5 Spiritual Lessons I learned from…building my garden

My wife and I were one of the few 20-something couples in the UK fortunate enough to get on the property ladder during the last decade. Our budget was tight, so we bought what was essentially an old smoking den with the intention of spending the next several years building it up to something nice and homely. Within a year we had the inside of the house refubished to the point where my kids could sleep in their bedrooms without waking up with a lung infection, and it’s been steady progress since then.

The last thing on our list of things to fix up was the garden. This property has a MASSIVE back garden space. It was actually one of the reasons we first bought the house. We knew when we bought it that it would need a tonne of work, but the thought of our kids having a space half the size of a football pitch to run around in made us giddy with excitement. So we began the slow journey of working away at it over time, and I am pleased to say that by God’s grace and provision we finally got it turfed last week. We now have a beautiful green lawn that requires my attention every day so that it doesn’t die.

For reference, here’s what the garden looked like when we first bought it:

And here’s what it looks like today:

It’s an amazing transformation, and one that we’re extremely thankful for. Over time I’ve began to realise more and more that the gradual transformation of our garden has been a metaphor of God’s work in my own life. Below are 5 of the Spiritual Lessons I’ve learned…From Building my Garden:

#1: Christ Purchased Us When We Were At Our Worst


As you can see, when we got the garden it was a complete mess. The grass and weeds stood taller than us, there were hidden dips and mounds that played havok with our ankles, there was no fence, and at the back of it there was a sheer drop down onto an old scrapyard. As we’d later find out, beneath all of it was a dump truck’s worth of rubble – bricks, stones, boulders, pottery, glass and junk. Getting it into a usable state turned out to be a lot more trouble than we realised.

Saying that, we bought it knowing that it would take a lot of work. We bought it knowing that while it wasn’t perfect, we would be committed to making it into what it could be. There is a similar truth found in the Bible about us.

There’s a well known verse in book of Romans, written by the Apostle Paul. This is what it says:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Romans 5:6-8 (ESV), [Emphasis mine]

As I said in my last post, humanity is tainted by sin. Sin is evil. It’s ugly. It brings death and corruption to everything it touches. Every human being born today is born into sin, and no matter how much we try to scrub it away or get rid of it ourselves, we can’t. Our sin is offensive to God. By all rights, he would have been perfectly justified to leave us in it and let us die. But he didn’t.

While we were still in our sin – still offensive, still wicked, still enemies of God – Jesus Christ died for us.

He didn’t wait until you had met a certain standard. He didn’t wait until you were ready. He didn’t wait until you showed signs of improving.

God saw all of your sin, all of your ugliness, all of the things you do and will do that go against his good wishes – and he still loved you. He didn’t die for the person you could be – he died for the person you are and were, at your worst. As one of my favourite preachers Matt Chandler puts it:

God is not in love with a cleaner, more put together, future version of you. His love for you right now is steadfast…

Matt Chandler

We bought my garden when it was a mess because we were able to see beyond its ugliness. We loved that space for what it was, and we commited ourselves to working on it.

In the same way, if you are in Christ, he died for you when you were dead in your sin.

God doesn’t love the version of you 10 years from now. He doesn’t love the version of you when you get tidy yourself up a little bit. He loves the version of you right now, with all of your kinks, faults and sin.

God doesn’t love the version of you 10 years from now. He doesn’t love the version of you when you get tidy yourself up a little bit. He loves the version of you right now, with all of your kinks, faults and sin.

The Bible states that as soon as you put your faith in Christ, you are given his righteousness. (Romans chapters 3,4,5, 1 Cor 1:30, etc…) Theologians call this imputed righteousness. In Christ, believers are made Holy. That doesn’t mean we always act Holy, but as far as God is concerned we become as guiltless as his son, and he is commited to making us look like that more and more. This is known as “sanctification“. Read this quote from Romans 8 below:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
Romans 8:28-29 (ESV) [Emphasis mine]

Romans 8 is one of the centrepiece chapters of the Bible. While verse 28 is well known, verse 29 is a little less so. The word “predestined” in that verse sometimes scares people. I’m not going to get into the topic of predestination just yet, as I can’t be bothered with the calvinism vs arminianism debates that will erupt in my comments section. Maybe later.

In this context, all the word “predestination” means is this: it is the believer’s destiny to become like Jesus. God is committed to shaping us, moulding us and conforming us into the image of his Son. It means the uprooting and removing of sinful patterns, habits and desires in our lives. This is what sanctification is; it’s God’s work in making us more like his Son.

While this is good news, it can be painful, as unfortunately…

2. Sanctification Takes Time


It’s been 4 years since we moved into this house, and progress wasn’t always quick. The weeds were stubborn and took a lot of work to get rid of. Not only that, but they didn’t stay gone for long. We’d clear a part of the garden, take a short break when the weather turned, then go back within a week and find that everything had already grown back and it seemed like we were back at square one. Sanctification is a bit like this.

