The Soil of Our Hearts

Discipline cultivates growth


With a move back to the United States after almost 20 years overseas, our family now has a yard and garden for the first time in a long time. This, of course, has added outdoor work to our weekly routine. But it’s not seeing grass grow in the dry, sandy earth of my back yard that puts the smile on my face; rather, I enjoy watching fresh, green sprouts emerge from the soft, rich soil in the ceramic pots in which I had embedded the seeds.

In the arid environment of Judea, the first-century residents knew a lot about sowing seeds and the conditions essential for germination. In Matthew 13, Jesus shares a parable about seeds that fell on four types of soil. As He explains the story to His disciples, we learn that these soils are metaphors for the state of individual hearts when they hear the gospel.

The parable teaches us that, despite how transforming the message of Jesus is, not all are ready to receive it. In verses 19 and 23, He identifies the problem as one of understanding. And the picture Jesus paints of the truly understanding heart is one of “yielded-ness”—of good soil receiving seed deeply so that it will take root, grow, and produce fruit. At issue is whether a person’s heart is really ready to receive the gospel with the type of understanding that surrenders to the miracle of new birth, growth, and fruitfulness.

Most often, we read this parable in light of sharing the gospel with nonbelievers. Certainly, Jesus had this in mind when He referred to the story as “the parable of the sower” (v. 18). But His explanation to His disciples focuses on the heart condition of people who have heard the gospel. Clearly, some have given the gospel true consideration, even receiving it in such a way that it began to sprout in them before it was lost.

Yet Jesus’ depiction of different responses to the gospel is not limited to the way in which people first respond. Again, Jesus equates understanding hearts with soil that is yielded and with seed that can grow to bear fruit. Although the gospel has the power to break hard soil—just as tender shoots sometimes appear between rocks—fruitful growth happens best when the soil of our hearts is yielded and ready. When we submit ourselves continually to the ongoing work of the gospel, we are cooperating with our Savior and Sanctifier, much like a gardener prepares the soil well before sowing seed.

It can be helpful to study the three soils in this parable that were not well prepared: the hard path, the shallow, rocky soil, and the patches filled with weeds.

Seed that fell on the hard path could not grow at all because this soil had long been used for something other than cultivation; it had been walked over for a long time. This represents hearts hardened by life. Although people with this type of heart hear the basic message of the gospel, they often come to Jesus wearied by difficulties, perhaps even feeling used by trials or traumas. These experiences can produce numb confusion, guarded fearfulness, or stubborn defensiveness. Because they struggle to deeply understand the gospel, these listeners do not enjoy ongoing Christian growth and fruitfulness.

The second type of soil Jesus identifies as unlikely to produce growth is shallow and rocky. The roots of the seedlings initially reach into earth that gives life but soon run into natural barriers that have never been removed. Often a Christian retains habits, patterns of thinking and relating, or culture-based behavior—things that are not unnatural but nonetheless inhibit spiritual growth and fruit. We may find ourselves living at the speed of the world, caught up in unexamined values, justifying our lifestyle in comparison to others. We can wind up giving Jesus only shallow ground in our crowded lives.

And thirdly, Jesus talks about seed sprouting in ground that is full of weeds. As opposed to the rocks, which are natural, though obstructive to growth, these weeds symbolize alien life allowed to remain in the soil of our hearts, a metaphor of spiritual battle with the evil powers of the world that have taken root in our hearts. The New Testament abounds with warnings to Christ followers that alien attachments and allegiances must be uprooted.

For the heart of the believer in which bad soil remains, there is great hope. If the parable points out that some people will not respond to the gospel with yielded understanding, it also clearly teaches that we can choose, in faith, to cultivate the soil of our hearts for life and growth. The elements of this parable present a beautiful picture of deep and fruitful spiritual life: The Word of God (seed) finds intentionally yielded hearts (good soil), prepared by the work of God’s Spirit (a cultivating plow), and grows understanding (true, self-aware reflection) that brings empowered change and multiplying impact (growth and fruit) in that believer’s life.

With this in mind, the embrace of four disciplines—paralleling the four soils of the parable—is vital if we want to experience growth in our lives and fruit in our impact on others.

First, to avoid hardness of heart, we need disciplines of yielded-ness. Similar to plowing, cultivating, and soaking soil in the garden, we must pursue submission, transparency, and structure within a fellowship of believers and before God’s Word. Some people find following the sensitive counsel of a pastor, elder, or spiritual director helpful in breaking up numbness or hardness of soul through reflection and application of God’s Word. Equally important is the holy vulnerability needed to seek qualified help regarding deep wounds caused by past experiences.

Second, to avoid shallowness in a fast-paced, distracting world, we need disciplines of depth. Fasting from appetites helps us to focus as we soak in God’s Word. Personal or corporate retreats for prayer, rest, and reflection—not just for more distraction—can help. Regularly and accountably sharing our journey among others, where there is enough trust for transparency, is an antidote for shallowness. All these things aid the pursuit of concrete change and deep living.

Third, disciplines of freedom in Christ help us to avoid alien influence and attachments in our hearts. We need to give rigorous attention to the loves, allegiances, and dependencies that compete with Christ for our affection—whether they are spiritual or material. Speaking the truth of God’s Word, making firm declarations and issuing commands in the authority Christ shares with us are elements of spiritual warfare we must sometimes use to release our hearts from the choking weeds.

Lastly, we can turn back to Jesus’ picture of the good soil to draw insights regarding disciplines of intimacy with God. Even as we give needed attention to bad soil in our lives, we have the privilege of constantly receiving the Living Word deeply into our hearts. He has “daily seed” for us as surely as He has daily bread.

The final point of Jesus’ parable is this: The healing, restoring, and life-giving work of God that changes our lives into something beautiful when we yield to it is the same flow of goodness that produces multiplying fruit. Whether in our families and neighborhoods or in parts of the world where people lack even the slightest gospel access, the key to bearing fruit that compounds in the lives of others ultimately begins in the condition of our own hearts.

In our Alliance family may we more and more be a people with hearts so yielded to the Person and work of Jesus that fruit will multiply a hundred- or sixty- or thirtyfold. It’s a matter of the soil of our hearts.

4 responses to The Soil of Our Hearts

  1. This reminded me of Hosea 10:12 – a verse very near to my heart! Thank you for sharing these thoughts. See you in a few weeks!

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