For years, I tried to make myself a better Christian by signing up for more Bible studies or taking seminars. But it wasn't until I took a lesson from my garden that I realized I was trying to make myself grow instead of letting God do the work. Here are some spiritual lessons I found lurking in my backyard flower bed.
Cultivate What's Right for Your Soil
How many times have I thrown myself into a worthy project that spread its roots and choked the life out of me? I'm slowly learning that just because something's a "flower" doesn't mean it's meant for my garden.
In Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul teaches that each person has different spiritual gifts, such as teaching, serving, encouragement, administration, healing, and miracles. These special, God-given abilities equip you to perform certain tasks better than someone else.
If your gift is administration but you keep taking teaching assignments because "flowers of teaching" look so good in someone else's life, you're in for frustration. Not only will teaching not grow well in your soil, your true garden of administration will be too neglected to produce substantial fruit. Just because a teaching job is available doesn't mean you need to plant it in your garden.
Don't Be Afraid of Pruning
My azalea bush was struggling. Colorless leaves hung on limp branches with sparse flowers. I tenderly cut back every branch, assuring myself how lopping off lifeless branches would pave the way for new flowers next spring.
Suddenly, I realized how lovingly and gingerly God removes old branches from my life so I can sprout new growth. I wasn't punishing the azalea because it hadn't yielded enough flowers; I was doing everything I could to help it grow because I'm fond of the little bush and want it to do well.
My friend Terri was in love with Max and intended to marry him. Terri had never been happier. Because Max wasn't a Christian, Terri and I prayed for him daily, asking God to draw him in. But when Max abruptly ended the relationship, Terri was devastated. How could God let this happen? Was he punishing her for falling in love with someone who wasn't a Christian?
On the contrary, God was trimming Max out of Terri's life so she'd be free to grow. It's because God loves Terri that he freed her to later marry Brian, a godly man who encourages rather than hinders her spiritual development.
God doesn't prune to vent anger. Instead, he trims our life to help us improve because he loves us and wants to perfect us. "God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it" (Heb. 12:10-11).
Weed Every Day
If I weeded every day, it would take ten minutes. But when I say, "Those weeds aren't so bad. I'll get them tomorrow," I wind up spending an entire afternoon on my knees in the flower bed.
When Nehemiah set out to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, he first repaired the city gates, including the Gate of Dung where the people threw away their garbage every day. Establish right now your practice of getting rid of the weeds every day by recognizing the sins you've already committed and confessing them to God, who "is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins" (1 John 1:9).
Realize Fertilizer Helps Us Grow
Christians quote Romans 8:28 so carelessly, it's almost become a cliche: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." But, cliches aside, the skillful hands of God can coax rich fruit out of a garden buried in the smelly fertilizer of disaster.
Several years ago I suffered clinical depression when an important relationship blew apart with the force of an explosion. I stopped eating, cried uncontrollably, and rarely slept. Never had I known the debilitating hopelessness and worthlessness that came with depression. In desperation, I began seeing a Christian counselor.
Today, I thank God for that disaster, because he used it to change my life. The counselor and I tackled misconceptions about God, myself, and my faith I'd carried most of my life. As a result, I found a relationship with God I'd only dreamed of.
God didn't desire me to be part of an ill-chosen relationship just so he could change me. But in his grace, he used that desperate situation—a whole truckload of fertilizer—to nurture growth in me that might not have happened otherwise.
Water When a Drought Comes
Last year, when a lack of rain made hearty flowers shrivel into sad-looking sticks, my weeds flourished. Likewise, when I get into a spiritually dry place, I wither while my weeds—be they bad habits, sorry attitudes, or a blatant disregard for God's direction—grow like, well, weeds. We all have seasons when our walk with God isn't as fresh as it has been. That's normal. But we can keep a dry spell from becoming a drought with regular prayer, Bible reading, and meaningful relationships with other Christians.
Ironically, it's during the dry spells we're most tempted to stop reading the Bible or praying. But that's when a garden needs water more than ever! Put yourself in a position to receive encouragement by soaking up the rain God's already given you—his Word, his Spirit, his communion, and his people.
Let God Be the Gardener
Often I try to give plants room to breathe only to accidentally pull them up with the weeds. Sometimes when I try to give azaleas more of the acid-rich plant food they love, I spill liquid on the geraniums, stunting if not killing them.
That's the kind of gardener I am, well-meaning but full of flaws. But God is the perfect gardener.
God doesn't wonder how to care for us; he created us and calls us by name (Isa. 43:1). God never leaves a flower bed half-weeded, but finishes the good work he started in us (Phil. 1:6). God waters us when we're thirsty (John 4:14) and feeds us when we're hungry (John 6:35). God gives us the faith to fight off the pests that would eat our fruit and stunt our growth (Eph. 6:16). When we fail to take advantage of his pesticides, he even restores what the locusts have eaten (Joel 2:25). God protects us as his own children with a blanketing mulch of adoption (1 John 3:1), and covers us with the prayers of Jesus on our behalf (Rom. 8:34).
In John 15:1, Jesus says he's the true vine and God's the gardener. According to John 15:5, we're the branches the gardener's grafted onto the true vine. Our only responsibility is to stay put (John 15:5-7) and respond to the gardener. He'll till the ground, prune the old growth, send the rain and, ultimately, inhale the sweet aroma of the flowers. We'll cling to the true vine and grow.
As John 15:4-5 says, "Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me … Apart from me, you can do nothing."
How much simpler and richer life would be if we'd stop trying to create our own rain and plant our own seeds, and cling instead to the true vine and its only gardener with all our heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37)!
Susan M. Smith is a freelance writer living in Kentucky.
Copyright © 1997 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.