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.
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.
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.