Over the last few weekends, I've been putting some muscle and sweat into the front yard of our home. The north portion of our front lawn has been a dust bowl and weed-breading ground over the last two summers, and the time came to put down a real lawn that will not be despised by myself and all our neighbors. According to the experts, fall is the perfect time to seed your lawn and get it ready for next spring. It's been a big task.
While seeding my lawn, I was inspired by how it relates to the work on the soil of my heart. In fact, there is an immediate parable or correlation between yard work and heart work. Here are five ways that we can landscape our heart.
1. Kill Off the Old
The work of replanting the lawn begins with the killing off of the old yard. My lawn was fertile place for every sort of dandelion, crabgrass, thorny vine, thistle, and bare patch known to man. Weeds, rocks, old grass, and all sorts of craziness had embedded itself in my front yard. To begin the process of a lawn redo, I had to kill off all the old growth. So I spent an entire day spraying the lawn with some pretty potent Round Up. Everything had to be dead and ready for removal.
In doing heart work, the starting place is the same. Killing off the old, deathly weeds of the heart. Paul spoke of this work as a putting to death what is earthly in you (Colossians 3:5). It is a matter of seeing that which is contrary to the Law of God, being repulsed by it and going to work in confessing, rejecting, and forsaking these sins. The Law of God is a helpful "Round Up" for us because it shows us that we are sinners. God's good and helpful Law exposes the sin in our hearts and make us realize just how far we are from him. Yet killing off isn't just acknowledgement that there is sin in our lives, it is rejecting and forsaking it as well. It must be removed.
Do we desire the roots of bitterness to grow in our hearts? Do we long for lust and sensuality to overcome our hearts so that we cannot perceive others with the dignity and worth that God gives them? Are we eager for the love of money so much so that we cannot rightly give and sacrifice for the advancement of a greater Kingdom and King? Unless we are repulsed by the sin of our hearts, we won't go to work in killing it off. We must hold our hearts up to the Law of God to see our sin, loathe it, and by repentance put it to death.
2. Make the Soil Ready
Killing off sin isn't the only step we must take, although it is a necessary step. Even though my front yard had become a brown and crisp deathbed of weeds and grass, it still wasn't at a place where new growth and life could emerge. I had to put some muscle into the yard and remove all the old growth. As I removed what was dead and decaying, I also had to till and break up the soil. It had to be ready to receive the new and better seed. I don't necessarily symbolize what many would consider a strong man, so spending an entire weekend raking and digging up the dead grass and weeds was a difficult task. Thankfully, I had a few friends come and help me dig up and remove what was unnecessary or harmful in the area we were landscaping.
For many of us, preparation of the soil is best done in community. Not just in landscaping, but in heart work as well. I needed the manpower of my friends (and the truck power) to remove stumps, thorny bushes, and all sorts of vines and weeds to accomplish the task in a reasonable amount of time.
The heart work of dealing with our sin requires a good tilling, as well. Not only are we removing what is dead, but we must prepare the soil of our hearts for what is life-giving. In heart work this is often found in a few ways. First, we must create space for the gospel to be received. It may seem obvious, but if there is no dedicated room for our hearts to receive the good seed of God's word, we won't grow. A helpful practice is to set aside both time and place for heart work. If it has been some time since you've done serious heart work, taking a day out to cultivate the soil of your heart will be helpful. If nothing else, take a specific time daily to cultivate your heart.
Secondly, do this in community. Many prefer to do this sort of heart work alone and "get away" like a medieval monk for introspection and silence. That may be helpful to a degree, but I believe that the job is done even better with friends. Just as I needed my friends to make the soil work more accessible, so I need faithful friends to help do the work of cultivating my heart for the sake of Jesus. Sometimes we don't know where the sinful areas of our heart lie. We aren't aware of the imbedded stumps of pride and bitterness. We can't see (or feel) the thorns of distention and division in our lives. We can't pick out why that certain destructive vine of greed will kill everything. But our gospel-minded friends see it, and they can help expose and remove it. We need their community and fellowship to remove the sin of our hearts and prepare the soil of for the life-giving nourishment of the gospel.
We should set aside time to cultivate our hearts by engaging in gospel communities. Such people will lovingly hold up the Law and call us to repentance, helping ready the soil of our hearts for the planting of new and better seed.
3. Scatter the Seed
Killing and tilling is a good start in dealing with the restoration of a suburban lawn, but we can't stop there. Left to itself, the lawn would return to the pathetic weedy, thorn-and-thistle-producing lawn it had always been. If I want my lawn to produce a nice, lush space of grass, I have to actually put grass seed down. Contrary to my childhood beliefs, grass doesn't grow up from the center of the earth. So obviously I had to get the seed and distribute it on my patch of ground that at this point was merely a barren space of dirt. Even finding the right seed is important. Everyone who has experience doing this told me to get the "99.9% weed-free" fescue, otherwise I'd be back at steps one and two next year.
The process here was fairly simple. Put the seed in the spreader and go for a walk all over my future lawn. Distribute the seed everywhere and abundantly. Honestly this was my favorite part of the whole job.
