Remain in me, and I will remain in you. . . . apart from me, you can do nothing. . . . If you obey my commands, you will remain in [Me]
For years, I considered the above-quoted scripture as the most depressing passage of the Bible ever. During my regular Bible-reading, I would happen upon this passage, consider the prospect of remaining in Jesus, and conclude it was an impossible task — at least for me. After all, how was I suppose to obey Jesus’ commands, just as He had his Father’s? How was I suppose to be that good? Maybe one day I would achieve that level of perfection, but certainly not now.
But it isn’t as though I did not try. Every good Christian knows that to obey Jesus is to be like Him. He is our example. The mantra “What Would Jesus Do?” rang through my ears long before it became fashionable to say it out loud. In my early days, I was constantly trying to be like Jesus. If only I could be like him, I could remain in his love. That was the goal.
Problem was, Jesus always seemed one step beyond myself: Beyond my own character, and certainly beyond my own ability. It was easy to be a nicer person (most days). It was also easy to make a list and execute a plan of going about doing good. But as I looked at the life of Jesus as shown in the Bible, that hardly represented who He was — and certainly what it would mean to be like Him.
Jesus was a revolutionary force of opposition against the status quo of His day. His life was more marked by great courage than good conduct. He opposed the authorities of His day, and willingly endured the rejection of His peers. I, on the other hand, was sensitive to the smallest embarrassment, and afraid of all personal conflict. Worse still, the idea of having to talk about Jesus terrified me. What Would Jesus Do — the real Jesus, that is — was not working for me at all.
Now I must admit to you: I do not relish calling this scripture, or any scripture, the most depressing scripture ever. But being confronted with a command you cannot overcome has a curious effect on the soul. It has a way of haunting you, as though it matters little how much else one might read or hear, there is in the back of your mind this one thing that the Universe has against you. So it was with this scripture. Apart from me you can do nothing had some rather far-reaching consequences. No matter what else I was or did, I knew down deep I was one who could do nothing. And since I could do nothing, I had a hard time believing I was something.
Till one day, things changed.
As I sat one morning during prayer, I heard God whisper to me “Remaining in Me is only a breath away.”
My ears perked. How could this be? It sounded too good to be true. But certain developments leading up to that day suggested it was not.
For starters, there was the growing suspicion that something was not quite right about my understanding of this whole idea of remaining in Jesus. For one, Jesus said one of the benefits of remaining is that we would bear much fruit. Now it seems this “fruit” included much more than what we churchgoers popularly know as the “fruit of the Spirit,” for what Jesus said was, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit.”
Jesus did not say, “Ask for better character and it will be given to you.” No, He said “Ask for anything, and it will be given to you.” The fruit then Jesus was referring to extends beyond character traits. It applies to everything, including capability. Just as Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing,” He was saying, “In me, you can do anything.” To be found in Him is to be like Him.
But being like Him is exactly what I needed in order to obey His commands in the first place. How was I expected to have beforehand the very thing remaining was supposed to produce? That did not quite make sense.
Then there was the question of the Law. If you have been a Christian for any time, you probably know that “the Law” refers to God’s holy commandments. In short, it is all that God requires of mankind. But as Christians, we are not “under the Law.” We are not obligated to obey it. The Bible is rather clear on this. We could not keep it in the first place, in fact, and it was only killing us. This is the whole reason that Jesus came: To die for us, so that we might not only be forgiven of our transgression of the Law but also be freed from the Law, which God nailed to the Cross.
But if this were true, why was Jesus now requiring me to obey the very thing He had rescued me from? For I saw little difference between obeying the Law and being like Jesus. Jesus’ exact words were, “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” To be like the one who perfectly fulfilled the Law is to fulfill the Law itself. So how could Jesus now require what was impossible for me to fulfill in the first place?
Mind you, I was not asking this in the context of getting to Heaven; that was settled in my heart already, just as it has been in the church for centuries. Rather, what I cared about was the life that I lived here on earth, in the here and now. My most depressing scripture might have brow-beaten me for years, but I still held out hope for the promise it held out to me. I wanted to know what it meant to remain in His love.
And in that too-good-to-be-true moment, as I pondered the possibility that remaining in Jesus may not be far off beyond my reach after all, but only a breath away, the light finally went on: When Jesus said, “If you obey my commands, just as I obey my Father’s commands,” He did not mean “just as perfectly as I obeyed my Father’s commands.” He meant, “in the same manner that I obeyed.” And what manner was that? Jesus made that clear: “I only do what I see the Father doing.” To remain in Him, Jesus was not requiring that we obey the Law; He was requiring that we obey His Voice. That in each moment, we would not ask, “What would Jesus do?” but rather, “Jesus, what are you doing?”
And suddenly, a whole new world opened up to me. And my most depressing scripture became my most cherished.