December 2023
God of the Garden: What We Can Learn from Digging in the Dirt

Gardening has much to teach us about our calling to create and till the earth. It also has a lot to teach us about the slow process of growing holy.

Black earth has a sanctity to it. The color calls to us from a damp, ancient place where life comes from death. It's the call of richness, of fertility, of potential. Black soil is the home of all things green and godly. And that makes perfect sense. All that's green and godly comes from the soil because God is a gardener. He was the first to wet his fingers with earth, the first to plant, the first to tamp and tend. When no one was watching, God was gardening.

When we do the same, as our family has done this spring, we're doing something far deeper than we imagine. We're entering into the wet and weathered life of God. It's a patient life, a quiet life, a thriving life. It's a life that works the ground and finds abundance in the smallest things.  

When God Started Gardening

God planted the first garden way back in Genesis. But he planted it with his voice, not with his hands. On the third day of creation (paralleling the third day on which his Son would one day rise from the soil of death), he uttered vegetation.

And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good (Genesis 1:11-13, ESV).

He spoke, and he saw. The growth came from his voice. He called life out of the silence. And it listened to him (since he himself is life; John 14:6). What he called would worship him in its own quiet way: choirs of chlorophyll, stems standing in praise, petals of prayer, seeds with secrets only the light would tell. It was a symphony for the eyes, not the ears. But God heard it, and he saw that it was good.  

That's when gardening began, with the voice of an ancient, three-personed God. Ours was not the first worship to reach the God of glory. That belongs to the day lilies.  

Gardening as Our First Task

When God made the first humans, he made them after his gardening image. He made them lovers of growth and greenery. Adam and Eve's first calling was to garden, to work the ground and tend to what grew. "The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it" (Gen. 2:15). And this was no solitary task. God, after all, had done it in three persons. And so he completed his creation of mankind by giving Adam a soul mate, a partner in gardening, someone to work with in turning the soil and tending the seeds. Gardening is for persons in communion. Together, our first parents began their first task: keeping the garden of God.

Gardening is for persons in communion.

We don't think of this very much, do we? Of all things, why give the first humans the task of gardening? They could have been builders or poets or musicians. They could have been anything. Why gardeners? My theory is that this task, above all others, would reveal the heart of God. And it would reveal their hearts to him. In gardening, Adam and Eve would see what God is like: patient, loving, beautiful, bountiful, overflowing with goodness and giving, generous beyond all sight. And their hearts would be revealed to him; they would follow him in patience, love, beauty, and giving. They would see that a blessed life is a giving life. They would be taught slowly and happily how to follow God the gardener. The soil that met their skin wouldn't make them "dirty"; it would make them holy.  

Trouble for Gardeners

The fall of gardening came where we wouldn't expect it. Nothing went wrong with the soil. No pests came crawling at the devil's behest. Nothing sapped the lifeblood of the flowers and trees. There was no drought.  No—it was something more mysterious: the withdrawal of trust. Adam and Eve did not trust their Gardener. They accused him of being withholding. That's painfully ironic, since God's very nature as a grand Gardener was to be giving, not withholding. Gardening took on the curse that mirrored Adam and Eve's distortion of God: the ground became withholding.    

"Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you . . . By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread" (Gen. 3:17-19).

Thorns and thistles. Blisters and brow sweat. That's what a lack of trust will get you. And so began the history of weeding and wilting, of garden pests and dust clouds. All the things garden lovers cringe at today . . . that started then. A removal of trust broke not just our relationship with God, but our relationship with his garden.

A removal of trust broke not just our relationship with God, but our relationship with his garden.

This is a good time to remind ourselves that it's not work that's cursed. Work was good before the ground became withholding. Work was a creative, purposeful participation in the life of God, the God who grows all things (1 Cor. 3:7). Gardening wasn't a chore; it was a chase, a chase after the wild God of the world. In gardening, Adam and Eve chased after God; they followed his footpath. They did what he did. And when we die and commune with God, the chasing will resume. We'll follow again. We'll have holy work . . . holy, mysterious work. But we won't actually be chasing God as Adam and Eve did. We'll be running with God. We'll be alongside him. We'll be in communion, in constant fellowship.    