Heart work requires the same sort of distribution and application. Lest we stick in the morbid work of mortification and exposure under the Law, we will become discouraged and despairing. We need a thorough and frequent application of the gospel to our hearts. Let me be clear here, the seed that we need is the gospel word found in the Scriptures. The "99.9% weed-free" application is the 100% infallible Word of God. We must apply the Word frequently and thoroughly.
Make it your aim to be in the Scriptures often, looking to Jesus and letting the life of the gospel cover your heart. Walk in every space of your heart and look to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for your life! Listen to the laments of the Psalms, the warning of the Prophets, the exhortations of the Epistles, the wisdom of the Proverbs, which will all point to the good news of Jesus over and over and over in your heart. Let his life-giving Word cover every area of your life and heart. Scatter the seed of the gospel-word everywhere. Pray and say, "I believe, help my unbelief!"
4. Supplement with Life-giving Nutrients
The ground has been prepared and the seed laid, and now we can anticipate a great yard coming in the spring. At least, that is the expectation. Most lawn-care experts, however, will tell you to supplement what's already been done. My plot of earth has some exceptional topsoil and I am sure that the grass seed will do fine. But I need to water and fertilize the seed that has been planted. So, I have my sprinkler system dialed in to deliver a fresh covering of water twice a day. After laying the seed I walked around the yard one more time with a starter fertilizer to help nourish the soil, move out any remaining weeds, and give some supplement to the seed that had been laid.
Some might have their religious radar going on red-alert at this point because of my potential heresy. I'm not saying that the Word of God needs any addition or supplement to make it better. Nor am I saying that the life-seed of the gospel is deficient and in need of a boost or it won't flourish. What I am pointing out is that these supplemental practices are helpful for maximum growth. The fescue seed in my yard is sufficient in and of itself to produce a nice, healthy lawn. But its growth is aided by the resourcing of water and fertilizer to strengthen the good that is already laid.
Our hearts will benefit from the supplementation of life-supporting resources to aid in our growth. Engaging in community with others is similar to watering the seed of the gospel. Not only does our community help us expose the sins of our hearts, but they also nourish and engage the gospel-Word in our life to help it grow. Community that only exposes sin and calls for repentance forgets the goodness of the gospel and is a terror to be a part of (consider why so many "accountability groups" are really liars clubs of self-righteousness). We need to engage a community of grace to remind and "fertilize" that grace within us. Gathering with others who will hold up the Law and then the gospel will cause the seed of that good news to flourish in our hearts. Paul shared exactly what this looks like by saying, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God" (Colossians 3:16).
Supplemental reading outside of the Scripture from faithful Christians is also a way to build on and benefit from the implanted Word in your heart. Books, both old and new, that reveal the glory of Christ, the depth of the gospel, and the nature of God will help us grow in the gospel. Sites such as this one are helpful places to consider gospel-centered life and discipleship. Reading through and reflecting from these sources are helpful ways to support and engage the growth of the gospel in our hearts. Be reminded, however, that these are not the life-giving gospel growth that we desire to see. They are merely the water and fertilizer to help the gospel grow. The gospel must be planted first.
5. Be Patient
My son has been an observer and somewhat causal worker with me in this whole process. After I finished fertilizing and watering the lawn yesterday, he asked me where the grass was. The next morning, he was still disappointed to see that no grass had come up in the spots we had planted. Where he longs to see immediate and verifiable results in my work on the lawn, I know it will be a few weeks before anything shows.
So it can be with heart work. We will long to see immediate growth and depth come from our labors of mortification and gospel planting. Certainly, we can expect to see some difference immediately. My lawn today looks nothing like it did a month ago. In some ways it might look worse. However, the growth of the seed will happen. And in the same way the growth of the gospel will occur, too. As we are faithful to work diligently by faith in exposing, killing, implanting, and watering the gospel into our hearts, so the Holy Spirit is faithful to bring the growth we long to see. In some cases it might be immediate, like a heart-change from an addiction or besetting sin. In some cases it might be a long obedience that takes time.
I encourage you to be patient. Continue to do the work of cultivating the heart in the gospel, and ask for the Lord to give evidences of growth and grace. Seek Christ as the source of your life and look for the growth of the gospel patiently. By cultivating the gospel in your heart the person you will be in three years will be different than the person you are today. And like the grass that is (hopefully) growing now in my front yard, the progress will be incremental, almost invisible, but it will be there. Lay hold of the fruit of the Spirit in patience and look for a harvest of gospel-life as you seek Christ.
Landscaping As Heart-scaping
It's no wonder to me that Jesus used agricultural metaphors and parables in teaching about heart work. There is much similarity in the process of death, removal, preparation, planting, and watering. As a pastor I don't often do lawn work, in fact I'd rather do just about anything else. Yet, by looking to best practices for the growth of natural things, we can discern some steps for cultivating the gospel within our hearts for growth. It seems that the "organic" growth of grass within the ground really points to the supernatural growth of Christ within our hearts. By faith, with the empowerment of the Spirit may we move forward into doing the work of heart-scaping so that the gospel may grow and flourish and be an abundant and glorious display of God's grace in our lives.
Jeremy Writebol(@jwritebol) has been training leaders in the church for over thirteen years. He is the author of everPresent: How the Gospel Relocates Us in the Present (GCD Books, 2014) and writes at jwritebol.net. He lives and works in Plymouth, MI as the Campus Pastor of Woodside Bible Church.