Salvation ... comes from the Lord ... because they take refuge in him. (Psalm 37:39-40)

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Gardening the Soul

Evangelism is commonly thought of as an activity of saving souls.  A conversion experience is wonderful.  God reveals himself to the heart of a person and the person responds by believing in Jesus as Savior.  But what’s next?   Jesus must become Lord (Master) of our life through a journey of discipleship.  The journey involves continuous heart change as we learn to relate to Father God like Jesus did while on earth.  Becoming a follower of Christ looks a little different for each person, but the more radical the transformation, the closer the walk becomes with God.  

Therefore, saving souls also involves gardening souls.  God plants a seed of love in the soil of each of our hearts as a part of our humanity.  A revelation of truth awakens the seed to its surroundings of the soil (conversion experience)  in which the garden filled with plants (our life) can flourish and fulfill its God-given purpose for being.  Being “saved” is not just the opening of the seed into a sprout, but includes the entire life of the plant until harvesting occurs.

The example of a physical garden may help understand.  My wife and I have been growing a vegetable garden each summer for years.  We usually grow things like tomatoes, peppers, turnips, radishes, onions, carrots, beans, melons, squash, lettuce, and potatoes.   Each season of growth brings new revelation of spiritual application, and the fundamentals are always the same.  The soil is prepared, the seed is planted, natural elements such as water and sunlight call forth the sprout, the plant matures into the type of plant imprinted by the seed, fruit (vegetable) grows according to its kind, and the gardener harvests and enjoys the “fruit” fit for harvesting.  

There are numerous environmental  conditions along the way that factor into the productivity of the garden.  Beginning with the soil itself, providing and maintaining the correct balance of nutrients can be a challenge.  For example, some plant varieties tolerate more nitrates and fertilizer elements.  Some like it more sandy than clayish.  The amount of water and sunlight can also affect whether some types of plants grow well or not.  Then there are the weeds.   Oh, the weeds!  Pulling weeds is necessary all through the growth season.  Some types of weeds are more annoying than others.  Bugs are similar.  Some bugs attack the leaves for their own food.  Some attack the roots and stems of the plants.  A gardener has a challenge of figuring out the best environmentally-safe ways to protect the plants from destructive forces like weeds and bugs.  The harvest can also be stolen by birds, deer, ground hogs, rabbits, or other animals trying to grab a quick dinner for themselves.  Extreme or harsh weather conditions (eg. wind, hail, or drought) can also disrupt plant growth and harvest.   

Many spiritual parallels show God’s hand at work in our lives (garden).  God as the Gardener plants the Seed of the gospel of Jesus Christ into the soil of our hearts.  Jesus himself tells a “garden story” of 4 different types of soil receiving the seed (see Matthew 13 and also a previous article Sowing To Harvest ).

 All through the growth season the garden must be watered, weeded, and protected against the intruders like animals, insects, storms, and thieves.  All through our lives God is our Provider and Protector.  God provides our spiritual food and water, and protects us from the enemy’s theft to “kill, steal, and destroy” (John 10:10).  He heals our afflictions (physical health), binds up our wounds (emotional health), liberates us from captive unbelief (mental health), and sets us free from the imprisoning circumstances holding back healthy growth and harvest (Isaiah 61:1).

God also determines our identity.  Just as each kernel of corn produces a corn stalk with an ear of corn, God creates individuals with a unique stamp of gender, ethnicity, and personality.   Corn doesn’t grow on a tomato stalk, and tomatoes do not grow on a corn stalk.  As each seed produces fruit of its own kind, God created diversity into the human race so that the variety add spice to life.  Sometimes a whole garden (field) is planted together for the purpose of harvesting at the same time.  God puts his people together in families and organizations to accomplish his purposes together as one.  

In order for the garden to produce a good crop, it takes a lot of effort on the part of the gardener.  Sometimes sacrifices have to be made to complete the seemingly endless tasks of watering, weeding, protecting, and providing for the best garden conditions.  Here is where this metaphor trips up many people.   They take the work of the garden seriously and try to do all it takes to produce good fruit (behavior).  Tending the garden and producing results as a “good Christian” may include behaviors like loving God, loving others, keeping the ten commandments, sharing the gospel, fulfilling the great commission, resisting evil, praying for one another, and so on.  

Does God call us to do these tasks?  Be careful not to answer too quickly.  The answer to this question, for me, has changed over the years, and it keeps changing.  I now think the answer is, maybe.  A better question might be, “How does God ask us to do these tasks?”  Of course there are “commands” in the Bible, but God does not require us to accomplish them in our own strength and willpower alone, as one extreme would teach commandments.  The other extreme would ignore or replace the commands with their own.  

I believe clarifying ownership will help answer these questions.  We grow up in a broken world and our garden is not in the best of condition.  We realize we need help (Savior) and surrender our life to God.  At conversion, the ownership of the garden changes.  We are no longer the gardener for our own soul.  God becomes the Gardener of our soul.  In business terms, we are no longer running our own business, but working for a new Master.  We remain a partner to carry out some tasks, but we discern and follow the orders of the new Owner.  It becomes a lifelong process of learning our new role.  Our calling is now to cooperate with production, rather than produce.  We yield ourselves to the growth (gardening) process, but responsibility for the results is not on our shoulders.  