When I first put my faith in Jesus, some of my sinful habits and desires literally disappeared over night. Things I thought would be a struggle suddenly weren’t a struggle any more. I wish I could say that was the case for everything, but it hasn’t been. My walk with Jesus has gone through ups and downs, and my battle against my indwelling sin has seen highs and lows too. There have been times over the past 9 years when I thought I’ve been over a struggle, only for it to rear its ugly head again a couple of years down the line.

I can’t remember how many times I’ve cried out to God asking for help and grace for things that I keep stumbling over. There are times I’ve wondered if I’ll ever “get there”. And the truth is, I won’t. Not on this side of glory, at least. I will be a work in progress until the day I die, and that’s okay. In fact, the sooner we come to terms with that, the more we’ll be able to find freedom in the gospel.

Once we finally come to the place where we can rest in the finished work of Jesus and say with confidence that we have been made righteous and clean by him we’ll be encouraged to push into God when we sin, not run away from him.

Once we finally come to the place where we rest in the finished work of Jesus and say with confidence that we have been made righteous and clean by him we’ll be encouraged to push into God when we sin, not run away from him.

For most of us the journey of sanctification is much slower than we’d like. We want to be better now. We want to overcome now. But God’s timing rarely matches our timing. We are a work in progress, and our Lord and Master is comitted to making us like him, no matter how long it may take. Just like my garden there will be setbacks – there will be seasons where it seems like we’ve taken 3 steps forward and 4 steps back – but in the end, we’ll get there. We just have to trust that God knows what he’s doing. Afterall, his patience and love far outweighs our sin and stubborness.

3. Growing In Spiritual Maturity Requires the Help of Others


The transforming of our garden has been a monumental team effort. Jodie and I received a lot of help, both practical and financial, from our parents. Through a chance conversation at the school gates, one of our neighbours built a fence around the entire garden for free. Last year when our extended family were allowed to finally visit again they spent a whole day helping us get it painted. Friends and family members have loaned us tools to help get it done quicker, and the bulk of the work done in the past month was done by a professional landscaper.

Through the generosity and support of others, God has provided and given us everything we’ve needed to get the garden to what we envisioned it to be.

The same is true of our walk with God. Personal experience has shown me that those who try to follow Jesus without the help and support of other believers around them often end up crashing, or falling back into their sin. It is extremely difficult to grow as a disciple of Jesus without the input of others.

For my own journey of faith, I had a headstart in that a huge number of folks in my church made it their personal responsibility to disciple me from the beginning. Within a week of praying with someone I was introduced to some of our student small group leaders, who invited me and Jodie to join a student small group, which became our extended family for the next year. On top of that, two mature believers met with me every week to go through a course that went through the basics of the Christian faith. I was often the only one to turn up, which I’m sure was discouraging for them, but they pressed on: week after week for months they’d meet me, answer my questions and help me explore my new found faith. A year into my faith, our student pastor took a personal interest in me and began to meet with me one on one to pray and study scripture together.

The Christian life is not easy. Temptations and trials hide around every corner. The book of Proverbs famously says that iron sharpens iron, and we need people in our lives who God can use to sharpen us, to help see our blind spots and to keep us acountable.

There are fellow pastors and leaders in my church who I know I can turn to if I’m struggling – be that emotionally, or spiritually. Those same people aren’t afraid to ask me difficult questions about my life, faith, and marriage, which I’m sure my wife has appreciated! Sometimes I don’t realise I’m being a crappy husband until a question asked by a close friend helps me see it.

On top of that, there are a few people in my life who I know I can go to to confess or unpack anything without fear of judgement. I’m allowed to be known, and that is so freeing.

It is God who saves, and God who does the act of sanctification. But it is often through his people that he does these things.

You can be a Christian without a local church; but you can’t live the Christian life without the local church. This phrase maybe a clichè, but it’s ultimately true.

Our garden is ours – it belongs to my wife and I. But others have taken it upon themselves to input into it and to help us with it, to make sure that it grows and becomes what it was meant to be. The same is true of our souls. Lord have mercy on the Christian who tries to go at it alone! They make themselves an easy target for the enemy. Speaking of mercy…

4. It Is The Mercy of God to Reveal Our Hidden Sin


Our house is next to an old mine. And where our garden is now once stood various cottages and garages, no doubt used by mining families when the mines were active. These houses had been knocked down at the back end of the last century, and the rubble/foundations of the old buildings were left where they lay. As the years went on the weeds grew over everything, hiding the mess from plain sight. When the ground was finally churned up we found that our garden was suddenly swimming in bricks, boulders, glass, stones, pottery, tools, household items and a whole host of other rubbish. With the ground in that state it was going to be impossible to sow seeds or lay turf. We’d finally conquered one problem, but all it did was raise another one, hidden deep under the surface.

