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As Your Garden Grows

God's first recorded lesson in spiritual growth is strangely intimate: a series of wistful fatherly questions in the sweeping narrative of Creation.

"Why are you angry?" Yahweh asks Cain, a disgruntled guy who could be my brother, could even be me. "Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?" (Genesis 4:6).

God's questions seem to assume that Cain knows what's right—and that readers countless centuries later will know, too. And yet from my earliest days as a Christian, I've struggled with the story of Cain's failed offering. God's rejection seems so picky. Cain was, after all, offering something to God—"some of the fruits of the soil" (Genesis 4:3). What exactly made his brother Abel's offering—"fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock"—acceptable to Yahweh when Cain's wasn't (Genesis 4:4,5)? What might this story teach us about how to grow in faith and Godlikeness?

To get to that lesson, we have to go past the offering itself, past even the impulse to offer. Past Cain in his grain fields, breaking dirt with some pitiful prehistoric hand tool, past the time the Garden was fresh in memory, back to the essence of planting and nurturing and tilling. Back even to us in our own gardens, drawing our fingers through the dirt to drop seeds—pea, radish, broccoli—and then crumbling more dirt, patting, watering, waiting.

If you've ever had a garden, you know about working and waiting. You know, too, about the delight of harvest. Those first baby peas. Barely filled-out ears of sweet corn. Totally red tomatoes, ripened in the sun. After a winter of canned vegetables and shopworn produce, you gobble them greedily. Those first fruits are precious treasures you share only with your spouse, your children, your dearest friends. The last thing you want to do in those first days of harvest—when the digging and sowing and tending are still fresh in your memory—is offer to anyone but those you love best what you've labored to produce.

Later, when the garden overflows with green beans and cucumbers, and you're sick of preparing them every possible way, you foist your abundance onto friends and colleagues in a great pretense of generosity. You carry grocery bags of overripe vegetables to church for those without gardens to sift through. You visit neighbors you barely know with your arms twisted into cornucopias of false largesse. And although your friends and neighbors feign gratitude, they're no more fooled by that monster zucchini, too woody to cook, than God is by Cain's offering.

What God shows Cain is this: He's interested less in duty or obedience than in that first harvest. If we offer him anything at all, we must do so with the same delight we feel when serving up the season's first peas, nestled in a dainty pink bowl, topped with sweet butter and a sprig of mint. God wants Cain to include him in that delight, to want to share with him, in the exact way Cain would want to share those peas with his family and most beloved friends. Out of heartfelt conviviality. Enthusiasm. Not out of shoulds of any kind, but out of love.

To grow spiritually, we must take to heart God's first lesson. The only right thing, the only offering he'll accept, the only satisfactory return on his fatherly love—indeed, the only return most earthly parents desire from their children—is to be loved just as he loves us. Spontaneously. Earnestly. Jealously. Crazily. With the impatient devotion of a newborn. Or of a new mother in that moment when her baby is first delivered into her arms.

Are you offering God your leftovers? Your frenzy and worry? Mere church attendance? The smug gratitude that accompanies your successes and unearned plenty? Or are you offering him your first fruits with delight?

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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