I was so excited to send the photo I’d just taken to my daughter.
Just three days before, these flowers were freebies at the local garden center. They were wilted and straggly, with droopy, dead and shriveled up blossoms and overgrown rootballs. I wish I’d taken a “before” picture so you could see how hopeless they looked. Still, Joy begged me to take some home.
After nearly 25 years of home ownership, which has featured overgrown gardens and disappearing perennials, I have had to face the stark reality: Some people effortlessly keep a yard beautiful and neat, and others of us are meant to be foils to make the HGTV gurus look good and lessen the guilt for the rest of America’s homeowners. My mom has a green thumb. My daughter loves to garden. I have containers on my deck.
Agriculture, in particular, the plant kingdom, provides analogies in abundance in the Bible, understandably because of the nature of the people groups to whom it was originally addressed and the world they lived in. It helps to know a little bit about the behaviors of plants and those who grow them to discern the truths behind the metaphors and similes in Scripture. Thankfully, even container planting comes with minimal insight, even if it is just watering, shade, and bloom care. Here is one:
“All of life’s troubles just need a little sunshine, a little rain . . . and deadheading.”
I texted that message to my daughter after sending her the photo above.
I’ll let you get your eyebrow under control there. I’m sure it reached peak disbelief zone. And rightly so. But hear me out. Here’s how it started:
I cast my eye over the array of pathetic posies in 4-inch pots, selected a half dozen, and brought them home. They sat for a day before I could tend to them. Wilted and bedraggled, thirsting for water and hungering for sunlight, roots in a tumble and thwarting growth, these plants were meant for beauty, and instead they were dumpster bound—free to whoever would care to try to revive them.
Why don’t they just seek out the water and sunshine they need? is a fair inquiry. Why stay in those too-small pots?
Because, the little voice in my heart says, it’s a fact of life that we inevitably get to that place where what we need to thrive can only come from outside ourselves, from the nurturing, revitalizing ministrations of the Grower, and that only comes in his good timing. The sign of a pure faith, says Spurgeon, is that “it waits upon him as the flowers wait upon the dew.”
I filled a deep pot with rich potting soil, then gently popped the plants out of their square plastic containers, careful not to tear too many of the roots that snaked out from the drainage holes. I arranged the four daisy varieties together and began filling in the dirt, tapping down, filling in, tapping down, filling in. Like the nudging the Lord does to me—tap, tap, tap—balanced with overflowing goodness from his Word—fill, fill, fill—life-rich, soul-satisfying, heart-transforming.
I watered them well. Thirsty stems were already beginning to stand taller in the afternoon sunshine. Then I proceeded to pluck off the blossom of every flower and cut each stalk back to the leaf line—a process known as deadheading (I did learn something from my mom.). It was necessary. The ability of the plant to achieve the purpose I had for it depended upon it. It needed to be done so that it would thrive.
Those withered blossoms may have only been perky and bright for anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks, but in that time, they had begun to develop seeds. Reproduction is the natural focus of a plant, but it’s not always the best focus. As the one given stewardship of this little corner of God’s garden, I knew there was no need for new plants—there usually isn’t in a container of annuals. With their focus on new seeds, the plants were diverting precious energy away from new growth which would manifest in the form of new buds. The job for these plants is to flower, not to reproduce, determined by me, the grower. So, it’s necessary to remove the dead blossoms so that the plant can turn its focus back to what its calling is: to produce new buds.
Although we reside in the Lord’s garden, the inclination of our still-fleshly lives is to choose our own path for growth. We strive for reproduction of ourselves—more of me! more of me! But God has a way to strengthen and beautify us, drawing forth applause and glory—more of Him! more of Him! And as happens in the cycle of growth, that often involves deadheading and affliction.
Deadheading makes the flower ugly; how can it fulfill its calling to be beautiful, to reflect the glory and wisdom of its Maker when it is so deformed and hideous? Remember the words of John 15:2: the ministrations of affliction are so “that it may bear more fruit.”
Spurgeon expertly dissects in this passage from a sermon on the text:
“It is a necessary part of vine-dressing to remove the superfluous shoots. Too much wood-making, which does not lead to fruit-bearing, is but a waste of strength. . . . What of that? ‘He purgeth it (pruneth it) that it may bring forth more fruit.’ ‘I cannot understand,’ said one to me the other day, ‘why I am so very sorely afflicted. I have been searching myself to discover what sin can have been the cause of it.’ Now, beloved, if that be your question tonight, there may be a sin to be put away, and, if so, God forbid that I should prevent your searching; but remember, on the other hand, affliction is no evidence of sin, but oftentimes of the very contrary, It is the fruit-bearing branch that gets the pruning. You are so good a branch that God would fain have you better. You have such capacities for bearing fruit, that he wants to see those capacities developed. . . . and so real affliction is no mark, therefore, of your want of grace, but of your having it.”
