By now you’ve spent weeks staring at the garden. You have checked the fruit tree sapling. It is a tough plant. It continues to survive, but it is far from thriving. In fact, it hasn't grown a single centimeter since shortly after you planted it.
Each time you visit the wild garden, you kneel down to check the progress of your tiny fruit tree. You have been scratched by thorns, tripped by vines, and plagued by the rash of poisonous ivy since you began. Your goal is to see fruit, but you're not sure what to do.
"I need some more advice," you say to yourself. Your first instinct is to reach for your phone, but then you have an idea. You wander somewhat aimlessly out of the garden, through your yard, and down the street. You're looking for another garden, an oasis in the chaos. You scan each house on your block looking for signs of expertise. You spot Gary's place with its characteristic bald yard and flowerless hedges.
You walk the length of Maple Street before you see a house with finely laid flower beds, a manicured lawn, and well-trimmed trees budding with sprouts. You peek over the fence and spot a well-organized garden. Vegetables and fruits of all kinds are growing in orderly rows. This has got to be it. You walk to the house and knock on the door. An elderly lady opens with a smile.
“How can I help you, Honey?”
“Aunt Loola?” you ask, but already you know from her warm, soothing voice.
"Oh, it's you!" she says. She's pushing back the screen door and wraps her arms around you. The hug is grandmotherly and as welcome as any embrace you've had before.
Before you know it, you’re sitting in a rocking chair on her porch, drinking iced tea, and talking about gardening.
“I’m just so frustrated,” you explain.
“What’s got ya down, Honey?” Aunt Loola asks.
“I’ve been waiting for my fruit tree to grow. No matter how long I sit there, it just stays the same,” you say.
“What’s your grand gardening goal?” Aunt Loola asks, reminding you of your previous phone conversation.
“Fruit, abundant fruit,” you say. “My ultimate goal is to have a big harvest of fruit.”
“Good,” she acknowledges.
“But I’ve just got to make it grow?” you say.
“My hearing isn’t so great, Sugar. Did you say you plan to force the fruit to grow?” she asks.
“Well, yeah,” you admit.
“Sorry. It ain’t gonna happen,” she says.
"But, my goal is to get fruit. I've got to make that tree grow.” Your confidence is waning.
“And how has that worked out so far?” Aunt Loola asks.
You look out over the railing of the porch. Maybe this was a mistake. Aunt Loola takes a long sip of tea before continuing. "I have a question for you.”
She pauses for another sip. "How does the sapling power its transformation into a fruit-bearing tree?"
“That’s easy,” you begin. “The sun shines. Photosynthesis takes place. Then—” Loola cuts you off.
“No. How does the plant power its own change.” Loola says.
"Oh, uh—" you say. You take a moment to think about it. "It doesn't power its own growth, I guess.”
“You guess?” Aunt Loola asks.
“Yeah. The power comes from somewhere else.”
"That's right. The plant does not change; it is changed by a power that's not its own. You can't force a plant to transform, but if it's going to bear fruit, it must do exactly that; transform."
“Yeah, I see what you mean," you agree.
“So, how do you make the plant transform,” she asks.
“I don’t,” you respond. Your confidence is growing, but you’re still clueless as to what you’re supposed to do. “So am I supposed to do nothing at all?”
"You can't do anything at all to make the sapling grow, but you can do things that help the tree connect with its power source," Aunt Loola explains.
“How do I do that?” you ask.
"Come back tomorrow, and we'll talk about it," she explains. You want answers now, but you're happy to be getting somewhere. You thank her for the tea and conversation and head home thinking about your talk with sweet Aunt Loola.
To experience abundant life, you don’t need more effort; you need transformation. It's not your effort or willpower that makes this transformation, sometimes called growth, happen. It's true that you have a part to play, which we'll discuss in a later chapter, but the power for the transformation you need comes from somewhere else. It doesn't come from your own will, determination, commitment, or physical abilities.
There are many people who have gotten confused and think that the power to change comes from inside the human mind, heart, or psyche. There are even Christians who attempt to change who they are by trying really hard to make it happen. Mantras, repeated rituals, external discipline structures are an attempt at doing this. Someone can, sometimes, experience some behavioral changes, but these flesh-powered attempts don't have what's needed to transform a person.
Paul explained that even he, as a believer, attempted to follow God's law by grit and determination. Notice how he explains a time when he was attempting a flesh-powered transformation. He said, I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, Do not covet. And sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind… For I do not understand what I am doing because I do not practice what I want to do, but I do what I hate.1
He explains something we all understand. If I hear a rule like, "don't think lustful thoughts about Suzzy." What am I almost certainly going to do? Well, my flesh is going to hear the name, Suzzy, over the radio of my inner monologue. The flesh then begins to drum up custom-crafted temptations. The more I say, "don't lust," to my flesh, the more I'm tempted to lust. That's the flesh-powered cycle at work. That's what happens when we try to power transformation ourselves. It simply doesn't work.
So you need transformation, but the problem is that your attempt to transform yourself is always going to fail. That's because, like the fruit tree, you don't have the power to transform yourself. You can't fight the temptation of the flesh with the power of the flesh. Telling yourself not to sin is as good as fighting fire with more fire.
Paul said, do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed2. The world is full of bad fruit. If you want good fruit, if you want the abundant, fruitful life that God offers, it's going to be His power, not yours, that brings about the transformation. The fulfilled life is only possible if you transform. Where does transformation power come from?
The moment that you believed in Jesus for salvation, whether you knew it or not, God placed his Holy Spirit inside of you.3 It’s God’s Spirit that grows the fruit. It’s God’s Spirit who is living in you, who produces the transformation which leads to abundant life.
You can't make the fruit tree grow, just like you can't force Spiritual fruit to bud and develop through bodily means. The power of the sun brings about the fruit. God's mysterious power is what will bring about transformation in your life.
So if it’s God’s power that transforms me, I can just sit back and do nothing, right? If you want abundant life, you need transformation. Only God's Spirit can power transformation, but you do have a role to play. Your role is to help connect the flesh to the power source. Yeah, you read that right. You need your flesh to be transformed, and God's Spirit has the power to do it.
Transformation doesn't happen automatically, but it is possible for you and me. Note that in talking about transformation, Paul doesn't just say, "be transformed." He says, "be transformed by…" and then explains what will allow the transformation to take place. In the next chapters, we'll talk about our role in our own transformation process.
1 Romans 7:7-8, 15
2 Romans 12:1 NKJV
3 I Corinthians 3:16