Jesse and I have been frequenting nurseries of late. It seems many others during this pandemic are out and about, using this time as an opportunity to pick out plants and flowers and take them home.
Small plots in back and front yards selected, ground tilled, holes dug and then filled with fertilizer in preparation for the various flora and vegetation that will soon grow under the hot Texas sun. Depending on the use, these will grow into food or for the simple pleasure of watching flowers in bloom.
There is a word to describe this delicate process of planting and gardening, carefully tending to flowers, vegetables – in our plots or pots – cutting here, snipping there, watering just enough, and watching them grow to the fullest. This process of the active and passive, work and rest, the tilling and the waiting, we call this to cultivate: to foster growth.
And it mirrors our walk with God in nearly every way.
I used to think that the more “spiritual” I became, the less emotionally affected by pain and sorrows I would be. Sickness, cancer, death, would be met by a strange, otherworldly me, unaffected by sorrows. I thought that the more knowledge I had about the Bible, the more like Christ I would become. But the more I read and studied, the more my pride swelled at the thought that I knew more than others did about God’s word.
I didn’t know what it meant to cultivate. I didn’t know what it meant to get my hands dirty by following the words of Christ I read on the page; by walking alongside my fellow Christians, hearing their own struggles and confessing my own weaknesses and sins.
Read the instructions all you want, but in order to be a gardener, you must put your hands to the soil. Words read must translate to actions taken.
I thought I had found the way to spiritual maturity by focusing solely on the mind. I thought Christ was there for me in the same way my teachers were. They were somebody who conveyed the information I needed to make my way in society. The Christ of my vainglorious imagination was not present in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Christ used a different way to teach. He didn’t simply show up for class, then step back into the shadows once the lecture was over. Though Christ walked on water, he did not walk on air. He trudged through the mud, got hungry and sick, and needed places to rest his head; but most of all, he bled, cried, and died.
His life on earth was not simply spent living from sermon to sermon; but through cultivating relationships, Christ gave of himself to those who needed more than words to understand what it would one day mean to “count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” That knowledge is not simply acquired by taking diligent notes on Sunday morning. Nor is it gained by focusing solely on working and doing and serving. No, Christ’s life is a demand to our whole being – heart, soul, mind and strength. To know and to love, to think and to do, to renew our minds in order for our actions to follow. It must be learned through the habits of the heart.
That’s what it means to cultivate. We work and rest. We till the soil and water the plants, and pray God gives the growth. We work out our salvation, Paul says, in fear and in trembling. It is a difficult task. An impossible one if left on our own. But Paul continues by reminding us why we work in fear and trembling, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
That should make us fear and tremble.
The God who created and sustains the universe, actively wills and works in us for his good pleasure. That is cause both for joy and humility. The work is too difficult, impossible even, to be done on our own, by our own will and effort. When left on our own, the only thing we can ever hope to earn is death (Romans 3:23).
Christ’s dialogue with the rich young ruler teaches us what it looks like to work out our salvation, knowing it is God working and willing in us. In Mark 10, the young ruler steps into the scene to ask Christ the same question we all have probably asked. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What must we do to be saved? The perennial question of our lives.
Christ responds by reminding the rich young ruler of the commands: “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.” The young man knew these. He even replied, touting that “all these I have kept from my youth.”
Here Christ makes the demand. “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
He moved from the head knowledge of salvation to the heart. The ruler knew what he had to do in order to inherit the kingdom. Which was why Mark tells us he went away sorrowful. Selling all and following Christ is not something we can or naturally want to do. The disciples knew that. So they make the logical reply, “Who then can be saved?”
They are right. If Christ demands our whole being, who indeed can be saved? It’s impossible! Christ agrees. “With man it is impossible,” he replied to the distraught disciples. “But not with God. For all things are possible with God.”
As in cultivating a garden, no matter how hard we work out our salvation, the growth is wholly dependent upon God. Till the soil all you want. Water every day. But plants and flowers only grow by God’s command. Again, this is cause for humility.
As Pastor David said in his sermon over Philippians 2:1-12, “Humility is the spiritual fertilizer of our lives.” Our spiritual lives cannot grow and bear fruit while we pack the soil with the salt of our pride. Fertilizer is the base stuff of the earth. Compost. Peat. Manure. But from that grows the most resplendent of rose bushes, and the healthiest fruit-bearing tree.
This work of cultivating our growth in the Lord can only be found in a community centered in the gospel. There is nothing more humiliating to our pride than to confess our sins to another. To acknowledge weakness is to admit our inability and to remind ourselves we are not autonomous. We depend on each other. No one can successfully work and keep the garden of their own soul alone.
We need each other to help till the soil, to pull out the weeds, trim where necessary, and to water abundantly. But more importantly, we need God, who wills and works in and through us all. He united us together in Christ in order that we may grow up in him.
Deacon at C3