"Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown" -- Luke 8:7-8.
Jesus's explanation of the parable: "The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life's worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop" -- Luke 8:14-15.
The big questions: How do disciples of Jesus keep the destructive plants from taking over out spiritual gardens? How can disciples of Jesus continue to produce healthy plants that bear fruit?
Weed your garden via your relationship with our Father
Rototill the garden by making your "soil" vulnerable to brothers and sisters who can help you
Use the church as a black plastic sheet to keep sins and temptations at bay
The right fertilization and nutrition
The right stuff
The "stinky" stuff
The right light
Weed your garden:
I don't know very many gardeners who like weeding a garden. It's a tedious and arduous chore. But it's one that must be done in order to produce the desired fruits of our labor. In my 27 years of being a disciple of Christ, I've found that the only successful method of keeping my soil (heart and life) from getting overrun by weeds (temptations and sin) is to be open with my heavenly Father at the gut level about everything. When I'm cognizant of this, my prayers are filled with self-inspection and a sincere and strong desire to yank out anything that might be trying to get into my life and mess it up. I must do this or my old self starts to creep in and lead me astray. Well, seeing as how that is the opposite of what I want, I weed!
Rototill the garden by making your "soil" vulnerable:
Another necessity I've found to keep sin and temptation at bay is by "tilling" my heart and life. When I rototill my garden at home, I do it for a few of reasons. I want to keep the soil soft (a spiritual principle).
I want to till good compost into the soil. And I want to expose the roots of any weeds (as well as any grubs) to the sun to kill them off (or, in the case of the grubs, let the skunks eat them).
In life, I need to be willing to expose what's underneath the surface in order to allow my brothers and sisters to see the destructive things trying to grow there. If I am unwilling to do that, they cannot help me root out the destructive things in my life. If I go for a while without being vulnerable, then my heart will harden and sin will take root and begin choking out the godly things in my life. Consequently, tilling becomes a challenging process. But if I stay vulnerable, then I'll always have a soft heart and no sin will be too big to deal with.
Use the church as a black plastic sheet to keep sins and temptations at bay:
So, what's the black plastic for? In my garden, I keep the destructive plants from cropping up by covering the garden with a large sheet of black plastic. This keeps the weeds from becoming a problem because they can't get enough sunlight to grow. As a matter of fact, the only places I have to weed are where there are holes or where there is no black plastic sheeting at all. The interesting, and spiritual, truth is that I have holes in the plastic to let the garden plants grow up through the plastic. Unfortunately, weeds can find their way up through those holes and intertwine with the garden plants and their roots.
Just like my garden soil will never be totally free of the seeds and roots of destructive plants, my heart will never be totally free of sin and temptation. There will always be sin in my life and I've got to do all I can to keep sin from growing like weeds in my heart and life. The church is the "black plastic" of my life. I am convinced that life is all about relationships, and that the more meaningful and deep relationships I have with my brothers and sisters, the more of my "garden" is covered because there are more people in my life helping me to keep what might be trying to crop up and choke out my fruitfulness from growing.
The right fertilization and nutrition:
First, a confession: This is an area of gardening that I neglect and about which am extremely lazy. And I'm sorry. But I'm already thinking of how I can be more motivated to do it properly.
Second, this next segment is not an all-encompassing tutorial on individual plant growth. It is strictly for the sake of conceptualizing the spiritual principle being applied. For a more complete understanding, consult the gardening professionals.
Let me also preface this segment by saying that, in every situation in life, the Lord is enough for any of us when we need to produce a crop or fertilize our spiritual soil. So for those of us who might find ourselves stuck on a deserted island with only the Lord to be our support and strength, this next segment is not an excuse for why we could not resist sinning. But, barring that kind of island situation, the Lord, in his infinite wisdom, provides for us a beautiful answer to the human tendency to need physical beings in our lives to help us tend our spiritual gardens successfully. And his answer is the church! So yes, the Lord is enough. And we also have our brothers and sisters.
The right stuff:
In the garden, different plants have different needs. To be sure, all plants need at least some basic nutrients to be healthy, but some plants need more of one and less of another, based on the crop that is bring produced and what stage the plant is in its growth. If you want a productive lettuce garden, you would most likely not go with a straight 10-10-10 (nitrogen/phosphorus/potassium, respectively) fertilizer. You might choose a 10-5-5 to give it a heavier dose of nitrogen because nitrogen encourages leaf growth. Now, a 10-5-5 would do nicely in the early stages of growing tomatoes. But once the plants begin producing flowers, you would actually want to discourage leaf-growth and encourage flower and fruit growth. To do that, you would switch to a straight 10-10-10 to increase the amount of phosphorus and potassium; both of which assist in flowering and fruiting.
