Spiritual Growth Is Not an Accident
From Gospel Translations
We have a small garden at our home. Usually we enjoy looking at it through our kitchen window in the summer. But we haven’t enjoyed it much lately because among the perennials and annuals we’ve planted, a fair amount of weeds are growing. Why? Because I haven’t tended the garden for a number of weeks. Why? Because I’ve been busy doing other things and neglected our garden.
Perhaps my neglect has been a dereliction of duty — putting lesser priorities ahead of our garden. Perhaps my neglect has been the result of choosing not to be derelict in more important duties. Either way, our garden is reminding me that what a gardener does or doesn’t do really matters.
Our Work Matters
If a gardener wants certain flowers or shrubs or grass or trees to grow in his garden, he must actually cultivate the ground and plant them. But that’s just the beginning. He then must persistently and diligently work to nurture and protect what he’s planted from drought, weeds, pestilence, and pesky critters (like my hole-digging dog).
This even holds true for a Calvinist gardener. If I believe it doesn’t really matter how (or if) I do my gardener’s work — because God will make sure every garden he ordains to exist will grow and flourish — then I hold an errant understanding of how God’s sovereignty and my responsibility work.
When the apostle Paul rightly said that “God gave the growth” to the church plant in the garden at Corinth, he fully believed his work of planting, and Apollos’s work of watering, were the necessary means of that God-given growth (1 Corinthians 3:6). Paul knew he didn’t create the “seed”; he was entrusted with it. Apollos knew he didn’t create the “water”; he was entrusted with it. Both knew they didn’t create the “sun” or “soil” or other environmental factors necessary for the “plant’s” growth. And yet they both worked as though their labors were vital to the survival of the “plant,” because their labors were vital. If the seed wasn’t planted, the plant wouldn’t grow. If the plant wasn’t watered, the plant would die.
Our “gardening” labors being necessary to the germination and growth of “plants” in the gardens of God do not detract from God’s sovereign jurisdiction over all things. This is how he has sovereignly ordered our roles in the gardens he gives us to tend. He gifts us with the incredibly gracious dignity of real responsibility — meaning, what we choose to do or not do affects real outcomes in our gardens.
And yet God does not mean for us to be crushed under the weight of fear lest we fail in our responsibilities. Instead, he promises to supply us all we need to do our gardening work if we learn to live like plants.
Gardeners Like Plants
In the kingdom, just like all Christians are sheep (John 10:27) and yet some are called to the work of shepherding (1 Peter 5:2), all Christians are plants, and yet we’re also called to the work of gardening. Now as plants, this is how God intends for us to live:
Blessed is the man . . . [whose] delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1:1–3)
Notice what is vital to the flourishing of the “tree”: the “tree’s” meditating frequently on God’s word to nourish faith. If that condition is not met, the tree’s roots won’t tap into the stream, and the tree should not expect to yield fruit in its season or have healthy leaves. Jesus essentially says the same thing in this text:
“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. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4–5)
Notice what is vital to the flourishing of the “branch”: the “branch’s” continual attachment to the vine. If that condition is not met, the branch will be unable to bear fruit and will wither (John 15:6).
When it comes to us, as “plants” (trees or branches), we see the same design of our sovereign God: what we do, or don’t do, really matters. How precisely our real responsibility works with God’s ultimate sovereignty is not a mystery God means for us to solve. It’s a truth he means for us to trust. The important thing we need to know is that if we draw from the stream or from the vine, we will have all we need to tend the gardens God gives us.
How Do Your Gardens Grow?
We are all “plants,” and we are all “gardeners.” Gardening is, after all, the original job God gave to man when he “put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Like Adam and Eve, God has given us “gardens” to tend, and he expects us to work and keep them. And the work we do really matters to the condition of the gardens.
What gardens has he given you? And as the quite contrary Mary was asked in the nursery rhyme, “How do your gardens grow?” What have you planted? For a plant only comes forth from a planted seed. How are you nurturing what’s been planted? For gardening requires persistent, diligent work.
Do you know which are your primary gardens and which are your secondary gardens? Are your primary gardens receiving your primary attention? You likely cannot care well for every garden you wish to grow. At times, the needs of your primary gardens will require you to neglect some secondary gardens for a season, and other secondary gardens altogether. For God promises his stream-fed trees and abiding vines sufficient grace for every good gardening work he gives them to do (2 Corinthians 9:8), but not every gardening work that appeals to them or that he has assigned to someone else.
The little garden outside our kitchen window is a secondary garden currently neglected due to time-consuming needs in more important “gardens.” I hope to give it attention soon, but for now, it must wait. And while it waits, it’s reminding me that when it comes to any of my gardens, what I do and don’t do really matters.