Spiritual Pruning by Elisabeth Elliot
All the passages below are taken from Elisabeth Elliot’s book “A Path Through Suffering.” It was published in 1990.
It is when the death of winter has done its work that the sun can draw out in each plant its own individuality, and make its existence full and fragrant. Spiritual growth means something more than the sweeping away of the old leaves of sin—it means the life of the Lord Jesus developed in us.
IN GOD’S MANAGEMENT OF THE AFFAIRS OF MEN suffering is never senseless. We can find plenty of good sense in the metaphor of pruning found in the Gospel of John.
When Jesus was about to say farewell to His disciples, He was straightforward with them about what they should expect when He was gone. They would face much suffering. They would be hated as He had been. They would be persecuted. People would follow their teaching as little as they had followed His. They would be banned from the synagogues and even killed by those who believed that killing them was a special service to God.
Jesus explained His reason for giving them all this bad news: it was so that their faith in Him would not be shaken. Faith in anything less would certainly collapse, but a strong and settled trust in who He is would not be altered by anything that might happen. It was for them to continue His work, represent Him on earth, be the very bearers of the divine life when the Word Himself was taken away.
And how were they to do this? They would have to dwell in Him—abide, remain, make their home in, stay—sharing His life, drawing His strength. The secret was explained to them not theoretically but analogically. Their relationship to Him was that of branches to a vine. The life of the vine is the life of the branch. It has no other life. As long as the branch remains in the vine it is nourished. Cut off, it dies.
“Apart from Me you can do nothing.” In the spiritual realm there is no other life but Christ’s. In Him we live. Without Him we die.
Vines must be pruned. This looks like a cruel business. Perfectly good branches have to be lopped off in order for better branches to develop. It is a necessary business, for only the well-pruned vine bears the best fruit. The life of the vine is strengthened in one part by another part’s being cut away. The rank growth has to go and then the sun reaches places it could not reach before. Pruning increases yield.
So also in the spiritual life. We may pray a prayer such as Lancelot Andrewes prayed in the seventeenth century: “0 direct my life towards Thy commandments, hallow my soul, purify my body, correct my thoughts, cleanse my desires, soul and body, mind and spirit, heart and reins. Renew me thoroughly, 0 Lord, for if Thou wilt Thou canst” (Lancelot Andrewes and His Private Devotions).
I think again of Terri. I don’t suppose she was making use of Andrewes’s prayer, but she certainly wanted exactly what he wanted. And God heard her and began the process of directing this teenage girl towards His commandments. Some old twigs and branches had to go. When we ask for the hallowing of our souls, the correction of our thoughts, and all the rest, we are asking that the life of the Lord Jesus flow freely in us and develop His graces in us. Ought we then to be surprised that spiritual pruning will be required? When it happens, we need to submit humbly, trusting the skill of the Gardener who prunes us with tenderness.
A pastor’s wife asked, “When one witnesses a work he has poured his life into ‘go up in flames’ (especially if he is not culpable), is it the work of Satan or the hand of God?”
I looked where I always look for clues—to the Bible, and I thought of Moses’ repeated efforts to persuade Pharaoh to let the people go, of Jeremiah’s pleas for repentance, of the good king Josiah’s reforms, rewarded in the end by his being slain by a pagan king. I thought of the beloved Son, despised and rejected. “The world, though it owed its being to him, did not recognize him. He entered his own realm, and his own would not receive him” (John 1:10-11 NEB).
Satan was certainly at work in every case, but he was not the only one at work. When a man or woman belongs to God (when the branch dwells in the Vine) it is the hand of God at work when the pruning comes, regardless of the second causes. A life’s work—what to us is a perfectly good branch, perhaps the only “important” branch—may be cut off. The loss seems a terrible thing, a useless waste. But whose work was it? This is a question I have had to ask a number of times about work which I had thought of as my vocation, my life’s work, apparently thrown on the brushpile. Was it not work given by God in the first place, then given back to Him day by day? Jesus said God is the Gardener, the One who takes care of the vines. The hand of the Gardener holds the knife. It is His glory that is at stake when the best grapes are produced, so we need not think He has something personal against us, or has left us wholly to the mercy of His enemy Satan. He is always and forever for us.
So we let go our hold of things we held very dear. Things that once were counted as gain we now count as loss, and out of what seems emptiness come beauty and richness. “Those who receive … God’s grace, and his gift of righteousness, live and reign through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:17). The branches “live and reign” through the Vine.
But oh, the pain of that pruning process! No matter how thoroughly we understand its necessity, it comes hard to human flesh and blood. Yet the hardness is softened (believe me, it is) as we concentrate on the truth the Lord has given us:
“If you dwell in me and my words dwell in you, ask what you will, and you shall have it. This is my Father’s glory, that you may bear fruit in plenty and so be my disciples…. If you heed my commands, you will dwell in my love, as I have heeded my Father’s commands and dwell in his love.” Pruning leads to joy. “I have spoken thus to you, so that my joy may be in you, and your joy complete” (John 15:7-11 NEB).
There are paradoxes, of course, which we cannot plumb. Analogies break down. But we can always look at the experiences of our lives in the light of the life of our Lord Jesus, who “learned obedience,” not by the things He enjoyed, but by the things He suffered. Was there suffering in His life? A great deal. Losses? All kinds. Was it His glory that was at stake? No, His single aim was to glorify His Father, and He did just that, every moment of His life. The work He did was the work He saw His Father do. The words He spoke were the words His Father had given Him. The purpose of His coming was to fulfill the will of the Father. His death was because He loved the Father. There was no thought of Himself.
He accepted suffering. He willingly laid down His life. He poured out His very soul unto death. Shall not we, His servants, tread the same pathway?
To “abide in the Vine” is to live our lives in Christ, living each event—a mother’s wise refusal of a teenager’s desire, or a life’s work going up in flames—as Christ lived, in the peace of the Father’s will. Did the earthly life of our Lord appear to be a thundering success? Would the statistics of souls won, crowds made into faithful disciples, sermons heeded, commands obeyed, be impressive? Hardly. In the end they all forsook Him and fled. Yet Peter, one who miserably denied Him at the last, repented with tears and later saw clearly what had taken place: “This man, who was put into your power by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed up and murdered…. But God would not allow the bitter pains of death to hold him. He raised him to life again—and indeed there was nothing by which death could hold such a man” (Acts 2:23-24, JBP).
There is nothing by which death can hold any of His faithful servants, either. Settle it, once for all—we can never lose what we have offered to Christ. We live and die in Him, and there is always the resurrection. (35-39)