When struggles lead to abiding

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.
John 15:3

In her book Being Brave, my friend Kelly Johnson recounts a trip she and her husband took to Napa Valley, California. They visited a winery, where they sampled the products and learned about the process of winemaking. Kelly recounts: “[The hostess] said these words: ‘We want the vines to struggle. Vines that struggle produce better fruit.’ She went on to explain that when the vines struggle to get water and nutrients from the soil, they form stronger, deeper roots. These stronger, deeper roots bring forth fruit that is richer, fuller, bigger, and juicier.”

Did you catch that? The struggle causes stronger roots to form, which results in better fruit. I don’t know about you, but that sounds a lot like abiding to me.

But here’s the important part: the struggles are external—they are going to come whether we like them or not, we can’t control them. The abiding is internal—it’s our choice to make.

Struggles will come

Almost a decade ago, I sat at dinner with a friend and wept. Postpartum depression wouldn’t relent, my husband’s business was keeping him busy far beyond the “normal” 40-hour work week, and my infant son had just been diagnosed with Down syndrome. I was struggling but not abiding… and I knew it. “I feel like I am standing at the base of a terrifying mountain,” I told her, “and I know once I’m on the other side, I’ll be better spiritually—deeper and more joyful and all of that. But right now, I don’t care. I don’t want to be deep and joyful. I just want to be shallow and happy.”

It sounds funny now, but in the moment, I meant it. I was willing to sacrifice the depth if it meant skipping the struggle. But, friends, that is not how life works. We don’t get to skip the struggle. “In this world you will have tribulation,” Jesus tells his disciples in John 16:33 (emphasis added). That part is out of our control. How we respond, though, is up to us. We can cower in fear, we can face it in our own power, or we can abide in Christ. I have tried all three… and only one has resulted in victory and life.

How not to face our battles

For months I chose to allow depression to envelope me. I felt certain I would never truly be happy again. Then one day my 5-year-old daughter curled up next to me and said, “I feel bad for you, Mommy. It seems like having kids is really hard.” Even now, ten years later, it hurts my heart to type those words. I thought my refusal to face the struggle was only hurting myself. Once I saw how my response was impacting the ones I loved, I knew I needed to make a change.

But I still didn’t abide. I didn’t turn to God, but turned inward. I wanted to use my own strength and power to muscle through. I started throwing myself into therapies for my son, making special snacks for my older kids, going on “field trips,” everything I was certain a good mom would do. Instead of getting better, though, I ended up overwhelmed, exhausted, stressed, and even more depressed. I was like a branch trying to produce fruit without accepting nutrients from the vine—it just didn’t make sense. And it didn’t work.

What abiding looks like

Finally I turned to the One whose shoulders are big enough to carry all of my burdens: the Lord. I handed Him my hurt, my anger, and my fears, and I let Him help me climb that mountain. And I was right: on the other side, I found joy, contentment, and a deeper, richer faith.

So how exactly do we abide? How do we use our struggles to help us grow deeper roots and better fruit? Here are a few ways to get started:

  • Read the Bible daily. If you don’t know where to start, the Psalms are a fantastic way to abide. I try to read five psalms each day—one first thing in the morning, and the rest sprinkled throughout the day to help keep my mind set on Him. But don’t overwhelm yourself. Just start. And as you develop new habits, you can add more.
  • Pray. It sounds simplistic, but it’s so important to talk to God. Spend time praising Him, humble your heart before Him in confession, then lay your burdens at His feet. And if you don’t know where to start with prayer, go back to the first thing I said: Read the Psalms. But don’t just read them, pray them.
  • Take every thought captive. Doubts, frustrations, and despair will enter our minds in the midst of trials, but it is our job to turn around and give those back to God. Paul tells us:
    For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)

    Our struggles are not just earthly trials but spiritual warfare. When our minds tell us our situation is hopeless, we must grab hold of that thought and take it back to God’s Word. We must combat lies with truth.

Those three steps are simple, but they aren’t easy. They take intention and perseverance and the power of the Holy Spirit. But when we do, our roots grow deeper and stronger, and we produce beautiful fruit.

Joey, my sweet son with Down syndrome, will be ten next month. Postpartum depression is far behind me, as is the despair that came with an unexpected diagnosis. In fact, life with Joey is more joyful than I ever imagined possible. Still, life hasn’t been worry-free. We’ve had our struggles, both related to his diagnosis and completely separate. But the lessons I learned in abiding have shown me that Jesus truly is the source of all strength and joy. He is good and trustworthy.

May we always abide in Him.