Two years ago I met with a man who had left his job to pursue mission work. He had devoted his remaining years to helping other people create a legacy of their lives: to end well and to leave behind bushels of fruit.

Yet he was frustrated by the seeming fruitlessness of his own mission. When he talked with friends, they were more concerned with careers, finances, children, and marriages. He desperately asked my advice about marketing his Life-of-Legacywebsite (only a desperate man would ask my advice about marketing). He asked, “Don’t Christians know the gospel?”

I wondered what he thought the gospel taught, and he answered: “Go ye therefore and make disciples,” and he added, “That is exactly what I’m trying to do, to help people figure out how to make disciples and bear fruit. But nothing I do seems to work.”

My friend’s problem was gospel confusion. Sure his life verse is in the Gospels, but it isn’t the heart of the gospel. The gospel is never about what we do; it is always about what God does. Jonathan Edwards once critiqued our “doing” mania when he said:

It is true that by our doing great things, something is worshipped, but it is not God.

Our modern Christian obsession with fruit is unfruitful and, frankly, idolatrous.

Counter-intuitive Fruit

C. S. Lewis once said,

You will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth … you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

Lewis’s non-instinctive observation about social and artistic success perfectly illustrates the biblical paradigm of fruitfulness: the more we force it, the less we’ll see it.

Jesus teaches the same counterintuitive process. In John 15, he says “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” So Jesus is in favor of fruit. But when Jesus talks about the “process” for bearing that fruit, he says nothing about: hard work, good planning, legacy-building, or “working smarter not harder.”

Instead he says fruit is born out of intimacy with him. A close connection with him and nothing else. In the four verses preceding “my Father is glorified when you bear fruit,” Jesus uses the word “abide” seven times. It’s like he needed a good editor. But he doesn’t need help with his word-choices, he needs us to think outside of our western, success-driven boxes.

We’ll never make good impressions on people as long as we try to make good impressions, and we’ll never bear fruit “that lasts” as long as we fixate on bearing fruit. God calls us to devotion to a person not devotion to a cause.

Intimate Theology

All of God’s metaphors for his connection with his people are relational: shepherd and sheep, father to his children, and even husband to wife. His metaphors are never impersonal, like a piston to a crankshaft or “May the Force be with you.”

God’s metaphor of the vine and branches is his most intriguing: it’s an inner penetration of his being into ours, it is his life in us that bears fruit (not our fixation on mission). Then, after a season of abundant fruit, God prunes. The pruning—at least in my life—always draws my attention away from the fruit (which is now plucked or pruned) back to the vine, the only source of fruit.

God doesn’t need our fruitfulness, prosperity, abundance or success: he made the hills, valleys, rivers, and vines. But he invites us to participate with him in the co-creation of fruit simply by fixing our eyes on him.

In the counterintuitive alchemy of spiritual life, if we aim for fruit we get barrenness, and if we aim for intimate connection with God, our very lives become the crushed grapes and broken bread which nourish the world.

Sam

Do you need to embrace the mystery of God?

I recently read an article in which the author rejects any kind of fear of God. He especially hates the beavers’ descriptions of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:

“I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion” [says Susan].

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

When the author read those words, he felt pitied Christians who believe them. He said, “Aslan made my feelings of insecurity and insignificance worse.” Elsewhere he adds: “the idea of God being dangerous and terrifying to believers is bitter beyond words.”

He rejects any kind of fear of God as evil, incompatible with the gospel.

Embracing the Mystery of God

If God is infinite, his nature must exceed our limited-wisdom. The spiritual path of a believer will always push past one seeming paradox to the next. That was the first divine principle I learned as a child, the first time I heard him speak: that God is real, and I didn’t understand.

The greatest obstacle to our intimacy with God is when we cling to our own ideas and reject what he reveals about himself. And God himself says we should both love and fear him.

Every heresy since the time of Jesus has emphasized one truth at the expense of another. Heresies are our refusal to accept the whole counsel of God’s self-revelation; they flourish when we say, “I like to think of God as _____, but I hate to think of him as _____ [fill in the blanks]. What matters is not what we think of God as much as what he thinks of us.

Theologians have a word to describe how to hold two seeming contradictory truths, but G. K. Chesterton just called it mystery. And he said it is only in mystery that we meet the real God:

As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity.

The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them.

His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that.

It is Good to Fear God

Whenever we encounter something bigger than us, we experience a type of fear. When I see the Milky Way on a clear night, or I get a glimpse of a 14,000-foot Colorado mountain, or I see a storm on the ocean, I’m in awe. Awe doesn’t detract from the experience, it enhances it.

To reject fear of God is to make him like Caspar the Friendly Ghost, a nice but pathetic, toothless power. If that god loves me, I’m not particularly stirred. I don’t know if I even care.

But if the fearful God who judged Egypt loves me—the one who controls hurricanes, whose holiness shrivels my pride, and whose love for his people scares my judgmental self—if that God also loves me, I am moved beyond words.

God never says the beginning of wisdom is love of God; he says the beginning of wisdom is fear of God; but when that fear of God meets and kisses his love for us, then (and only then) we meet the real God, the great Lion and Lover.

We need two eyes to know the love of God; one eye fixed on his astonishing, utter holiness, and with our other eye, we see his astonishing love for us.

Sam