In the Gospels, we see that Jesus sustains his inner life and public ministry by adopting a rhythm of withdrawing from the demands of the crowds and engaging with their needs. Moreover, he models this pattern of behaviour for his disciples.
In John 15, Jesus gives his disciples an insight into the healthy rhythm of the Spirit-led life, using the organic illustration of the vine. At the end of each grape harvest, vine shoots were pruned back to the main stock, which grew around the exposed cut, surrounding and hiding the shoot. From there, the shoot would grow outwards come the next season, bearing fruit in season. Where shoots were not pruned after harvest, they continued to grow outward, with diminishing fruit yield in following seasons, as more of the vine’s energy went into sustaining the shoot growth leaving less for fruit.
The rhythm of our life describes a pendulum swing, back and forth, from abiding, through growth to bearing fruit; then back again, through pruning to abiding.
It is important that we learn to notice, and submit to, the leading beat; the signs that notify us of the start of each new season. One of the most insidious errors for individual Christians and for communities of Christians is a misunderstanding of what it means to say that the Kingdom of God is always expanding. While this is true at a macro-level, at the micro-level growth and fruitfulness is sustained through pruning and abiding. Where we resist that natural spiritual process – attempting the hold the pendulum up at the fruit-bearing end of the swing, as it were - we resist the weight of God’s momentum in our lives. Eventually, something is going to give…
The following example illustrates what I mean:
Abide: Over the summer, you go away to a Christian festival/conference, and/or you make the time to read some books on spiritual growth, as expressions of withdrawing from the day-to-day pressures, getting away with Jesus. And as you do so, you find that through these things he gives you a fresh insight that increases your faith for healing.
Grow: You go home, and want to put this new understanding in to practice. You take, perhaps even make, opportunities to pray with people in need of healing. Other people around you are drawn to what you are trying to do. Perhaps you lead a community, and you set aside one evening a week specifically to pray for healing, and people start coming along.
Bear fruit: The more you pray, the more you see signs of prayer being effective. Slowly at first, there is an increasing volume of testimonies of receiving healing, testimonies of being used by God to bring his healing to bear.
Pruning: After a while, you notice that you have reached a level at which healing seems to plateau off: certain conditions are regularly healed, others see no response to prayer. And less people are coming to pray and be prayed for: life is busy, after all…
And this is a key turning-point. These are little indicators that God wants to draw us back, to submit to his pruning process so that, in the intimate abiding-time, he can impart the next piece of fresh insight he has for us.
I’m not talking about those times of resistance, where we need to press on through: you’ll get those, and especially at the early stages of doing something new, to discourage us if that is possible. How do you know when resistance comes from God and when it comes from the accuser? That takes discernment, gets easier with practice; significantly, it has something to do with whether the whispers are ‘for us’ or ‘against us.’
Abide: Let go of the activity; be brave enough to stop, trusting that this is not the failure of hopes and dreams God has put in your heart, but for their long-term fuller fulfilment. And find the ways that help you pursue God, come away with him, hear his voice…