Does that sound freeing?  It should because that is what transformation and sanctification is all about.  It is healing to our soul.  It gives us peace and rest because that’s what Jesus said it would do (see Matthew 11:28-29).  The gospel of Jesus is a gospel of being freed (from sin) and being made ever more free (from the burden of sin).   

Well-intentioned preachers often present the message as “Come to Jesus, and change yourself into a person of service to God.”  As I’ve come to see it, a more true message is, “Come to Jesus, and surrender yourself to a lifelong process of change from the inside out, making you more and more fit for service with God.”  

The first message places the emphasis on performance and self-effort and it fosters self-righteousness.  The latter not only recognizes that God is the one who changes hearts, but commits to ongoing change for deeper cleansing.  The former often views storms and struggles as a nuisance, hindrance, or even a sign of unbelief or sinfulness.  The latter sees difficulties as opportunities for God to show himself strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10) and develop us into lasting treasures for his glory.  The former only plants in the garden, but the latter adopts gardening as a way of life.  

My prayer is that each person reading this will invite God to be the Gardener of a lifelong process of soul saving gardening.    

If you are struggling because you were led to believe Jesus would take care of all your problems (but the problems still linger), take hold of your heart and give it to the Master Gardener.  Working through relationships (marriage, family,, or cohorts), health concerns, unemployment, pandemic, and other life challenges are part of the gardening process.  Jesus already accomplished all of the work of the garden.  He invites you to cooperate with him in shepherding your soul into the beautiful garden you were meant to be (Isaiah 61:3).  


Note:  To read more on how this works, also see Pain Evangelism as  Discipleship .  


by Ed Hersh, Blue Rock BnB Healing Ministry

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Guard Your Heart

The wisdom of the Bible is unmatched as a source of refuge and inner strength.  A verse in Proverbs states a very significant key to a healthy life.  “Above all else guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it”  (Proverbs 4:23, NIV).  

The Cornerstone Biblical Commentary says, “Heart is a word that Proverbs uses to describe the entire internal life of a person. It is an internal reflection of the person.”  The heart of a person is the core inner self.  The Hebrew word used in the text is a combination of inclination, disposition, determination, courage, will, intention, attention, consideration, and reason.  The heart determines and reflects values, attitudes, and motivations.  Who we are as a person (identity) is determined by our heart.

Our physical heart pumps our blood to the parts of the body needing to function from the life the blood carries.  So too our soul-heart carries the contents of our inner self to the whole being.  If we eat proper foods and our systems are functioning properly, the blood does it job of nourishing towards health.  If the blood becomes tainted or systems aren’t properly working, our body suffers.  But if the heart is bad, everything falls apart.  A bad heart gives us no chance for good health (physically, mentally, or spiritually speaking).   More on this can be explored in materials by Dr. Caroline Leaf, Dr. Daniel Amen, and Dr. Timothy Jennings, eg. book entitled “The God-Shaped Heart).

Jesus focuses much of his teaching on the heart.  To follow Jesus, we must examine, and respond to him, with our heart.   He uses the illustration of fruit (thoughts, affections, and behaviors) growing on a tree.  “You’ll never find choice fruit hanging on a bad, unhealthy tree. And rotten fruit doesn’t hang on a good, healthy tree.  Every tree will be revealed by the quality of fruit that it produces. Figs or grapes will never be picked off thorn trees.  People are known in this same way. Out of the virtue stored in their hearts, good and upright people will produce good fruit. But out of the evil hidden in their hearts, evil ones will produce what is evil. For the overflow of what has been stored in your heart will be seen by your fruit and will be heard in your words” (Luke 6:43-46; TPT).

Now that we see the significance of our heart (inner person), let’s look at the wisdom of “guarding” spoken of in the Proverbs.  Although defense may be the primary way we see the word “guard,” we can consider offensive connotations as well.  Pollutants make water undrinkable and poisons the blood stream which can shut down our bodily organs.   So too our heart can be poisoned by things like pornography, other addictive things, and people with bad behavior, attitudes, or ideals.  Guarding against bad influencers of our body, mind, soul, and spirit goes a long way to keeping us on track for wholeness as a person.  

Guarding our heart also involves an offensive strategy.  If a glass is half full of contaminated water, guarding against contamination will not make it more drinkable.  We must go on the offense to rid the glass of the bad water and begin replacing it with pure water.  So too our hearts must be intentionally drained of the bad influencers already present, and filled with good influencers.  Another picture of how this works is the refinement process for precious metals.  Purifying requires intentionally applying heat to burn away the impurities so the good qualities shine brighter.  

Psychiatrist Daniel Amen describes our Automatic Negative Thoughts as ANTS.   Amen’s articles and books describe how this acronym came to him after finding an ant infested kitchen in his home.  The infestation was like the brains of his anxiety and depression ridden patients who had one negative thought after another stealing their happiness and contentment in life.  Getting rid of ANTS means we must be actively resistant to complaining, blaming, justifying, making false assumptions, drawing inaccurate conclusions, forming harmful opinions, and allowing bitter, condemning judgments to take root in our hearts.  

