My dad used to say that most people only get enough of God to be miserable. The longer I live, the more I am convinced he’s right. If you only think of God as a meddlesome deity who demands that you follow his rules to live in his good graces, you’re probably one of those people. If the thought of having God with you during the day causes your stomach to churn with feelings of failure and inadequacy, you’re probably one of those. And if your Christian experience is nothing more than following a set of rituals, rules, and obligations that you think makes him happy, then you’re also probably one of those people.
Most people didn’t start out that way. They will tell you of their early days of faith when God first captured their hearts. At the beginning, they knew they were loved and they began each day with fresh excitement and anticipation. Soon, others began to teach them what it meant to be a good Christian, and they began the long, slow descent into the rules and regulations of a religion called Christianity. The religion eventually erased their joy. They became content merely to plod along, unconsciously becoming obedient to human obligations instead of faithful to Jesus. This is not the life Jesus offered his followers.
On the night before he went to the cross he told them that his desire for them was “my joy might be in them and that their joy might be full.” That doesn’t sound like laboring under the onerous demands of religious practice. Jesus showed them that his Father was the most endearing personality in the universe and that he loved them more than anyone else on the planet. He invited them into a relationship that would fill them with unknown depths of joy and lead them to completely fulfilled and fruitful lives.
Jesus didn’t come to inaugurate a new religion complete with rituals, principles, and obligations that only serve to wear us out. I’m convinced he came for quite the opposite reason. He came to fill up the space in the human spirit that chases after religious ritual in order to satiate guilt. He wanted to set people free. He did not take his disciples to the temple to teach them this lesson. He took them to the vineyard.
What a strange night it had been! As Jesus served the Passover meal he made ominous comments about the bread being his broken body and the wine his spilled blood. He said that before the morning sunrise one of them would betray him, one of them would deny him, and the rest of them would abandon him. He told them not to be afraid and warned them that he was going somewhere they could not go. Judas fled the room for reasons none of them understood. They left the safe confines of that upper room and headed through the darkness into the Garden of Gethsemane. Suddenly Jesus took the conversation in an unforeseen direction.
I am the true vine.
Eyebrows must have popped up as they looked incredulously at one another. Vines? Why is he talking about vines? Perhaps Jesus had spotted a small stand of vines in the garden. I can imagine him walking over to a grapevine, affectionately taking one of the canes in his hand. He might even have squatted down near its trunk, inviting his disciples to gather around him as he launched into one of the more tender metaphors of his ministry—one he reserved for his closest friends.
He compared himself to a vine, his disciples to branches, and his Father to a gardener. He spoke of the seasons through which his Father would care for them, producing the most amazing fruit. Why was he telling them this story? “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”
What an unlikely group for such an incredible promise! Take a look at the men sitting around that grapevine. Which of these eleven men deserved it? Four years earlier, which would you have chosen to dine with a king, much less the Creator of the universe? None of these men had been to state dinners at Herod’s palace, and none were likely to be invited to one in the future. They weren’t outcasts necessarily, but most were nondescript people who you would pass on the street and not give a second thought to. He found some of them on the docks, frustrated fishermen who had worked all night and come up empty. One he found in a tax office, and another
was sitting beneath a fig tree.
Who would have thought such a promise would be given to people such as these? Certainly their friends wouldn’t have, or the Pharisees. Cultures only reward a sliver of people they consider special, and it usually comes down to those with the right talents, backgrounds, breaks, or achievements. These men, however, were ordinary people who demonstrated the same weaknesses we do—anger, jealousy, greed, and incredible thick-headedness—-and Jesus extended to them the amazing invitation to absolute joy.
He paused in that small vineyard on the way to the olive grove in Gethsemane to teach these men—and through them all of us—-how to embrace joy at a far deeper level than their circumstances would ever allow. Joy is not mere happiness—-that temporal feeling of satisfaction resulting only from favorable circumstances. This is a joy that springs from the deepest part of your soul with a knowing that he is with you and his purpose is being fulfilled even in the most difficult times.
Discovering joy is the heart of the lesson of the vineyard. You may seem as unlikely a candidate as the eleven men who surrounded Jesus in that garden, and unless you are convinced that the same offer is yours, you will never pursue it with the fervency necessary to apprehend it.
I’ve met many people who couldn’t imagine that such a treasure could be theirs. Through the hollow glare in their pain-filled eyes they all ask the same questions: “What hope do I have of ever knowing joy? Can God help me find the same fulfillment in Christ that you have?” Some were brought to that point through years of abuse or abandonment, others through the brokenness of sin or after years of disappointed spiritual pursuit.
One such person came to me recently. Everyone who had ever been close to Judy, from her birth parents to her adopted parents, had rejected her. She was a real-life Cinderella, but without the carriage and glass slipper. She believed in God, but believed that God had made her only to help expose the sins of others; her personal pain mattered not a whit to him. She reached this conclusion only after her many pleas for healing had seemingly gone unanswered. Everything she tried had failed, and she was left to the bitter throes of loneliness and bulimia.
Was there hope for her? And just as importantly, is there hope for you? You’ve tried to find a vital friendship with Jesus any number of times, but your experience, like Judy’s, may never have lived up to the promise. Let me assure you at the outset that the promises made in the vineyard are as certain for you as the sun rising tomorrow. God has no favorites; he loves all his children equally. Jesus offered the promise of joy not only to the eleven in the garden that evening, but also to rich young rulers, hardened Pharisees, lonely beggars, and brazen prostitutes. Not all took his offer, but those who did never expressed disappointment.
You need to let go of the past with all its unanswered questions and give yourself a fresh start. It is a process and it will take time as God untwists your distorted thoughts and shines light into your dark places. It will challenge you, but you don’t need to shrink back from him in guilt or unworthiness.
His touch is tender and his love is certain. He did not come to condemn you for the places you got stuck, but to rescue you from them and set you in his glory. All you have to do is keep coming to him with the simple request that he reveal himself to you. There is no brokenness he cannot mend, no pain he cannot heal, and no person he does not invite to the fullness of his life. He desires an intimate friendship with you, and he wants to help you engage in a conversation with him that gives wisdom and comfort to your heart.
That’s why he told the story of the vineyard to a group of people about to face the greatest trial of their young lives.
This is Chapter 1 of Wayne’s new book, In Season: Embracing the Father’s Process for Fruitfulness. Copyright 2011 by Wayne Jacobsen and used by permission. Available from Lifestream.org