Now, if we think about the spiritual plants of our own lives, the same principle can be applied. For example, if someone is seriously struggling with a sin and wants to repent and become more like Christ, then perhaps that person needs to get a dose of spiritual nitrogen to get the plant going. The "nitrogen" would be a strong disciple who knows the Scriptures and doesn't pull any punches in order to encourage the repentant soul's growth process. However, once the spiritual "leaves" are healthy and the "plant" is well on its way and ready to produce fruit, then the repentant soul can even out the nutrients and surround himself with loving, supportive spiritually-minded brothers and sisters who will act as the phosphorous and potassium to help ensure that fruit can result from the previous efforts to get the plant strong.
Sometimes repentance is extremely difficult. Perhaps a person who is stuck in sin understands the need for repentance but, at the soul level, isn't particularly eager to go for it. (Have you been there?) This would be akin to there being established weeds as well as a serious lack of nutrition on the soil making growth impossible. There are a couple of gardening analogies that can be made here regarding how to become productive again.
One analogy is that a person's "soil" is actually starting out with an infestation of weeds and a lack of nutrients in the soil and because it has never been spiritually fertilized. In this instance, the soil is being revealed for what it truly is: unproductive and useless for producing a crop of anything good. Typically, this would be the case with a non-Christian who is just coming around to the truth of just how dead in, and enslaved to, sin he or she is. This person needs some serious weeding and an injection of fertilizer in a big way.
Another analogy is when there used to be nutrients in the soil but it has all been used up without being replaced. The truth is, every garden crop takes and uses precious nutrients from the soil while depositing other nutrients back in. Over time, the soil will become depleted (or, at best, imbalanced having an abundance of one nutrient) and will no longer be able to produce healthy crops. Compare that to a brother or sister who has been working hard for the Lord for a while but slowly gets tired and begins slacking off. After a while, this person will be spiritually imbalanced. Something good and productive was being done, but after a while, we all fall into the trap of relying on our own strength for a time. This happens to me all the time! Here's what I mean.
Over the last month or so, I have realized that I have this need to have some kind of project or event to focus on and put my energies into. I might be planning a men's getaway. I might be writing a play or song. I might be focused on the annual foster care Christmas party. I might be writing a book. I might be focused on this that or the other thing. One thing is for sure; I get antsy if I don't have a project to occupy my mind. The trouble is, I am apt to fall into the trap of focusing on the project so much that other areas of my spirituality begin to take a hit because I'm not giving them enough of my focus.
Eventually, my spiritual soil becomes imbalanced because I've sapped many of the necessary nutrients from my soil and it can no longer support healthy spiritual growth. As a result, weeds and pests begin to grow back (because, frankly, they can grow in the worst of soils!). Now, because I've got the "black plastic" of the church around me, it is less likely that this will go unnoticed. A brother might say, "Hey Jeff. I notice you've got this here imbalance in your life. And I see a weed trying to grow up over here."
The "stinky" stuff:
Sometimes a person can go too long without noticing that there is a lack of nutrients and an abundance of weeds growing back (due to a lack of strong and deep relationships; both with God and with others). In this case, sin can take hold and really make it difficult to root out. In such cases as these, there needs some serious weeding and an injection of fertilizer in a big way. This is when you might need to break out the "stinky" stuff: the manure. Ah...the sweet barnyard aroma! Truth be told, manure is a fantastic fertilizer and gives your plants a boost.
Here is a word of caution about using manure, though. Fresh (or raw) manure, if applied incorrectly, can actually cause more harm than good. It can kill seeds outright or burn an existing plant killing it as well. It has an overpowering aroma that can be quite offensive. This being the case, we should rarely, if ever, have someone who is too young or immature to be the main source of fertilizer for a soul in need of repentance. Youth without wisdom can bring with it a "sons of thunder" attitude that scorches those that are in need of repentance.
