You show Aunt Loola around the house and offer her a seat at the kitchen table. You start a dark pot of coffee brewing and pull out some eggs and a skillet.
“So, are we going to work in the garden today?" you ask as she shuffles into the kitchen.
“I am concerned," she says.
“Have you ever heard the story of the gardener who forgot his purpose?” Loola asked.
"Nope," you say as you pull the pan from the stove. "But I have a feeling I'm about to." Loola begins to talk as you prepare the breakfast.
“There once was a gardener who didn’t know what he was doing.”
“Sounds familiar," you mumble.
"His ground was overgrown with weeds and rocks strewn all around. Thorns choked anything that attempted to climb toward the sky. The spread of wild vines and thistles was daunting. Each morning he would stare out the back window at his garden and feel intimidated by the sight of it. 'How am I going to handle such a mess,' he would ask himself."
"Sounds very familiar," you say as you set a plate before Loola and pour the coffee.
"He knew he needed to be disciplined, hard-working, and diligent. So he began to make a plan. The problem was, he didn't know the ultimate goal." Loola pauses and catches your eye. "What's your ultimate goal in the garden?" she asks squarely.
“Fruit. Abundant fruit!” You sing it out with confidence.
“That’s right,” Loola says, “but this so-called gardener didn’t know the ultimate goal of gardening.”
“Uh, oh. I sense trouble," you say as you take a chair across from Loola and grab your fork. You both pause to say grace before she proceeds with the story.
“So this clueless want-to-be gardener didn’t know the goal of a garden, so he improvised. He had seen other gardeners water their garden. ‘I’ll spend fifteen minutes a day watering,’ he said to himself. He was proud to have a plan, a purpose, a goal.”
“Sounds reasonable,” you say.
“Sounds can be deceiving,” Loola says as she stuffs eggs into her mouth. The story is apparently too important for her to wait to swallow.
"On the first day, he waters twenty minutes in his garden. The second day he does thirty. The third he does an hour. It's easy, and the weeds and thorns love the cool drink. He feels a sense of accomplishment, but he's already made a fatal mistake."
“Fatal?" you say. “Did he eat the red berries?” Loola ignores your interjection.
“He feels so productive that he makes watering an hour per day his new garden goal, his priority purpose, his major mission.” She points her fork in your face from across the table. “What is the goal of the garden?”
“Fruit!” you cry with mock passion.
“Not this guy. His sole purpose was to water. He’d completely lost sight of the fruit at the finish line.”
“So what happened then?" you say.
“After a week, he began to see a problem. The weeds had grown like crazy. The thorns were sharper. He was frustrated. Angry. Tired. So, he decided that he needed to adjust his garden goal. He shifted his garden goal into overdrive. He committed to water two hours every day.”
“Water bill was probably getting a bit outrageous,"
"One day, he got a call from some friends who wanted to go bowling. He loved bowling, but he declined the offer."
“Because his mission is to spend three hours a day watering,” she says as she takes another bite.
“I thought you said it was two hours a day,” you reply.
"It was, but he had to up it again because the garden was going wild."
“So he didn’t want to go bowling?" you say, to get the story back on track.
"No, he wanted to go bowling, but he snubbed the invite because he had to spend four hours a day watering the garden."
“Four hours,” you start, but then let it go.
"As he poured gallon after gallon into the weedy pit of mud, he tried to convince himself that ignoring his friends was the right thing to do. He grumbled as he rained down the splashing flow, 'Gardeners have more important duties than bowling. Gardeners have to water. That's a gardener's goal, to be so busy watering that they can't do anything else. If a gardener spends any time doing anything but watering, he should feel really guilty.' After a while, he started to despise his friends for going bowling. He thought they should be in their gardens watering five hours a day as well."
“This guy was really missing the point," you say.
"After a few months, goat weed and poison ivy had taken over his beloved garden. The ground, if you could see it through the weeds, was a swamp. After a while, his friends stopped inviting him to join them for social outings. He'd been watering incessantly, but his so called-garden looked worse than it ever did."
“Yeah, he was in a real pickle. One day he came to his senses, sort of. He thought to himself, Well, I've tried gardening, and it just doesn't work for me. His garden was such an incredible embarrassment; he could only see two options ahead. He could quit gardening, or he could continue doing what he's doing and pretend it was working.”
“What did he decide?” you ask.
"That's not how this story works," she says. "We're to the moral of the story, so there's no more story. Now I repeat the point, and you nod while saying 'oh wow,' or something like that."
“Oh right,” you say, clearing your throat.
“Yes and,” she sits waiting.
"Oh, wow," you say, intentionally overacting your part. "I see what you're trying to teach me."
“Overdoing it a little, but I’ll take it. So, what went wrong?" she asks.
“He forgot the goal,” you say.
"And what is this grand gardening goal?"
“Fruit, glorious fruit!” you exclaim as you knock your fork against your now empty plate.