The Bible tells us, “Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.  Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation,  now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:1-2).  The best source of “pure spiritual milk” is the Bible.  The more we influence our hearts with God’s Word, the less worldly influences have a chance to take hold.    The Bible (as our “sword”)  is the best offensive weapon we have against the enemy of our soul.  

One more reference important to mention is this,  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”(Philippians 4:6-7).   Peace that only God can give, not human understanding, is the most secure way of guarding our hearts and minds.  Asking God for his peace, and placing our complete trust in his willingness and ability to grant his Peace (through salvation and sanctification in Jesus), is the most sure path to peace.  

Now, activating this truth requires applying it.  Here are some questions to answer for help to begin (or continue) your path to greater peace.   What is Proverbs 4:23 speaking to me in specific situations of my life?   What are the ANTS (automatic negative thoughts) that  need to be exterminated in my life?  What needs to happen to guarantee that consuming more “pure spiritual milk” becomes a reality?   Where might my demands to understand  be getting in the way of trusting God?  In what ways might I be more prone to trying to find peace on my own, rather than asking God for peace?

Blessings of peace!

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Spiritaul Fitness

What images come to mind when we hear the word fitness?  We may think of a gym, exercise, body conditioning, eating healthy foods, thinking clear thoughts, or acting fittingly (appropriately) in emotionally taxing circumstances.  But fitness, as applied to our spiritual condition, has less to do with our human activity, and more to do with surrendering to the transformation (conditioning) God does in our heart.   
Physical fitness is developed by conditioning the body to make its parts stronger.  Spiritual fitness is just the opposite.  It allows God to become stronger within us.  It relinquishes the desire to be strong of our own doing, and allow the Holy Spirit to make us strong from the inside out.  Acknowledging we are powerless to save ourselves in our most wretched human condition is the beginning of spiritual fitness.  Receiving God’s ways of living (relinquishing our own ways), provides the strength to  override our weakness, and is how we become fit (see 2 Corinthians 12:9-10).  
We must not confuse our spiritual condition with spiritual disciplines.  Engaging in activity that attaches the word discipline to Bible reading, meditation, or prayer does not translate to fitness.  I don’t mean to minimize the importance of practicing self-discipline, but the enormity of our need for divine intervention requires discipleship (following after Christ), not discipline of self.  
A book that helps explore practicing inner transformation is Ruth H Barton’s Sacred Rhythms.   She says, “… this structured arrangement of spiritual practices is referred to as “a rule of life.” A rule of life is a way of ordering our life around the values, practices and relationships that keep us open and available to God for the work of spiritual transformation that only God can bring about. Simply put, a rule of life provides structure and space for our growing.”  We must learn and practice the disciplines for posturing our body, mind, and soul to receive spiritual nourishment from God (see 1 Thessalonians 5:23).  However, we cannot confuse spiritual formations with spiritual fitness (presence-based relationship with Father God).  
Spiritual fitness is motivated by our deepest longings for God.  Desiring to intimately know, and be known by, God, produces far more valuable treasure than anything this world has to offer.   A shapely body, big bank account, or powerful position is worthless in comparison to close connection with the God who created us and gives us our identity.  
We are transformed like the caterpillar to butterfly.  The caterpillar is connected to earth by gravity.  It’s perspective is very limited.  The butterfly on the other hand, though held to earth by gravity, is freed by overriding  laws of aerodynamics to explore greater perspectives.  In order for metamorphosis to take place, the caterpillar must cease to exist (as a caterpillar).  It dies as it weaves a cocoon to prepare for transformation.  So too our old assumptions held, conclusions drawn, opinions formed, judgments made, and beliefs obtained, must die and be surrendered to a higher law.  The contents of the cocoon looks like a state of nothingness to the human eye.  But from the hidden place the butterfly emerges.  Without the cocoon, there is no butterfly.
This reminds me of a verse of Scripture the Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians.   Paul is describing the process of putting off an old way of life, and taking on a brand new existence when we choose to follow Christ.  He says, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ, in God” (Colossians 3:2-3).    
God is the one who performs the miracle of transformation.  Our “work” is to cooperate with the process.  As we surrender the old, he creates the new.  This morphing is to  happen on a continual basis.  The creepy crawler, caterpillar, worldly views, get transformed into heavenly, Christ-like, glorious views.   Glory be to God.  In the transformational, cocoon-like conditions of human life, the surface appearance may not be beautiful (and downright ugly sometimes), but the outcomes are worth the struggle.  
As a follower of Christ, asking myself regularly questions like the following will keep on the path to spiritual fitness.  What excess weight (behaviors not aligned with Gods ways as taught in Scripture) do I need to shed?  What false assumptions may I be holding on to, that block my view of God, myself, and other people?  What earth-bound views do I hold that need to be surrendered to God?  What heavenly views does God want me to grab a hold of, and focus on, to upgrade my future?  If I’m having trouble answering these questions, what am I going to do, or who am I going to seek help from, to get answers?  
Blessings, and stay fit!   
by Ed Hersh, Blue Rock BnB Healing Ministry