We blossom more fully, brightly, and the Gardener receives the glory. We stay focused, without energy diverted. We grow more with gusto, fullness, abundance. We fulfill the work he has called us to do, and thereby he receives glory.
I keep a little pair of garden scissors on the deck, but usually I can just pluck the dead blossoms off with my fingers. The Lord’s cutting tool is the Word of God, deadheading the distractions, eliminating what wastes our time, soaks up our devotion, steals away our attention to idolatrous follies. The Word is sharper than a two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12). We read in John 6:60-69 that “there were some that went back, and walked no more with him, for they said, ‘’This is a hard saying; who can bear it?’ That was the word pruning off the useless branches. And there were others who were grieved by his Word. These, were good people, and it did them good. It was a godly sorrow that led to bringing forth fruits meet for repentance.” (Spurgeon)
How merciful he is to do such surgery on his garden, and how wise that he determines exactly the measure of pruning each plant needs. JC Ryle muses on the types of flowers in the Lord’s garden, each with a purpose, each different from the other, and each receiving specific and personal attention from the Gardener, who knows and loves each kind. Ryle suggests eight kinds, which I will list here with his own descriptions, because who can improve upon J.C. Ryle?
- The showy, but not sweet. The very visible, but not very alluring in their nature.
- The sweet, but not showy. Those the world hears nothing of, but they sweeten the air all around them.
- Those who tremble with any “cold wind of trial” or “unexpected frost of affliction. . . . But the Lord is very merciful-—He will not allow them to be tempted above what they can endure. He plants them in sheltered and sunny places of His garden. He protects them and hedges them round by strong plants, to break the cold. Let no man despise them. They are the Lord’s flowers—beautiful in their place and in their way.”
- Some are rough and tough and seem not to be troubled at all by trials—not that they have none, but their constitution is hardy. They seem almost not like flowers at all. “We miss that lovable delicacy which in some people is such an unexplainable charm. They chill us sometimes by their harshness and lack of sympathy—when compared to many we know. And yet let no man despise them . . . beautiful in their place and way, and valuable in their own season.”
- “Some in the Lord’s garden are never so sweet as after a storm. These are the Christians who show most grace under trial and affliction. . . . There is more beauty of holiness about their tears, than about their smiles—they are more like Jesus when they weep, than when they laugh.”
- “Some in the Lord’s garden are never so sweet as at night. These are the believers who need constant trial to keep them close to the throne of grace . . . to make them sit like Mary at His feet—and be near the cross. It is the very darkness they are obliged to walk in, which makes them so sweet.”
- “Some in the Lord’s garden are never so sweet as when crushed. These are the Christians whose reality comes out most under some tremendous and uncommon judgment. The winds and storms of heavy affliction roll over them, and then, to the astonishment of the world—the spices flow out!”
- “Some of the flowers in the Lord’s garden are never fully valued until they are dead. These are those humble believers who, like Dorcas, are full of good works and active love towards others. . . . These are not noticed by this generation—but the Lord Jesus knows them—and His Father also! When they are dead and gone, their work and labor of love all comes out. It is written with a diamond on the hearts of those they have assisted—it cannot be hidden. They speak being dead, though they were silent when living. We know their worth when gone, if we did not while we had them with us. The tears of those who have been fed in soul or body by their hand, tell forth to the wondering world that some have gone home whose place cannot easily be supplied, and that a gap is made which it will be hard to fill up.”
Our Savior himself supplies the template for dying in service to others: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
“He lay in the grave like seed under the clods; but as the seed comes up again green, and fresh, and flourishing, and with a great increase, so one dying Christ gathered to himself thousands of living Christians, and he became their root. The salvation of souls hitherto, and henceforward to the end of time, is all owing to the dying of this corn of wheat.”
We can withstand the ministrations of affliction because we have already died through the death of Christ. We have his example, his cutting the trail for us. As painful as deadheading is, as unappealing as it makes us, as much as we don’t often understand what is happening when we are pruned, the one thing that we know is true is this: We no longer have to fear spiritual death. That is removed from us as an experience; we have the resurrection of Christ and all the power and strength that flows forth from his victory over the grave to enable us to straighten our stalks up higher and and unveil our glorious blossoms in the Garden of the Lord, to his glory, before all the world to see and marvel at how wisely he tends to his flowers.
I’m ready to live out my days as a lily, or a crocus, or a rose, or maybe an exotic bougainvillea, or maybe just an ordinary daisy-—regularly pruned, deadheaded and snipped, if it means more glory to my Gardener. The lifeblood that makes it possible for me to persevere flows from his crushed body, the power to rise to new life in the resurrection gives me strength and beauty everlasting, for his glory!
How about you? What flower will you be in the Lord’s Garden?