A Word on Christian Suffering

John 15:1-2

Pain and suffering. No one likes it but many of us must endure it. Sometimes pain is long and dull while for others it is short and stabbing. Suffering is a topic that A Word on Christian Suffering, John 15:1-2we don't really understand. Perhaps it is because it does not match modern man's quest for pleasure.

No one likes suffering; it is merely endured. Nor are there any easy answers for those going through agonizing times. This is why I am fascinated with Jesus' words. Most of us are shy about speaking or even thinking of God's involvement with a person's grief and agony. Perhaps this is because many believe that pain is incompatible with God's love. They exclude God from their thinking about pain and suffering. Others, not understanding God's good purpose, get bitter. Jesus' approach to this problem is refreshingly different!

Jesus met up with pain each day. He would see so many people suffering. Many would bring the most sick and troubled people to His very feet. He would bring His Masterful healing of touch. Jesus could understand suffering more than we could begin to think. Jesus understood pain. But He knew if we were to endure suffering as His people, then we must understand God's loving purpose.

"I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. 2 "Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it, that it may bear more fruit. (John 15:1-2, NASB).

The vine is Jesus. The vinedresser stands for God. He is the One who cares for the whole vine. Verse 1 is clear. Verse 2 gets much more confusing. Here Jesus speaks about two kinds of branches. They both have something done to them. Most of this problem stems from a faulty translation. Like many others, I have fallen for a bad translation for verse 2 and missed out on one of the gems of Jesus' teaching. Jesus speaks about two kinds of branches.

Every branch in Me 1) does not bear fruit He takes away  
2) that bears fruit He prunes it that it may bear more fruit

There are two things in common with these branches. First of all, they both are branches. Secondly, they are both "in Me."(1) Because of the poor translation, many skip right over this phrase "in Me" and only apply it to the second kind of branch. We should mention briefly here that each of these branches will suffer some 'testings.' But the common points stop here.

  • The first branch describes those branches that are not bearing fruit. Many suggest that this barrenness proves that they are the same as those in verse 6, "If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch, and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned." But this is not so. The results of the two branches are very different. The latter is burnt up; the first is "lifted up." How unfortunate that several versions translate this word "takes away" while the NIV even uses the totally inappropriate "cut off." Without understanding grape plants, the translators do not use the obvious and common meaning "to lift up."

    These branches perhaps deserve to be cut off, but they are not treated this way at all. They are instead lifted up. This refers to the way the vinedresser lifts up the fallen branches to the ground, cleans them and then ties them up with the others. (2) In the mud they have no sunlight and have no hope for fruit. This is an excellent description of wayward and stubborn Christians in the world who need to be cleansed. These are the ones focusing not on fruit but survival. There is no doubt that the cleansing process gets rather rough at times. This refers to discipline and chastisement (cf. Hebrews 12). (3)

  • The second branch does bear fruit. Of course, it also abides in the vine otherwise it wouldn't bear fruit. The fruit stands for all the good effects from the inner spiritual life that originate from God. The sap from the vine (Jesus) and flows into His believers' lives and thus causes fruit to grow.

    Jesus, however, also speaks about the process of pruning with pain here. He says that suffering will be part of every believer's life. Every good branch will suffer the pruning. We must understand that pruning is not some careless cutting of the branches to make it shorter. This is the way many of us feel about pain. When we are getting hit hard, we tend to think that God doesn't seem to care.

I was proud as I finished looking at my 'pruned' apple trees. I had them for a couple years and thought it was time for a good pruning. "They should bear great fruit the next year," I thought. I was so careful to get every small branch so that it would force the life juices through the big branches and bear forth lots of big luscious fruit.

Something went wrong though. The next spring's apple blossoms were very sparse. I came up with lots of reasons for this. The winter was extremely harsh. The trees must have something wrong with them. I think I called the company that sold them to me and checked why there were no blossoms. I discovered the problem later.

In trying to prune, I cut off all the tiny little branches where the blossoms and fruit was to grow! Our Heavenly Father, fortunately, is totally unlike me. He knows what He is doing. Although my intention was to bear fruit, I was just being wreckless. About two years ago, a neighbor named Peter came by and pitied me. He told me that I was pruning them all wrong. This year's crop was good thanks to him.

Speaking about pain and suffering is not easy. It is risky business. Everyone has his questions, "Why does God allow suffering?" This question gets worse when it is phrased, "Why does God allow this .... to happen in my life?" Jesus here faces the problem face on and simply said, "He prunes it, that it may bear more fruit." Jesus doesn't deny God's hand in a believer's suffering. Sometimes when we hear things happening to Christians in faraway places, we are left with the image that God is just allowing mad suffering among His sheep and that He doesn't care. Jesus challenges this and simply says, "He prunes it, that it may bear more fruit."

Jesus is intent in bringing God into our perspective of suffering. God Himself brings the grief. He is the vinedresser. Yes, God does allow evil forces to oppress His people. He does allow wicked men arise for a while. But what He promises as our vinedresser is to carefully and completely help us by the suffering. None of it is in vain. It will hurt but the pain will always be carefully monitored and purposed. We must trust His faithful surgeon hands through this very sensitive process. God has not left us alone. Quite the contrary. He is closely dealing with us for good purposes.

Jesus did not say that we did anything wrong to deserve such pruning. We were, in fact, doing things right. His purpose is for us to bear more fruit. We know that bigger and more plentiful fruit grows from pruned branches. The image here is clear. God wants His life to flow through us at bigger and faster rates that more of Him can shine out into the world. He wants us to bear more fruit that will bring forth eternal blessings.

This last year has been a pruning time for me. I have been cut back from the greater things in life - a normal job, close friends and support, good fellowship with Christians, sense of belonging, financial stability, etc. Not everything was taken away, but many cherished things were. This reminds me so much of what a brother shared recently from Deuteronomy 8.5,

"Thus you are to know in your heart that the LORD your God was disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son."

God's pruning action shows that God is actively working in our lives. We must take this truth and plant it deep in our hearts. We must refuse to think God has abandoned us. Pruning is part of His long term care for our lives. We might tend to get confused if we forget the Vinedresser is caring for us, but if we can in our hearts know it is all for our best, our trust and love for Him will grow through this process, and we will bear much more glorious fruit.

Every branch
in Me

1) does not bear fruit

He lifts up - rid of sin

 (Keeps it living for a hopeful future)

2) that bears fruit

He prunes it - rid of self

that it may bear more fruit

Both of these processes hurt. Each of them requires pain. Lifting up refers to discipline - the getting rid of sin. The pruning refers to the process of self-denial. No better place can we see this self denial in effect then when Jesus died on the cross for His people's sins.

We can imagine Jesus was pointing to a branch that was pruned and showing the resulting many grapes with their strong scent. Jesus must have swallowed hard as He said these words. He Himself was on the way up to the Mount of Olives to be betrayed. He Himself was going to be pruned that there might be even better fruit ahead through His resurrection. Although evil men might treat Him cruelly and unjustly, all was carefully being governed by the Great Vinedresser. If we are to be more like Jesus, then we need to stay focused through these 'pruning' times and trust God's good purpose. >> Next

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Paul J. Bucknell

Biblical Foundations for Freedom

(1) Although it does not use "in Me" two times, the way it is written strongly conveys this. If Jesus meant the second was not "in Me," then He would have made a contrast with the first such as "not in Me."
(2) I am thankful to Bruce Wilkinson who mentions this in his excellent book, "Secrets of the Vine." He gleaned the truth from a vinekeeper.
(3) Read the book mentioned in (2) for an excellent way the Lord deals in discipline and pruning with His children.