“Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15:2)
Yesterday my daughter got her first vaccination needle. It’s a hard thing for a parent to watch helplessly while a person I barely know inflicts pain on my child. Under normal circumstances, anyone hurting my daughters is likely to get a fist in the mouth. I may be a pastor and promoter of turn the other cheek, but no one hurts my girls without getting a response from me. But yesterday I had to stand back and do nothing.
What I said to my infant daughter (as if she understood even a word of it) is that the needle may hurt, but it’s better than polio. Looking back today, I thought of Jesus’ promise that God would prune even the fruitful Christians- a spiritual “trimming” to allow us to grow stronger and sere better. Pruning involves cutting off branches which hamper growth. In the spiritual sense, we have to have spiritually dead or weak bits amputated that they can grow back better than before. It’s not a pleasant process. Most of us would prefer to avoid pain. I’m sure my daughter would have preferred to avoid being jabbed in the leg. Occasionally these momentary pains can prevent future pain, and stimulate growth and health in the future.
So how does it work in the spiritual sense? Do we go looking for ways to inflict trauma on ourselves? Do we turn to ascetic practices of self-denial for spiritual growth? Not really. What Jesus is getting at is the removal of those things in our lives that hamper growth, not mutilation. Many throughout human history have used various passages to promote physical self abuse for a spiritual benefit. Origen even performed a self castration (allegedly).
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right handcauses you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30)
But Jesus often uses hyperbole. He isn’t suggesting self-mutilation is a good way to avoid sin (mutilation is of course problematic in Mosaic law), but that we should take extreme measures to keep sin away from us. What we need to “cut off” is not body parts, but the dark things that linger in our hearts;
10And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 12Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up.14Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”15But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” 16And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.19For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness,slander. 20 These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” (Matthew 15:10-20)
Sin can’t be prevented by the removal of body parts or even by the fleeing from situations (that can certainly help). Instead we need to put to death the depraved parts of our spiritual selves. Seeing a woman lustfully is not caused by a depraved eye. It is a condition of the spiritual state of things. It is spiritual death and resurrection which is needed.
5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing thatyou have put off the old self with its practices 10and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
This sort of spiritual pruning is not a pleasant process. It can take a lifetime to destroy these things from our lives. Similar to a vaccination, this painful process of spiritual pruning will allow for a more abundant life.