You dry as Aunt Loola washes the dishes. After a moment, you notice a smile stretch across her face.
“Hey, do you have time to go see a friend of mine?” Loola asks.
“Sure, why not,” you say. You grab your keys and escort Aunt Loola to the car. She directs you toward the interstate, explaining that her friend lives in the next town over. You chat as you drive.
"You know when I got started gardening, I wasn't so different from you?" she says.
“Yeah, I actually did what you did,” she said. “I planted my first fruit tree right in the middle of an overgrown patch of weeds. I had no idea what I was doing.”
“Glad to know I’m not the only one that started that way,” you say.
“It was overgrown and pitiful looking; difficult to stand anywhere without getting thorn scratches. One day I was standing there looking around, trying to figure out what I was going to do with the terrible mess, and Gary passed by. We were much younger then.”
"'Wow, you are working hard, I see,' Gary said. He seemed impressed with my willingness to be out in the hot sun. I smiled with pride. I was about to respond, but I noticed him looking down at the tangled mess of thorns. 'What are you trying to grow here?’
"'I— uh.' I stammered. 'I planted a fruit tree.' He just humphed as if he didn't believe me.
"'Doesn’t really look like you know what you’re doing.'
"'Well,' I said. 'I’m just prepping the— I have to get the soil to— It’s all about the— You wouldn’t understand.'
"'I understand a mess when I see one.'
"'Dad-gum-it Gary, you old gossip. Get out of here,' I said as mean as a junkyard cat.
"'Ok, well, good luck with that,' that old gossip said as he went on his way. I was so embarrassed. I didn't ever want to be humiliated like that again. So I went directly to the lumber store and bought a truckload of wood. By the time the sun set, I had a six-foot fence around my entire garden. I went to bed satisfied with my work. The next morning I headed out to the now fenced garden. As I was standing in the thorn patch, I heard the voices of two neighbors passing by.
"'Oh, wow, a new fence,' I heard one say. It was Peggy with her walking partner, Marsha, from around the corner. They didn't know I was hiding behind my wooden privacy barricade. Marsha spoke up.
"'Well, I heard Gary say that it’s nothing but a bunch of weeds back there behind that fence.’ I was so mad I could have spit. Gary was ruining my reputation with the neighbors. I liked Peggy and Marsha, so I had to act.
"I started to grunt, moan, and yelp. I made the kind of sounds a person makes when they’re working really hard in a garden. 'Sheesh, this gardening is hard work,' I said loud enough to be heard.
"'Hey there, neighbor,' Peggy called out over the fence. She and Marsha craned their necks to peer over the top boards. They could see me, but they couldn't see the garden below, and it was a good thing too because it was as wild as treasure island. I waved but then busied myself with more movement and noise, throwing leaves, twigs, and debris about like a wood chipper. After another round of hard-working grunts, Peggy and Marsha moved on, talking amongst themselves.
"'Wow, she's really giving it the ole' heave-ho, isn't she?’ Peggy said.
"'I can’t wait to see what comes out of that garden,’ Marsha said. I could see that the fence was well worth the price, but her last comment concerned me.
"Day after day, I made sure that any neighbor who passed by, especially Gary, heard me grunting in the garden. When I exited my mystery garden each day, I made sure to be covered in soil and sweat. The entire neighborhood was very impressed with my diligence and tenacity. They had no idea of the wilderness that lurked behind those fence boards.
"'When are we going to get a taste of that fruit,' Peggy asked over the fence one sunny morning. I panicked. Outside the fence, my reputation had flourished. Behind the fence, the garden was nothing more than vines, thorns, and rocks. Buried deep among the thorns, there was a sapling I had planted the previous season, but I would be mortified to admit that the garden had not produced a single edible item.
"'I’m too busy to talk,' I said from behind my fence. 'I have to keep this garden in shape, and it takes all my time.
"'Come on, just one taste,' Peggy persisted.
"'I don’t have time for all that,' I said again with a rise in my voice.
"'Loola, I'm coming in, ready or not.' Peggy said as playful as a songbird. I liked Peggy, which was why it hurt so bad to do what I did next. As she grabbed the handle of the gate, I jumped up with a fright and gripped the other side for all I was worth.
"I stood and glared at Peggy with a look that could’a boiled brass. Barely able to see her over the fence posts, I knew I had to make a full offensive. My reputation was at stake, and I couldn’t stand to see it ruined. If Peggy got through that gate, everyone would know that my garden was a lie.
"'You lazy bum,' I said to Peggy. Though all I could see was her eyes, I knew I had stabbed her deep. I went on, 'You want to eat my fruit, but you haven't worked a single day in your own garden. Gary told me you don't even have a garden.' A tear rolled down her cheek. 'Get out of here, you nosy snoot,' I screamed.
"Peggy darted off, not saying a word. I had not only forgotten my ultimate goal, but I had swapped it out for an inferior one. My ultimate goal was to protect my fragile reputation. I wanted the approval of my neighbors so much more than I wanted fruit. I had to maintain the appearance that I was a hard-working gardener.”
“Is that story true,” you ask when Aunt Loola finally gets quiet. The hum of the road is all you can hear for a few long seconds.
“It’s what I call a truthy story,” Loola says.
“What does that mean?”
“It’s a story that teaches a truth, but it’s not a true story in the strictest sense," she admits.