“That’s right. He took what should have been a helpful habit and turned it into the ultimate gardening goal. As soon as he lost sight of the prize at the end of the season, his goal became fluid.” She smiles, clearly proud of her pun. You can’t help but mirror her grin.
“I see what you did there,” you say.
"The goal has to be a fixed, unchanging point, or you'll flounder. Fruit has to be the ultimate goal, or you'll lose your way. So, that's the story of the gardener who forgot the goal."
“Well, are we ready to get out there and work for some fruit?" you ask.
“No, we have to do something more important first.”
“What,” you say.
“The dishes,” she stands and moves toward the sink.
Do you realize that this is where many Christians are? They’ve taken what were supposed to be helpful habits like praying, study, and attendance, and they've turned them into the ultimate goal. They've converted the Christian life into a to-do list. Though they are checking off tasks from their list, they are not growing. The main reason for this is because they have forgotten their ultimate purpose. They don't know the goal of the Christian life. Are you living out a defeated Christian life? Have you ever come to realize that you are doing a lot of Christian tasks but seeing very little reward for your effort? Many Christians are on the one, one, one plan. They pray one minute, read one chapter a day, and do one hour in church a week. They think of this as the ultimate goal of the Christian life. They assume these tasks represent the main purpose of being Christian.
Each of these tasks have their place, but they are not the goal. If you turn these tasks into the ultimate goal, your Christian life is going to be incredibly tiring, boring, and insipid. In fact, if you turn the manual habits into the ultimate goal, you're in danger of quitting or pretending it is working. Be careful to keep your goal in mind. So what would forgetting the goal look like?
If you forget your ultimate goal, there are basically two paths you will take. The first one is the lazy loaf path. If you forget your ultimate goal, it will become easy to cheat on the tasks. You'll get to where you only pray at mealtimes because the kids are watching. You'll pretty much just look at your Bible when you're at church. You'll get to where you only go to church on the holidays.
Confusing tasks for the goal means that you will deplete your energy. You will feel fatigued. You’ll tire of praying, reading your Bible, attending church, and all the trappings that come with them? Whether you openly admit it or not, you will become bored with the Christian life.
Eventually, you'll start thinking of quitting altogether. You'll get bitter about all of the expectations that fellow Christians are placing on you, and you'll start to look for reasons to become very scarce at any faith-based functions. If you see yourself in any of the above words, then you're on a well-worn path, and it's time to make a change.
If this is you, then you've noticed another thing as you've gotten more tired, haven't you? You used to work hard to keep sin out of your life, but now those same old sins are creeping in. You don't want to tell anyone, but they are growing, and you don't know what to do about it. You tell yourself to stop! You try to focus on quitting that bad habit, but that just makes you focus on the sin more, which leads to doing it more.
Paul talked about this when he said, I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.1 After he became a believer, he noticed that the more he tried to motivate his body to follow the rules, the less spiritual success he experienced. He became trapped by the habits and got stuck in this cycle. He'd tell himself not to lust after so-and-so, but that would make him think about so-and-so, so he'd lust for her more. He got so frustrated by being trapped by the habit that he finally said, O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?2
Being trapped by habits is draining. When you forget your goal, it's easy to get trapped into an endless cycle of empty habits, both good and bad. In that case, the Christian life becomes an endless parade of seemingly meaningless tasks which never satisfy any purpose other than to get your Christian friends off your back. As you grow more weary, bad habits grow. Sin increases.
There’s another possible path that you might have taken. If you didn’t become the lazy loaf, then you might have followed another equally dangerous route. Many Christians have forgotten or never knew the ultimate goal of their Christian life. As a result, they improvised by taking all of those helpful habits like prayer, study, and attendance and converted them into absolute laws. This person I call the lifestyle legalistic. They may say that God's grace is free, but they act like you have to earn it. They look down on anyone that can't live up to their standard, and they are secretly bitter at anyone they have to look up to. This mentality is a breeding ground for pride and jealousy. It leaves them with a lack of real fruit and hurts those around them.
If all of this is true of you, you're another victim of legalism. I know, I know. You don't think of yourself as a legalistic, but it's way more common than you think. My personal definition of legalism is when you take what is supposed to be a helpful habit and turn it into an ultimate purpose. It's taking the means and making it the end. That, in a very loose sense, is legalism. Legalism in the Christian life will rob you of your energy and excitement. I want to set you free from it.
Are you trapped by habits as you watch your emotional batteries slowly drain, or you dive deeper into what feels like legalism? Whichever is true of you; you need freedom! You need to stop thinking of prayer, study, and attendance as the ultimate goal. That as a goal will lead you to some strange and unfriendly places. We'll talk about those things later, but for now, just put them on the shelf.
The ultimate goal of the garden is fruit, fruit, and more fruit. We'll talk about how to do that in a bit, but first, let's tackle another common gardening problem.
1 Romans 7:10 NIV
2 Romans 7:24