What Gardening Is Teaching Me About Discipleship

What Gardening Is Teaching Me About Discipleship

Much like gardening, discipleship to Jesus requires intentionality, a willingness to get dirty, regular rhythms of work and rest, and a willingness to prune.

It’s officially spring according to my calendar, though you might not know it judging by the temperature outside. It was in the low 30's when I woke up on this chilly morning in early May. Those April showers they talk about? Those were snow showers here in Wisconsin. I have taken my kids winter coats down to the basement to retire them for the summer and later been forced to retrieve them three times now, at least.

In spite of the stubborn weather, there is one thing I did recently that made it feel like spring. I planted seeds with my family for our vegetable garden. My husband and I along with our kids looked through our leftover seed packets from last year and carefully deliberated which ones should make the cut. We got out our seed tray with all the tiny compartments and the handy plastic cover that helps it maintain moisture and started to plant.

(Every year I also take the opportunity to read to the kids the book We Are The Gardeners by Joanna Gaines. If you don’t know this about me I am a big Joanna Gaines fan… don’t judge.)

It occurred to me, though, as we began our yearly undertaking, how gardening can serve as a metaphor for discipleship.

Four Lessons Gardening Is Teaching Me About Discipleship

1. Discipleship requires getting dirty 

You can’t be a gardener if you’re afraid of getting a little dirty. Whether you wear gloves or not, it’s inevitable that at some point you will find that the only way to get that seed exactly where it needs to be is to stick your fingers in that little seed compartment, squish it down, and pack the dirt on top of it.

And similarly, there’s no way to grow as a disciple of Jesus without getting comfortable in the dirt.

Every Monday night I lead a discipleship group with four other women. Recently one of them narrated her discipleship journey as “feeling like a pig in the mud.” One of the core practices we work on in this group is to get real about our “bad news,” or, in other words, we want to be able to name the beliefs that we carry deep down within us that are keeping us from living lives of freedom, peace, and contentment. But doing so can feel a lot like settling into a big pit of mud.

Oftentimes, when someone in our group begins to gain awareness of the bad news in their life, others will jump in to help. Like good friends who mean well, we often want to offer people solutions and “fixes” to cure their problems. We want to rescue them from feeling pain, grief, and sorrow by putting a positive spin on what’s really happening. “Maybe if you tried X next time, it would turn out better.” “I’m sorry you're in that position, but at least X didn’t happen to you.”

We don’t like sitting in the mud. It’s not pretty. It smells. It’s uncomfortable. But one thing I’ve learned about God is that he meets us there. In fact, God doesn’t meet us anywhere but in our messy reality. If we want to grow in our discipleship to Jesus, it is essential that we start by getting real about the ugly stuff that’s going in our lives. We have to get comfortable in the dirt.

2. Discipleship is about intentionality, but not control

I’ll admit, nothing in our garden would survive if it was up to me. I go days if not weeks without even remembering that we have a garden - not great when you have anything that requires regular care. Thankfully my conscientious husband makes it a priority to water our plants, reposition them when they need more sunlight, fix the fence so animals can’t get in, pick the weeds, water some more.

Growing a garden requires intentionality - if you don’t care for your plants they will die. Simple as that.

And similarly, discipleship requires intentionality. It requires tending to.

tend : to apply oneself to the care of : watch over : to cultivate, foster

We tend to our walk with God by reading and meditating on his word, by removing ourselves from the busyness and distractions of the world to spend time in the stillness of nature, by worshiping and communing with others in fellowship, by prayer and fasting. We cultivate a life of faith by engaging in practices that open us to God.

But the purpose of spiritual practices are just that - they open us to God. They don’t guarantee us an outcome.

I discovered something about myself recently. I began to notice that when I really need something from God - an answer, a solution, a cure to a problem - I go to God often. I spend time in silence, prayer, worship, and I await spiritual breakthrough. But I also noticed that when I didn’t need God to do something for me, I wasn’t being as intentional about spending time with God. I still made time for him, but not with the same earnestness as I did in the other seasons. I approached it more as a duty, something to ‘check the box’ of my spiritual life.