During the last lockdown I spent a lot of my spare time digging up the rubble in the garden. It was tiring work. Some of the bricks were stuck together just below the surface, and for those a good hit from a pickaxe or a sledgehammer was enough to get them loose. Some of the brickwork was set several feet underground, however, and for those ones I had to dig deep and wide in order to get them out. It was when I was digging out these foundations that I often stumbled across another group that wasn’t even visible before. I remember digging out the foundations of one of the cottages, and by the time I’d finished I’d discovered 3 more that had been hidden away! Every time I seemed to make progress something else came up.

As I was digging up these foundations, we had just gone into our first nationwide lockdown in the UK. After a few weeks of being stuck indoors with only my wife and kids for company, God began to reveal things in me that I had never noticed. For example, I discovered that I was much more selfish than I realised – I loved time to myself too much, and the fact that I could no longer get it was leading to tension in our house. I was also less patient than I thought. My fuse was much shorter than I realised. Given the opportunity to be stuck in doors and not go out, laziness came easily to me. It was uncomfortable learning these things about myself, but it was in God’s mercy that he revealed them to me. If he hadn’t, they would have sat under the surface, undealt with, just waiting for the right opportunity to spring out of the ground and bring chaos and destruction to my life.

Had we planted seeds or lay turf in the garden without digging up all of the rubble first, we would have found that the grass would struggle to grow, and all the money spent would have been wasted. Since these things had been revealed we were able to deal with them then and there, meaning there was room for future growth and new life.

So it is with sanctification. God is wholly committed to us. He wants all of us – not just parts of us. When we notice the Lord do a work in us, sometimes we can say “great, thanks God. You’ve helped me overcome. I’m good now.” But the Lord’s work is just beginning. He doesn’t just want that part of us – he wants all of us. Every part of us, even the bits hidden deep down, he wants them conformed to his image, obliterated and rebuilt in his love. We often overcome one problem, and God immediately begins to work on something else. It’s frustrating, but it’s much better than the alternative.

It might be difficult when the Lord reveals your sin. Sometimes he’ll even do it publicly. It will be uncomofortable, humbling, and maybe even shocking. But sin always leads to death, and it’s in God’s mercy that he reveals it for us – because he loves us. He does this for our good and for our joy. For those of us in Christ, we can take comfort in the fact that God is ferociously commited to us. Rather than fight back, we can ask him to reveal the hidden sin in our heart, to give us freedom, joy and life in him.

5. God Will Finish The Work He Started In Us


Our garden still isn’t finished. The grass is down, but it currently needs constant attention in order to make sure that it takes root. Our patio is still a mess, and is in need of an (un)healthy dose of weed killer and a good blast from a powerwasher. In the future we’d like to get decking, a raised flowerbed, and maybe even plant a tree or two.

I’m not sure what the garden will look like when we’re done with it, but I know that, Lord willing, we’ll get there eventually.

The same can be said of God’s work in us.

I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
Philippians 1:6 (ESV)

Paul’s words here are just as true of us as they were for the Philippians. God is commited to us. He chose us before the foundation of the world, called us and saved us. He didn’t save us just to leave us to our own devices; he saved us for a reason.

No one will be perfect in this current life. We are all, and always will be until the day we die, a work in progress. God can handle that.

Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t an excuse for us to live in sin and conciously make mistakes – the same Bible that promises his grace and forgiveness also commands us to be Holy, because God is Holy. But we can live with confidence knowing that despite all of our faults, our failings – our indwelling sin – God is with us and for us. He is making us like Jesus. It’s happening, even if it doesn’t feel like it. In fact, I bet if you took a moment to stop and look back over your life now compared to five years ago you’d begin to notice little signs of his work being done in you.

Jesus Christ purchased us with his blood, and let me tell you; he doesn’t have buyer’s remorse. God knew what he was buying when he bought you. He didn’t buy some future, perfect version of you. He bought the broken, ugly, sinful version of you.

Jesus Christ purchased us with his blood, and let me tell you; he doesn’t have buyer’s remorse.

God excels in bringing beauty from ashes; bringing light into darkness; bringing death to life, and turning sinners into saints.

That work often takes longer than we like. It requires the help of others. It will take a lot of digging and soul searching, and sometimes the uncomfortable revealing of the hidden depths of our heart, but it’s not for nothing. He will finish the work. There will come a day when your sin will be nothing but a distant memory, and the struggles you face today will seem like a whisper in the wind.

In a couple of weeks my kids will be allowed to play on our grass for the first time. As joyful as that day will be for us, it will be nothing compared to joy the Father will have the day Jesus Christ presents us before him faultless, perfect and holy.

Take heart, believer: God is overwhelmingly for you.

-J

Agree? Disagree? How have you noticed the work of God take place in your own life? Let me know below in the comments! Also, if this post helped you please feel free to share it on social media and with your friends.

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