By Debbonnaire Kovacs, posted Feb. 24, 2016
One of the suggested passages for this week is the parable of the unproductive fig tree. I have decided to share an excerpt from my book Gardens of the Soul, originally published by Pacific Press, now out of print, and soon to be revised and re-published by me. This is from the first chapter, and has been slightly edited.
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In the secret places of your heart, deep inside where no one else, not even the closest people you love the most can ever enter, there is a locked garden. According to Song of Solomon 4:12-15, it is a rock garden, with a spring at its heart. Within its silent walls a rich variety of tropical delights may thrive, from pomegranates and choice fruits to cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh, and all the finest spices. Jesus says to you, “You are a garden spring, a well of fresh water, and streams flowing from Lebanon.” (4:15) He knocks at your locked gate and calls, “Open to me, my darling!” (5:2) And he longs for you to answer, “May my beloved come into his garden and eat its choicest fruits!” (4:16)
But you know what really grows in that garden. You are the one who has to live there. What if there are no choice fruits? What if your garden feels more like a blackened ruin? What if the sand and thistles we’ve been talking about are your biggest crop?
Angela first heard the concept of using garden imagery to represent the inner self from her psychiatrist. On the outside, she was the woman who had everything. She was married to a wealthy and upcoming businessman, drove the most expensive cars, wore the costliest clothes, and sent her children to top-notch private schools. Yet Angela, for no reason that she could understand, grew more and more miserable. She found herself drinking more, snapping at her husband, slapping her children. In desperation, she went to a psychiatrist who was well known among her friends as being a spiritual leader. When he asked her to think of her heart as a garden and tell him what she saw there, Angela began to cry.
“It’s just a ruin,” she sobbed. “Nothing is there—nothing alive!”
The psychiatrist promised he could help her. He told her she needed a more spiritual life, and over the next few weeks, recommended such things as hypnosis, channeling, and meditation with the help of what he called a spirit guide. Angela tried everything he suggested.
At first it seemed to work. Angela had a new focus, a new interest in her life. Then one day, as she was telling a friend of her experiences, the friend asked, “So what grows in the garden now?”
Angela stared at her friend for a moment. And then the tears began again. “There’s still nothing. Sometimes I think about killing myself.”
In … Isaiah 5 and Matthew 21, do you notice what happens to God’s garden when it has any other keepers but the Owner, who loves it? It’s even more graphic in Jeremiah 12:10, 11. “Many shepherds [shepherds, no less!] have ruined My vineyard, they have trampled down My field; they have made My pleasant field a desolate wilderness. It has been made a desolation, desolate, it mourns before Me.” Have you ever felt that way? Do you mourn before him? Are you afraid to let him in? If so, it may be that, like Angela, you have been allowing other gardeners, with their brilliantly colored, deceptive seed catalogs and promises of great harvests, to wreak havoc in your secret garden.
Or maybe you have been trying to keep up with all the weeding, tilling, and what-have-you on your own. Pete was a deeply spiritual Christian. He yearned to be the man God wanted him to be. One night in his bedroom, he made a list of all the worst sins he could think of in his life. Then he asked God for help and went to work to eliminate them. Bad temper was first on the list. Whenever Pete was tempted to shout at someone, he bit his tongue and counted to ten. Or to fifty. If he thought of it, he would say a Bible verse. Soon, Pete could go for a whole week without losing his temper. Out loud, anyway. He crossed temper off his list and went to work on laziness.
He set his alarm for one hour earlier in the morning. This gave him time to read his daily devotional book and work out before getting ready for work. In the evenings, he got busy on all the jobs around the house that he had been putting off. After two weeks of this regimen, his wife said plaintively that she appreciated his hard work, but wished he had more time for her. Pete blew his stack. He actually called his wife a name! He was shocked and dismayed, and immediately apologized. But that night Pete heard his wife, whom he loved deeply, stifling tears. Getting out of bed, he drew a red circle around temper on his list and added “Be more loving to Linda.” He stayed up for hours, pacing, berating himself, and pleading with God to forgive him.
The next morning Pete overslept and was late to work.
Pete was ready to give up. He felt as if the harder he tried, the more out of control everything was. And all he wanted was to do the right thing. Where, he wondered angrily, was God?
Pete didn’t know that the Master Gardener had counsel for him. In Isaiah 17:10, 11, God warns, “For you have forgotten the God of your salvation and have not remembered the rock of your refuge. Therefore you plant delightful plants and set them with vine slips of a strange god. In the day that you plant it you carefully fence it in, and in the morning you bring your seed to blossom; but the harvest will be a heap in a day of sickliness and incurable pain.”
Have you, like Pete, been working desperately to make your garden a place where Jesus will love to visit? Are you shocked to discover that your carefully tended righteousness is in God’s eyes “vine slips of a strange god”? After all, the plants you have planted are delightful ones, and certainly ones God wants in your garden. But doing the work yourself is Satan’s favorite false doctrine for Christians. If you and Pete do not want to end with your life in a shambles, you must learn to let God do His own gardening.
Perhaps, unlike these people, you have just been letting things go wild, trusting them to grow the way they should. James is like that. He thinks he’s a pretty good guy. He has his faults, but doesn’t everybody? All this heartburning, in his opinion, is just a waste of time. Live and let live, that’s his motto. He doesn’t even look around his garden much. If he did, he’d find that instead of the wildflower meadow he imagines, he has a barren desert or a rank jungle it would take a machete to hack through.
The problem is, as we learned in the parable of the fig tree, God expects his trees to bear fruit. If you “just stand there,” so to speak, refusing to let God in to do his work, or ignoring what he tries to do, you are in very scary territory. At least Angela and Pete realize they need help. They are in a good position to hear and recognize God’s voice when through someone—a friend, a pastor, a song—God says to them, “I’m still knocking. Please let me in. I’ve got my hoe with me.” James, believing he is in need of nothing, is not even listening, and God may have to resort to more drastic measures to get his attention.
And if James refuses to listen? Well, Jesus added a frightening postscript to that fig tree parable during the last week of his earthly life. He was on his way back to Jerusalem the day after the triumphal entry. He was feeling hungry that morning, and was happy to see a fig tree. Fig trees produce their fruit before their leaves, so this one looked very promising—the image of a beautiful, healthy fig tree. But Jesus looked in vain for fruit. The tree looked great on the outside, but its promise was empty. Seeing an opportunity to impress a spiritual lesson on the disciples he would leave so soon, Jesus said, “ ‘No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you.’ And at once the fig tree withered.” Matthew 21:19.
But don’t worry. Have you been noticing a lot of upheaval and—well, not to put too fine a name to it…manure in your life lately? That’s God, digging and fertilizing. Please don’t ignore him!
January. Everything is cold, still, silent. Nothing seems to be alive. It’s hard to believe anything will ever live again. But look through the warm, lighted windows of God’s potting shed. There he is, doing the same thing every other gardener is this time of year. He’s poring over his seed catalogs and graph paper, eyes lit with anticipation. He’s dreaming about you. Listen! Hear him whispering? “And _____________ will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever s/he does, s/he prospers.” Psalm 1:3