider then think about one step forward.  Check out a small group.  A healthy small group will incorporate several tools on this list.  It’s a great place to get started! 

Ok so we have taken a look at what abiding is and we have looked at some tools to help us abide in Christ.  But in the passage in John Jesus promises some really good benefits of abiding in him.  Let’s take a look at these. 

Benefits of abiding 

The first benefit is that if we remain in Christ we will experience joy.  Jesus says, “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.” Jn 15:9b-11

Man, joy is a precious commodity.  Just about every product marketed around us promises happiness but what actually delivers joy?  This world offers us the immediacy of new car smell and the permanency of debt payments.  Jesus’ promise is the opposite, its the short-term sacrifice of abiding for long-term joy.  I have yet to meet someone who demonstrated a rich life of abiding in Christ who said it wasn’t worth it.  More often than not these peoples lives are characterized by a happiness that transcends their circumstances.  Sure they may have bad days but they have a good life.  I want to be one of these people.  Sign me up for joy! 

The second benefit to abiding in Christ is answered prayer.  Jesus states that, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Jn 15:7 and then later says, “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.” Jn 15:16  How cool is that, that we can ask the Creator of the universe for things and not only does he hears us but he answers! 

I mentioned earlier that answered prayer is a faith builder but that few things that can discourage us more quickly than unanswered prayer.  I want to point out two conditions that Jesus places on his promise.  The first is that our prayer needs to be framed with God’s glory in mind.  In verse 7 Jesus says, “ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” but he goes on to say, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” Jn 15:8.  It’s even more clear in the previous chapter when Jesus says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” Jn 14:13-14.   

It is clear if we expect our prayer to be answered it needs to be with reference to God’s glory.  There have been many heartfelt prayers that have started with, “God I’ve bought this lottery ticket…”  I’m not so sure this type of prayer would fall into the category of God’s glory.  But what about prayers with more substance?  The physical healing of a loved one, the provision of a meaningful career path, the removal of a damaging addiction…the last thing I want to do is cast doubt on anyone’s deepest yearnings, I think that would be arrogance at its height.  But if we are to take Jesus’ promises seriously we need to examine motives.  Do we have God’s glory in mind or just our own desires?   

We must also note that Jesus makes it clear that process of asking is intimately tied to abiding in him.  He states, “if you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask…”  Is it possible that the work of abiding in Christ will actually form our desires and will therefore shape the type of requests that we make of God?  Is it even fair of us to ask something of God when we have not taken the time and effort to live a life in pursuit of him? 

Again, my intention is certainly not to undermine anyone’s earnest requests of God.  Nor do I expect this to answer the difficult questions related to unanswered prayer.  If you wrestle with this maybe check out a sermon series that Dave did recently on prayer.  You can find them posted online at our church website. 

There is a third benefit to abiding in Christ and that is knowing God’s business.  It’s like getting a back-stage pass to what God is doing in this world.  Jesus says, “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.” Jn 15:14-15

It’s like God has said, “Hey, I’m doing some cool stuff and I want you to know about it.  Check this out.”  No doubt the most amazing thing that God has done was to provide a way for us to know God through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  Our belief in this is the starting point.  But God is still up to amazing things in the world around us.  We just need to see it.  When we abide in him we get the eyes to see it.   

Church on the Rock talks about God taps.  These are little promptings that God’s followers get to do something or say something.  And we have heard from this stage some incredible stories of how following through on these promptings have opened the doors for powerful opportunities to help others.  There is no better way to become aware of these promptings and to see the encouraging results than to practice abiding in Christ.  It prepares our hearts and minds to see what God is up to and to get involved.   When we abide we get to know our Masters business. 

Last week Paul spoke about finding our place in God’s story — I would suggest that there is no better way to do this than to abide in Christ.  This journey requires patience and grace.  I know that I have been growing but I also know that I fall flat on my face at times.  And for all my talk about effort and about spiritual disciplines, we ultimately need to trust that God is the one who is providing the living giving power for our growth.  The Apostle Paul wrote, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” Col 2:6-7   

We are not asked to change the world but we are expected to change our world, our lived experience by abiding in Christ.  And as we do we might be surprised at how we can effect the world around us.