How the Gardener Works

Until that moment, there's much to be done. Much has already been done, of course. In a sense, the whole Bible is the story of what God has done to teach his people about gardening all over again. To thrive and cultivate in the earth, to thrive and cultivate souls made in God's image, the same thing was required: trust. Trust in the goodness of God when life looked bleak; trust in the speech of God when life was loud; trust in the providence of God when the future seemed perilous; trust in the grand Gardener. Salvation comes through trusting in the one who raises flowers from the soil and bodies from the earth.

Salvation comes through trusting in the one who raises flowers from the soil and bodies from the earth.

But gardening is also a process. A slow, painful process. Plants don't grow at the snap of fingers; they grow in the slow song of the Gardener, set to the quiet rhythm of a falling and rising sun. Sometimes we wonder if anything is really happening at all. Didn't the peonies look just as tight-fisted yesterday? Are the strawberries ever going to put out new leaves? The blueberries are flowering, but when are the berries coming in? Growth is custom designed by God to foster patience. Growth shuns immediacy.

You know it's true in your own life, too. Christlikeness comes not in a moment or even a month. It happens, with great and constant work by the Spirit himself, over years. Painstaking stillness—that's a phrase that often captures how we feel about our own growth (and the growth of others).

But just as God was gardening before anyone was looking, so he gardens now while everyone is blind. We don't see the growth so well, but it's there. Usually, we notice in hindsight. We look back on how, just a few years ago, we were less forgiving, less intentional, more judgmental, more abrasive. When did we change? The Spirit did his silent work when no one was looking. God works the soil of our hearts slowly and secretly. He brings growth through process and relationship. He tills us when we're looking elsewhere, even when we're distracted by the weeds of the world.  

Through trust and time, God is patient as he gardens, giving the growth that only he can give.

What We Learn from Gardening

I know it's weird—I'm weirdbut I think about all this now and then when I'm out in the garden with my wife. As our kids are screaming "Aloha!" at the robins and the orioles (don't ask; I have no idea where that came from), as I'm wheeling over compost in our green wheelbarrow, as the soil fills in the tiny valleys of my fingerprints, I'm thinking of God the gardener. I'm thinking of his love of growth. I'm thinking of his silence, of his unnoticed labor, of his mysterious ability to bring good out of evil, to draw beauty from black soil. As we work the ground, here are some things that keep coming up, lessons I've learned and keep learning from gardening, from doing what God did at creation, and what he did throughout redemption.

  1. Spiritual growth is a slow but miraculous process. The older I get, the more obvious it seems to me that for anyone to change is a miracle. We can't bend free will. We can't alter behaviors on our own. Apart from the work of God, we can do nothing (John 15:5). When you see spiritual growth in yourself or someone else, that's a miracle. That's divine work. It doesn't matter whether it's taken five weeks or fifty years. If change happens, that's a miracle. Praise God for that.
  2. Growth can't be forced. All parents know this without me saying it. What we learn from parenting, we can apply to ourselves in humility. If you can't force your child to change apart from the work of God, what makes you think you're going to change on your own? Apart from the prayer-infused work of the Spirit of God, change isn't happening. It can't be forced on someone else, and it can't be willed into being on your own. Growth is God's work, not yours.
  3. Be a gardener in your own soul. Gardening with my wife has made me much more intentional about what happens in the garden, about what needs to take place for the plants to take root and bear fruit. But it's also made me more attentive to the garden of my soul. Am I getting daily water from the word? Am I getting enough life, enough Jesus in dialogue each day? Is the emotional weather of those around me wilting my leaves? We need to garden ourselves. What sorts of growth do you want to see in your own life? What seeds can you ask God to help you sow? How can you be intentional about checking for that growth?

The God of the garden is calling to us. He's asking us to enter into his work. Getting your hands dirty each day is necessary. Over time, who knows? You may even come to love getting into that black soil. You know, after all, that God had his hands in it before you did. And he's got his hands in your own soul at this very hour.

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