Over the past few months I’ve been engaging a variety of books, podcasts, and other resources that slowly transformed my engagement with God - they showed me how these practices are a way to cultivate in us an awareness of God’s presence. I’ve learned that it’s not that God is any less present when we don’t engage them, it’s that we become more attuned to his presence when we do.

Spiritual practices aren’t a means to get God to do something. We don’t gain favor with him by fasting for long periods of time, by praying many times in a day, or by living lives of incredible generosity. God isn’t a means to get what we want out of life, and we don’t get to control when or how God moves.

And yet, at the same time, we don’t grow as disciples if we neglect these practices altogether.

Just as the gardener tends to her plants by daily care and maintenance, a disciple must tend to her walk with Jesus by spending time with him. But in the end it’s not the gardener that makes the plants grow. She doesn’t control the weather, the sun patterns, or the health of the seeds. Nor does the disciple control her discipleship.

We tend to our discipleship by engaging practices that open us up to God and we allow him to grow us. And he will. In his way and in his timing.

3. Discipleship requires persistence

It won’t be a surprise to any parent out there when I tell you that my kids aren’t great at waiting. As soon as we get our seeds planted in the little plastic compartment my 5 year old is asking when it’s going to sprout into a tomato that we can eat for dinner.

Like gardening, discipleship requires slow and steady persistence. We can’t plant and water them and expect to see growth the next day. We must water a little and then wait. And then water again. And then wait again.

And sometimes we go through long periods where it feels like nothing is happening. Where we water and wait, water and wait, water and wait.

Our walk with Jesus will have moments that feel like a lot of effort without a lot of result. There will be seasons where we feel like we’re doing everything we can to grow closer to God and we’re not seeing the change we want to see. I had one of these moments lately. I became aware of some anxiety I was having about a conversation that I needed to have with someone. I brought it before God in prayer, memorized Scripture, reflected on how God might be inviting me to surrender control to him, but I didn’t feel any different inside.

Until one day I did.

One definition I found for persistence was this: the ability to stick with something. I like that definition. During those times when it feels like we’re doing all the things that we’re supposed to but we’re not getting anywhere, we do just that - we stick with it.

And then all of a sudden one day we see new growth. Right when we least expect it. The fruits of our labor were budding underneath the surface even though we couldn’t see it.

4. Discipleship requires pruning

I have a really hard time distinguishing the weeds from the plants. I once picked a whole bunch of dill for a friend only to find out that it was actually grass. Yes, regular old grass. Not dill. 🤦‍♀️

A healthy garden requires regular pruning. A good gardener knows this. A garden that isn’t regularly cleared of weeds and pruned of dead branches will not thrive.

John 15:2 says “[God] cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”

Just as a gardener prunes branches that die so that the plant can thrive, God prunes us by removing things from our lives that hinder our growth and flourishing. I imagine that if plants could talk they would tell us that pruning doesn’t feel very good when it’s happening, that it’s likely quite painful. But the pain of pruning leads to new growth, and it creates the opportunity for new beauty to come forth that wouldn’t otherwise be able to.

Pruning also isn’t a one-time event. Many plants, like roses, fruit trees, and hydrangeas, require regular pruning in order to remove dead or diseased wood, help the plant maintain its shape, and to encourage new growth. Discipleship, likewise, is a lifelong process. God works in us continually to refine us and prepare us for a new season.

Don’t Give Up

More often than not my plans for our garden don’t go exactly as I’d hoped. The zucchinis I planted don’t sprout, the rabbits eat the kale, and the tomatoes turn bad before I can pick them all. But each year I learn something new, and I’m always amazed at the process. Just when I’m tempted to give up because it appears that nothing is happening underneath the surface, a tiny sprout emerges. Right in the thick of the dirt, between all the watering and waiting, a sign of new life appears. Right when I least expect it.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What is one area of “dirt” in your life where God might be wanting to meet you?
  2. What is one spiritual practice you could engage in this week to open up to and become aware of God’s presence?
  3. What would it look like to persist in that for a longer period of time?
  4. Is there anything in your life that is hindering your discipleship, something that God might want to prune in you?

Katie Ignatowski

Executive Director
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