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