Every so often, a spiritual metaphor shows up right outside your office window, and if you’re a pastor I think you’re legally obligated to write about it.
A few months ago, I looked out my office window and noticed a crew of workers uprooting some of the trees in our parking lot and hauling them away. The trees had been recently planted, but it only took a few weeks before their leaves turned brown and they died. I’m no horticulture expert, but I know enough to know that trees die suddenly when their roots don’t deliver the necessary nutrients to the rest of the organism. Usually this is because the tree isn’t drawing enough water for some reason. It’s pretty simple: if the roots are shallow or don’t receive enough nourishment, the tree dies.
These trees weren’t defective when they were planted. In fact, they looked great. The leaves were green and lush. Everything above ground looked fantastic. The trees were probably working hard (as hard as trees can work, I guess) to keep producing good leaves. Without healthy roots, though, they were doomed. By the time anybody noticed the damage, it was too late to save them.
I couldn’t help but think of Psalm 1, one of my favorite psalms. The psalmist describes the righteous man like this: “He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.” What makes this man so spiritually healthy? How does he nourish his roots? The psalmist tells us: He delights in God’s word. He meditates on the Scripture day and night. The man’s life is fruitful and healthy because he first nourishes his roots. He invests in knowing God through his word.
Healthy fruit only comes from healthy roots, the psalmist tells us. I think one of the primary dangers that Christians face is to try to keep our lives healthy above the ground without spending enough time nourishing the roots. We believe that if we can either change the external world around us or clean up our act and just become better people, then we will produce spiritual fruit. We fret about political power structures, for example, thinking that our political leaders can produce the right conditions for spiritual transformation. Perhaps we listen to lectures and sermons about how to act better, or how to find the six steps to a better marriage or the eight steps to avoiding sin. All of which can be helpful at times, but not if our roots are shallow and undernourished. All too often, we start with the leaves, the things that are visible on the outside, and try to make the tree healthy from the top down. We do things upside down and backward.
The psalmist tells us that the only way to produce fruit is to start below the surface, with quiet habits that others might never see. We need to saturate ourselves in God’s word, so that we understand what God wants for us before we tell him what we want from him. Then when we pray, we begin not by telling God what we want him to do for us (make me a better person; elect the president I want; make my family better people; fix my problems; keep me from that same old sin). We begin instead by praying, as Jesus did, “Our Father who is in heaven hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
In other words, we say, “God, I want to hear from you. Before I tell you what I want, I commit myself to doing whatever you want. Give me the power not simply to be a good boy or girl, but to hear your Spirit’s voice. I need you to move inside of my own heart before I try to fix the world around me, or before I even try to fix myself.” Only then should we tell God what we want or need. Only then do we ask God to make us better people. God wants to change our lives for the better, and he wants to make us more effective at serving him. That’s the fruit we long to see, but healthy fruit begins with healthy roots.
Until we learn how to draw God’s nourishment into our roots, we won’t produce the fruit he wants from us. We might be able to maintain a veneer of morality. But we won’t really be spiritually healthy, and we won’t see the type of spiritual renewal we long for in our lives and in our world. We will be like trees that look fine above ground, but with undernourished roots. We’ll be exhausted, worn out and spiritually dry.
We have another option, though, which is to plant ourselves like trees next to streams of living water, in the presence of God. We can position ourselves every day next to his infinite and ever-flowing stream, through humble prayer and saturation in the Scripture. Then we wait for him to move in our hearts, in our churches and in our community. Change might take a long time. After all, seasons come and go slowly, and fruit doesn’t grow overnight. But it’s well worth the wait. We can’t make God do anything, but we can place ourselves in a position of availability and preparation for whatever he wants to do. We can live our lives planted in God’s presence, and wait for fruit to come in his timing.