Punishment or Pruning?
While meditating on John 15:1-8 the past few mornings, it has occurred to me that our interpretation of the sanctifying work that God accomplishes in the Christian’s life—especially during times of trial—is directly related to our understanding of pruning, which in turn affects our response to our own suffering and to others to whom we minister. If we view pruning as punitive, rather than corrective and restorative, we become like Job’s so-called counselors; we immediately assume that when a fellow Christian is suffering it is because God is punishing him or her and, therefore, we are now free to cast any judgment upon them that we wish.
Now, do you and I deserve punishment? Do we deserve judgment? No question about it! We deserve 10,000 lifetimes of grief and pain and turmoil—plus eternal punishment in hell. But that is not what we get when we truly trust in Jesus Christ. Why do we not receive eternal punishment? Because Christ already endured the punishment for our sin on His bloody cross. Why do we not receive punishment in our lives as Christians? Because Christ already endured the punishment for our sin on His bloody cross. If we forget this gospel truth then we become Pharisees who are filled with an imaginary sense of our own self-righteousness and, as a result, begin to conclude that the sins of others are far worse than our own. Remembering the sufficiency of the Cross of Christ is foundational to living for Him in a fallen world, while we dwell in fallen bodies.
I have written on this punishment/discipline distinction before (Brass Heavens: Reasons for unanswered prayer), but it bears repeating. When God chastens us (believers), He trains us in righteousness—and He does so motivated by love (Hebrews 12:6). At times this includes suffering painful consequences for our sinful words and deeds; which He has the wisdom to discern. However, He does not make us do penance. Nor does He cast us away in anger. We are no longer His enemies who receive punishment, but we are His adopted and blood-bought children. We are His branches and, as such, we are tended and cared for, but still need a lot of pruning.
Like the tree that is oddly shaped, has suckers growing out of the base of the trunk, or has dead branches here and there; we are in need of pruning. There is character deficiency in our lives that God wants us to become aware of; there are serious heart sins (the root behind all behavioral sins), and sinful habits that need to be repented of. In short, we need to be pruned. But what are God’s purposes in pruning?
Why Does God Prune Us, His Branches?
God prunes us so that we will bear more fruit. God does not prune us because He is angry at us, nor does He prune us because Jesus’ sacrifice was not enough (perish the thought!). God prunes us, His branches, so “that [we] may bear more fruit” (John 15:2). In other words, God looks at our Christian lives and concludes that we are not bearing near as much fruit as we could be. We are out of balance, have dead branches, and suckers are draining away our spiritual vitality.
God prunes us so that we will become more dependent. God does not prune us in order to discourage us; He prunes us so that we will learn to abide in Christ—the true source of life. To abide in Christ means to live in obedient dependence upon His ongoing, minute-by-minute, supply of grace—grace which is Himself! Too often we become proud and independent, functioning as practical atheists. This will never lead to greater fruitfulness. “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in me (v. 4). Therefore, God loves us enough to prune us so that we learn to abide, to rest in Christ. Our Father, the vinedresser, trains us to learn—in practice, not only precept—that we truly “can do nothing” apart from Christ (v. 5).
God prunes us in order to assure us that we are truly saved. God does not prune unbelievers in order that they may become more fruitful, for their fruits would simply consist of more dead works (James 2:17; Hebrews 9:14). Instead, He eventually throws them “into the fire, and they are burned” (John 15:6). Painful pruning (and it is painful) does not undermine the Spirit’s work of assurance; it strengthens it. It is the true child of God who is chastened by the heavenly Father, not the illegitimate child (Hebrews 12:7-8). By our fruitfulness we “prove to be” true disciples of Christ (John 15:8b).
God prunes us so that He is freed to answer more of our prayers. Divine pruning results in our learning to abide in Christ, which in turn results in the freedom to ask God “whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you” (v. 7). The “obedience connection” in our prayer lives is designed by God to continually motivate us in our walk of faith. It is one of the if/then relationships in the Christian life.
God prunes us so that we will glorify Him. Jesus is crystal clear: “By this is My father glorified, that you bear much fruit” (v. 8a). To glorify means to magnify, to enlarge, and to draw attention. As believers in Christ, we do not live to draw attention to ourselves, but to our glorious God and Savior. Our redemption brings God glory in order that the world may know that the gospel is real (see, for example, 1 Thessalonians 1:2-8).
So, is it punishment or pruning? Punishment is reserved for the unbeliever, but God prunes those whom He loves–those who truly belong to Him. The heavenly vinedresser cuts here and there, wherever it is needed, to shape us into the image of the true Vine, Jesus Christ. And that only happens when we learn to abide in Him. Remember the words of Jesus: “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
How much fruit do you want your Christian life to bear? If your heart’s deepest longing is “much more fruit” then be prepared for the pruning that will lead you there.