Updated: May 25, 2021
In March I planted two small lavender plants in my garden as part of a test plot to determine if I want to plant more. These two are of the same variety, both came in three-inch pots, and were planted in the same soil at the same time. As part of my experiment with lavender, I am trying different methods of care for these two plants. For Plant #1, I am doing no pruning for the first year. I’m simply letting it flower and grow however it wants to. In fact, it is already blooming! For Plant #2, I am clipping off any stems that would otherwise grow flowers. The idea here is that by removing those stems, the plant refocuses its resources on root growth rather than flower growth. In theory, this will mean that next year Plant #2 will actually produce more flowers than Plant #1 because it has spent its first year growing a deeper, stronger root system.
If you look at my two lavender plants today, you might say that the one with flowers is more mature than the one without. But really, they are the same age and both growing—one is simply growing below the surface of the soil and the other’s growth is more visible. In the long run, it is the one that is focusing on root growth that will likely be a more resilient and productive plant.
I think that spiritual development looks something like a plant’s roots pushing through dense, dark soil in search of a water source that will sustain the plant. For a while, we all depend on frequent watering from above. As our roots grow stronger though, we can come to rely on a deeper source of spiritual nourishment.
How do roots grow stronger, though? How do they move deeper? Simply put, roots grow wherever water is available. On our almond farm, when we plant a new field of young trees, we have to keep our drip lines right at the base of each tree because that’s where the tree’s roots are. After a year, however, we move the drip lines farther away from the base of the tree to encourage the roots to spread out and grow deeper. They are drawn to the moisture.
The author of Hebrews talks about maturity using the metaphors of eating solid food rather than milk (5:12-14) and moving past the “elementary teachings about Christ” to something more (6:1-3). An adult cannot live on milk alone. A student will not learn if they only keep repeating elementary school. And a plant will not last if its roots remain near the surface.
Our society offers us lots of surface-level sips of water. Every time we look at a screen we are offered some new product that will make us happy. We are given self-help books to make us better people. We are fed likes, comments, and shares to sustain us. We are showered with tribalistic ideologies to see which one we’ll grow toward. Like a houseplant whose roots have become bound within a pot, our growth is stunted if we only rely on the surface level water that our society pours over us.
Jesus calls us toward something deeper. He takes those bound roots of ours, breaks them up, and replants us in the garden. In the garden, the soil is rich and water abounds. Our roots grow deep to the water of life that lie below. And those roots anchor us in Christ.
Saint Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth century Spanish nun, talks about two large water basins in our souls. One of them is filled by our own efforts of transporting water and pouring it into the basin—we do this through meditation and through our thoughts of spiritual things. The other basin, though, exists at the very source of the water. At this basin, she writes, “the water comes direct from its source, which is God, and, when it is His Majesty’s will and He is pleased to grant us some supernatural favour, its coming is accompanied by the greatest peace and quietness and sweetness within ourselves.” Both of these basins are good and bring fulfillment. The difference, she says, is that one begins with ourselves and ends with God, while the other begins with God and flows over into ourselves.
God is a deep, everlasting spring of life. Maturity comes as we allow our roots to grow deeper—away from the surface level water of the world and toward the ancient well of water that gives life to all creation. That journey is not easy or quick, though. We may experience periods of thirst when we do not feel satisfied and it is easier to sip on the water society offers. Many Christians experience spiritual events in very real ways—visions, miracles, wisdom concerning spiritual things—but at some point those events might happen less often or not at all. We may go through dry seasons. Some people will think there is something wrong with themselves and strive even harder. Others will think there is something wrong with their faith and walk away altogether. But perhaps that is a time of growth—your roots are stretching further, searching for the ever-flowing spring of water.
If you feel you are in the dark when it comes to your spiritual life, know that it is in the dark that seeds germinate, roots grow, and life-giving water is found. It is what happens in the dark, that enables the growth, beauty, and fruitfulness that occurs in the light.