Failure or Pruning?

One of the more unexpected discoveries I have made as I experience life at the discipleship periphery is the frequency and intensity of discouragement that all of us feel. Being a disciple and extending discipleship to others “out here” can be a heavy burden to bear. Most of us go through nagging seasons of fear and doubt about what we do and why we do it, hoping that we are not failures or, even worse, frauds.

However, I also find that the discouragement which discipleship entrepreneurs experience is hidden from me when I first meet them because it is often buried beneath the weight of the glory of God which they faithfully, and sometimes brilliantly, carry up and down their specific experience of the discipleship periphery. They are not faking it until they make it or posing as periphery veterans. I have found that these remarkable people are almost always doing better than they think, but their hearts and minds are clouded by inner turmoil and pain. 

The struggle at the discipleship periphery is painful because disciples who live and serve there are usually idealistic and energetic in their quest to make a difference in the world, and it hurts if the results of their endeavors do not live up to expectations. They are desperate to matter, but the specter of being an irrelevant failure begins to haunt them. These disciples struggle to articulate what they feel, but it often comes down to believing that they are neither faithful disciples nor fruitful disciple-makers. The pain is real, but it is not caused by actually being a failure, although that may be how things appear. 

The pain and turmoil are often caused by misinterpreting God’s pruning as their failing. The liberating truth is that every fruitful disciple will be pruned. We aren’t being punished by a demanding God because we are failing. We are being pruned by a wise Father because we are bearing fruit and he wants us to be even more fruitful. Pruning is an evocative Bible word from John 15. Pruning happens to us as the Father speaks into the deep heart of the fruitful disciple. The heart is where the Holy Spirit has established a presence at the intersection of their reason, emotion and volition. This creates a sacred, inner space in which Christ can dwell within the consciousness of the disciple. The Father speaks to the disciples within this space, and he does so in the midst of their experiences of being discipleship entrepreneurs who live at the discipleship periphery. It can feel like a harsh rebuke, but it isn’t that. The fruitful disciple is being pruned by the voice of the Father.

When he prunes these disciples, he essentially points out areas that need to be trimmed from their thinking about being disciples or cut away from their practice of sharing discipleship with others. This is always accompanied by a call to abide in Christ because he abides in us. This call to abide can be a renewed revelation of fierce loyalty of Christ to you, his long standing and faithful friendship or intimate love. Christ never leaves us alone. 

Being pruned by the Father can be an intense, confusing, threatening experience because there will be contrasting narratives within the life of the disciple. The stories God tells will bring clarity about the past and the present which leads to hope for a better future for the disciples. The alternative narrative which the disciple hears brings confusion about the past and the present with no hope for a better future. For example, the Father says, “you are faithful and have been fruitful. I want you to be more fruitful, so please address these issues. My Son is with you, so stay close to him” However, the disciple also hears, “you are a failure because you have issues. You have been rejected by God”

When salt and light disciples struggle with these conflicting narratives about being fruitful, they need to focus on abiding in Christ. Abiding in Christ is about living in an intimate relationship with Jesus: “abide in me and I will abide in you.” This relationship has a liberated character rather than being characterized by anxiety about meeting God’s expectations. People who abide in Christ know that he has met all of God’s expectations, and he has done so for them! They come to understand that they may simply rest in him, abide him, while they listen to God. Abiding in Christ is also supported by the practice of widely known spiritual disciplines such as worship, prayer, confession and study. These disciplines can be practiced individually and within a community of disciples. They are not an end in themselves but choices which faithful disciples make to be well positioned to hear from God. 

As we abide in Christ, the voice of the Father will become clearer and more distinct. Inspiring action steps will also emerge before the disciple as they listen to God. At the same time, the lies that they hear will recede into background noise until they vanish. In this way, the Father will transform the lie of failure into the truth of pruning, and the disciples will be able to see the fruit that is growing in them and through them.

Discipleship entrepreneurs who operate on the discipleship periphery will experience cycles of pruning and abiding throughout their life in which they listen to God and learn to bear fruit, more fruit and much fruit. Are you willing to consider the possibility that you have been misinterpreting your circumstances as failure instead of pruning? Is it possible that you are doing better than you think?

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