“Well then, what are you trying to teach me?" you ask.
"Even when you know the ultimate goal, sometimes it's tempting to swap it out for a different one. But every time you do, it causes problems."
“So, did you ever apologize to Peggy?" you ask.
"Well, that's the beauty of a truthy story; you get the lesson for free with none of the consequences."
“I see,” you say.
"This is our exit, Honey," Loola says. You pull the car off the interstate expectant for your next truthy adventure.
Do you realize that many Christians are in this situation? There are loads of believers who have replaced the ultimate goal of the Christian life with maintaining a spiritual reputation. There are likely millions who go through the motions, doing spiritual tasks, in order to get applause, approval, or accolades from others. There are countless that live out the Christian life in order to gain personal superiority. It's easy to fall into the trap of being self-righteous. I've been there, and I often realize that I need to climb out of that pit once again.
Whether it's simply approval or spiritual superiority, these are powerful motivations that drive many to stay in church, read their Bible, and pray. However, if you make approval and applause your ultimate goal, you will be heading down a dark and dangerous path. You'll have to put up fences and drive people away when they invite you to be vulnerable.
Have you ever known the lady that's prideful about her Bible Knowledge? She likes to make you feel small by quoting long memorized passages to you. Have you ever known the guy that pressures you to be at church every Sunday as he reminds you that he hasn't missed a service in forty years? Have you ever been cornered by the wild-eyed person who can't wait to tell you what God has been telling her in her all-night prayer sessions? I have. I know a lot of them. These folks drive me nuts.
In the last chapter, we talked about how Paul said, the mindset of the flesh is death.1 A mindset of the flesh sounds like those frat-boy party-hounds we all knew in college. We usually think of the super-sinners when we hear the term carnally minded, which is what one translation calls the mindset of the flesh. Here’s a surprising twist. The mindset of the flesh can be present in the condescending church lady just as much as the frat-boy.
When Paul says a mindset of the flesh, most people assume he’s talking about thinking about gratuitous sin. However, that was not the only thing Paul had in mind. Paul was explaining that he had been attempting to accomplish righteousness by flesh-powered means.
Have you ever heard someone say, “It’s possible to do good but to do it in my own strength?" That statement has bothered me for a long time because when I ask the person who said it, "What do you mean by that?" They will often say, "Oh, you know, when you do something good, but you’re doing it for selfish motives.” But that means that it’s not good. Something that looks good but is motivated by selfish reasons is a sin. It seems to me that we use the term doing good in my own strength when we should just be honest and call it sin.
Jesus didn’t like that kind of approach. To a group of people who had bad motives for doing what looked like good deeds, He said, You are like tombs that are painted white. Outside they look fine, but inside they are full of dead people’s bones and all kinds of filth.2
A so-called good deed motivated by jealousy is a sin. Now, the deed itself might help someone else, but Jesus says that if you do good deeds so that you can get noticed, then it's hypocrisy, and he's not going to reward you for that kind of action.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of doing good so that we get people's approval, applause, or praise. Jesus has a simple solution for this. Do your good deeds secretly. Give anonymously. Pray privately. Fast quietly. Donations, prayer, and fasting should be done privately to avoid the possibility of false motives. To add to this great advice, he says that God will reward people who do good things anonymously.3
I used to play in a rock band. Plenty of people wanted to get in a band so they could get on stage. There were a lot fewer people who wanted to run the sound mixer at the back of the room. Why? Both jobs are important. For one of those jobs, you get applause, and the other, you don't. I think that there is something similar that happens for Christians. It's easier to find someone to volunteer for the praise team than it is to find someone to volunteer to clean the toilets. This is why churches usually pay a custodian while having a line of volunteers waiting to get into the band. It's hard to think that this might not be pride at work.
Good deeds motivated by false motives are done with a mindset of the flesh. Pride is a fleshly motivation. Jealousy is a fleshly motivation. The sin of false motives is so insidious it often seems to go unnoticed by those who are experiencing it. It is sin, nonetheless. This is why a person can be living with a mindset of the flesh while doing lots of Christian tasks. An elder, a deacon, a minister, or a choir leader can all be living in a mindset of the flesh.
The mindset of the flesh is death. How can you know if you are in a flesh-powered mindset or not? Well, look at the fruit that your habits produce. Paul tells us what the fruits of the flesh are,4 and they aren't pretty. If your habits are producing pride, jealousy, bitterness, dissension, anger, or others, then maybe it's time to reexamine your ultimate goal in doing those tasks.
Do you pray, attend church, or read your Bible for approval from others? If so, you’ve replaced God’s ultimate goal for your life with an artificial goal of your own. It’s so important that you strive for God’s ultimate goal for your life. You can’t do it with the try harder, the do more or the self-serving mentality. All of those are the mindset of the flesh. They are a dead-end road. You're going to need a fresh approach.
Let's review the ultimate goal of your Christian life. The goal of your garden isn't to supply you with secrecy and pride. It is to bear sweet life-sustaining fruit. The main purpose of your remaining time is to have abundant life. We'll talk about how to accomplish that in a while, but first, let's take a look at another of the most common gardening mistakes.
1 Romans 8:6 CSB
2 Matthew 23:27
3 Matthew 6:4, 6:6, 6:18
4 Galatians 5:19-26