But aged and matured manure that has been in the heat for an extended period of time will be a much more healthy fertilizer to add to your soil. It's had time to mature into something useful. Yes, it can still stink a bit. But at least you know it's a healthy smell. Likewise, the disciple who has been through some heat and is aged and matured will more likely to be able to nurture health and growth in a "bruised reed." True, the initial meeting may stink a bit, but it will be productive. After some time, the stink goes away (or at least it becomes less noticeable) and our soil is refreshed and ready to produce!
I empty my compost bin into my gardens twice per year. Once in the spring, just before planting season, and once in the late fall, just after I close up the gardens for the winter. It never ceases to amaze me how my compost bin fills up over a six-month period. But every day, we put a little bit of scrap in there and watch it grow. When it comes to composting, it's all about adding small amounts every day to build up larger supply of nutrient-rich, messy goo. Knowing that this messy goo will eventually become useful fertilizer for my garden keeps me from slacking off and being lazy about putting vegetation into the composter.
This brings me back to my earlier point about how we can deplete our spiritual soils. This segment is all about how we really can keep our spiritual soil rich even while we are putting a lot of energy into a specific effort to accomplish something for the Lord. Many disciples understand what I'm talking about when I say that it's easy to get so focused on a large project that we neglect other areas of our Christian walk. We may be so focused on some project or event that we are trying to do for the Lord that it dominates our conversations and time. Perhaps we are in such "go-mode" that we push into the back of our consciences things like distractions, temptations, sins, or what have you. We see them trying to infiltrate our lives but we ignore them because we don't want to the take time to deal with them because we're focused on something else. At this point, our spiritual soil is becoming imbalanced and is soon going to be in danger of being unproductive. So how do we avoid this? Composting!
In the same way we add, little by little to our compost bins every day, we need to continually do the "little" things that help keep things like distractions, temptations, sins at bay. If we stay in confession with the Lord and with others daily, if we continue to give the Holy Spirit free reign of our hearts daily, if we share our faith daily, if we continue to shepherd our brothers and sisters in prayer and in person, then it's as if we are daily adding a bit of nutrient-rich vegetation to our compost bins. The event or project may not allow us to do as much as we could normally, but at least when we find that we've been distracted and our spiritual lives become imbalanced; we're ready with a healthy dose of compost that will bring us back in balance. Not doing this, however, just might result in the need to break out the "stinky" stuff.
The right light
All plants need light. But some need more than others in order to survive or thrive. I have a flower bed that is in full light from sunrise to sunset. And I have a shade garden for flowers that only need a couple of hours of light every day. Putting double impatiens in full sun light would kill them. And putting my morning glories in a shade garden will cause them to have a struggling existence, at best. No; the right light for the right plant is best.
We all know that disciples of Christ must live in the light. And living in the full light of Christ is an absolute necessity. We can and must be free to tell him everything. But what about outside of our prayer lives? Should we just go blabbing our every sin to every soul, throwing caution to the wind? I don't think so. I'm convinced that there is a "right light" for different types of scenarios.
Sometimes, it is just fine and productive to bring something that is in your heart out in the open in full view of everyone. It can be healthy and rejuvenating and can even benefit the church. Perhaps you let your emotions get the best of you in a conversation and you sinned in your speech. Or found that laziness had crept into your life. Or found that you were so distracted by a project or event that you were working on that you realized your spiritual soil had become imbalanced. Or hadn't gone deep with the Lord in a while.
In most cases, publicly being vulnerable about these kinds of things will be a good thing. It will enable the vhurch to be a "black plastic" that can help you keep these things under control. And it will benefit a couple of disciples who might also be struggling with similar issues and give them the boost they need to get it in the open themselves. In these cases, full light is usually a good thing.
However, there are times when full light would be an ungood thing. If there is major, unconfessed sin in your life that needs to be unearthed and brought out into the light, using it as a communion message, in my opinion, would not be best. Some might be inspired by your vulnerability and humility. But others would surely struggle. It would be better to keep these kinds of things in the shade garden by sitting with some mature brothers or sisters and some of your besties where the issue can be dealt with wisely. I'm convinced that this is the right light for nurturing this kind of plant. Wisdom should be applied.
So those are most of my thoughts on spiritual gardening. I hope this encourages the reader (and the writer!) to continually put into practice the things that will promote healthy, sustainable and fruitful spiritual growth. Let's all be the black plastic (or even the aged manure) that, if we're humble and in touch, all know we need and want. And God bless our gardens!