Cultivating our Hearts

 

Why is it that one person hears the Gospel and is pierced to the heart, while another one hears the Good News of our Lord week after week, yet remained unchanged by it?

I meet from time to time people who have had dramatic conversions – from addictions and brokenness and dark ways to a changed and transformed, new life. Last night, I was with a person who shared with me his life story, describing his journey In every generation, we can hear stories of people whose lives are transformed by their encounter with Jesus Christ and His Church. In the annals of our Orthodox saints, we see criminals repent, murderers transformed; thieves changing to live honest and generous lives; and even atheists, antagonistic and rejecting God, yet later discovering Him and becoming devout believers.

How does this happen? Why will one person’s life be transformed by the Gospel, while so many others remain indifferent? Even some who come to Church week after week don’t appear to allow the Gospel to affect their daily lives. Whether an unforgiving spirit, a hardened heart, a selfish demeanor, an arrogant or proud will, or a stingy tendency, many people don’t allow the Spirit of God to penetrate their hearts and transfigure their lives!

Why does Christ’s love set aflame one life, yet do little to ignite another? Is it that our Lord’s love isn’t for all, or is it that each person has the choice to accept or reject, to listen or to ignore, to follow or to discount Jesus’ call?

One of my favorite passages of Holy Scripture, which describes this situation well, comes from Revelation, where Jesus says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with me.” (Rev 3:20) Our Lord Jesus passionately longs to enter the heart and life of each and every person in the world, and to change their lives for the better, yet He loves us so much that He respects our freedom to ignore His love and to close our hearts to His Spirit!

Today’s Gospel reading precisely addresses this situation. Christ tells a story very relevant to his listeners, mostly whom were farmers. Maybe some of us can understand the essence of this story better if we compare it to our gardening efforts. “There was a gardener planting seeds, and as he threw the seeds, they fell on different types of ground. Some seed fell on HARD SOIL, which could not penetrate the ground. Some fell on ROCKY SOIL, which did not allow roots to grow.  Some fell on THORNY SOIL, which eventually choked the growing plants. Finally, some fell on soft, CULTIVATED, PREPARED SOIL.  Only this seed fully developed, with roots deep in the ground. Only this plant produced fruit. 

Note that the central focus of this story is not on the sower, who is God, nor on the seed, which are His teachings. The story concentrates on the soil, which represents our hearts!  This lesson challenges us to look at our own lives, and see what type of soil our hearts have.

When the first seed falls on the hard ground, this hard surface obviously represents a hard heart. A heart not open to learn. A heart not interested in growing.  A heart full of pride and self-centered pursuits. A heart that ignores the Gospel and its teachings, because it thinks it knows everything. How many people, in and outside the church today, have such closed hearts? We who come to church must ask ourselves, “Do we come to listen and learn how to apply our Lord’s teachings in our daily lives? Are we open to learn something new? Or do we come solely to ease our conscience and fulfill an obligation?”

When some seed falls on the rocky soil, this describes the type of land in Palestine which has a thin layer of dirt covering a foundation of rock. A seed’s roots can begin to grow, but quickly stop when they run into the rock foundation. The soil has no depth. Can this describe our own hearts and souls? How many Christians who at one time lived their faith with joy and passion allowed their hearts to become cold and indifferent to the Gospel. Possibly from prosperity and comfort. Maybe from certain pastimes and hobbies. Possibly from not wanting Christ to “interfere” too much with our lives. The Christian life isn’t a 100 meter dash, but a marathon. God will not congratulate anyone for beginning the race; only those who finish the race will receive a crown. Such is the case for people with shallow hearts.

In the Gospel story, some seed falls into the soil with thorns. This soil is good and rich, with much potential. Surely, the Gospel can take root and grow in such hearts. The problem, however, is that growing alongside the good seed are weeds and thorns. In our walk as Christians, such weeds and thorns threaten to crowd out Christ and His teachings. Our Church Fathers talk about the three most common and threatening weeds -- cares or anxieties of the world, the deceit of riches, and our desire for pleasure. Society bombards us with these temptations. Some such temptations may not appear to be bad in and of themselves. We must stay vigilant, however, and take care that nothing crowds out our Lord. If anything in our lives makes us too busy to find time with God, if anything takes away our primary focus and loyalty to Christ, then such things have become weeds and thorns endangering our spiritual wellbeing. We must dig such weeds out and cast them aside. Don’t allow anything to hinder our growth in Christ and to stop us from bearing fruit.

Ultimately, our goal as Orthodox Christians is to cultivate hearts that represent fertile, rich soil. Such soil not only accepts the seeds of faith, but becomes fertile land for faith to grow unhindered. And the result of such a faithful heart will be abundant fruit. Remember, such soil accepts the seed, allows it to grow unhindered by anything else, and then becomes a plant which bears fruit. Here lies the fundamental goal of our Christian lives – not only to grow, but to bear fruit!

And how do we cultivate hearts that will bear fruit? Any gardener knows that good soil is a mixture of natural gifts and careful cultivation. The soil may have many nutrients, which are given by God, but the gardener must still diligently work in the garden. The gardener must cultivate, water, and care for the soil. We can say the same for our spiritual life. We cannot cultivate an authentic spiritual life without daily and patient effort, without struggling to repress certain thoughts and feelings, without an amount of discipline, without meditation and self-examination, and without an ascetical struggle. We cannot nourish a spiritual life without an effort of learning our faith and participating in the sacraments of the Church.

God’s grace works together with our effort. We must cooperate with God. Of course, God will do 99% of the work for us, but he insists that we add our own effort. Although God is able to give us the fruit we need in our lives, he won’t do that unless he sees us struggling to cultivate and prepare our own soil.

So today, let us reflect upon ourselves and ask, “What type of soil am I?” Are we the hard soil, the shallow soil, the thorny soil, or the good soil? 

Maybe if we honestly evaluate our lives, we’ll realize that our hearts reflect each type of soil at different times in our lives. Sometimes we’re hard and closed; sometimes we’re shallow; sometimes we allow weeds and thorns to overwhelm us; and sometimes we see God’s word grow in our hearts. The Gospel lesson reminds us to take care and examine ourselves. Note where we are hard, and soften the ground. Note where we are shallow, and dig deeper.  Note where we have weeds, and begin rooting them out. Let us make our hearts and souls a soil that accepts the word of God, that gives it nutrients to grow, and finally that bear fruit.

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Do not let any unwholesome talk proceed out of your mouth, but only what is helpful for building other people up, that it may impart grace to the hearers.”

 

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