During a very important conversation Jesus is having with his disciples only a few hours before he is crucified, he drops this bomb:
“Apart from me you can do nothing.”
This doesn’t sound very empowering, doesn’t it? It grates against our modern conceptions of encouragement and positivity.
[tweet “Apart from me you can do nothing. That doesn’t sound very empowering, does it?”]
I find that Jesus does this a lot. He finds ways to confound and frustrate our attempts at figuring out life on our own.
Nothing Wrong With Empowerment, Of Course
The thing is, I do actually appreciate the “empowerment” culture. I think it’s a healthy antidote to the disempowering culture that Christians can tend to create. Its message essentially boils down to, “You’re doing it wrong.”
So it’s not that empowerment is bad. Empowerment is actually what God is seeking to do for us. He wants to share his power with us and form us as trusted and significant partners with him in his work. That’s incredibly empowering to see God in this way!
How Much Nothing Would You Like To Do?
So why does Jesus tell us, “You can’t do anything without me.” Well, because
- We can’t, and
- We CAN do a whole lot of nothing in our own strength.
We are so accustomed to relying on our own intelligence and ability that the only way to really come to a place of relying on God and his empowering grace is for us to repeatedly fail in our attempts to make life “work” on our own terms.
Jesus is telling us here that the only way to actually be empowered for the work is to abide in him. He isn’t the magical guide that gives us advice at crucial junctures along a journey that is primarily ours.
A branch doesn’t occasionally seek wisdom from the vine. No! A branch dwells in the vine, relies on the vine for its very life. A branch can’t really even be a branch without the vine. It quickly becomes a mere kindling, great for starting a fire but not for bearing fruit.
A branch abides in the vine constantly, so the life of the vine can flow constantly into the branch, resulting in abundant fruit. That’s why Jesus seems to repeat this point over and over:
- You can bear fruit only if you abide in me.
- If you don’t abide in me, you won’t bear fruit.
- Apart from me, you can do nothing.
Abiding in Christ isn’t “extra” power for God’s work, it’s the ONLY power for God’s work. If you’re not abiding, you’re not doing God’s work.
[tweet “Abiding in Christ isn’t “extra” power for God’s work, it’s the ONLY power for God’s work.”]
And that’s a big part of our problem. There’s a whole lot of “nothing” we can end up doing apart from Christ before realizing that we really aren’t bearing kingdom fruit. There’s a lot of “work” out there with the name “Christian” on it that isn’t really God’s work. It’s not “fruit that will last,” because it wasn’t empowered by God’s grace, but by human ingenuity and willpower.
That’s why, even though it’s painful in the moment, I’ve come to appreciate Jesus sabotaging my efforts at self-reliance. The truth is that if we learn to abide in Christ, will simply bear fruit as a matter of course. We won’t bring forth real, lasting fruit through herculean effort or ingenious technology, but simply through staying properly connected to the Source.
It’s a bit of a blow to our pride to find this out, actually. We like to take credit for a job well-done, but Jesus is training us to be content with being connected. Ironically, when simply being a branch is enough, we find that our doing becomes much more effective and eternal in scope!
Thank you Ben, this is solid ground to stand on. I need to chew on this a while and let it soak in. I had not seen this before, but as you pointed out we CAN do a whole lot of NOTHING – and the question I ask myself right now is how long will i be content with a lot of nothing, even when I think I am engaged in God’s work? I have found myself powerless of late, and I realize it’s 100% correlated with a lack of abiding. For some insidious reason, the holidays seem to do that to my rhythm! So thank you for realigning my compass!
JDavidChan Thanks for commenting! I know what you mean about the holidays doing the exact opposite of their intended purpose. We had to get very intentional about what we were investing in when we had time off. Blessings!
Dear Ben, your commentary on this passage is appreciated; however, what examples would you give after the statement “there’s a lot of work out there with the name Christian on it that really isn’t God’s work”. Would you name three? When I have examples, I understand what is being presented better. Also, I believe God has given us intelligence and ability, and expects us to use them as a matter of course, as you say, which comes along more easily with maturity. And, failing along the way, however painful that is, is part of the process.