Deep roots are essential in times of drought

Growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan taught me the importance of roots going deep. In the Prairies, rain is very unpredictable and with dryland farming, rain is also an absolute necessity in summer. If during those hot, dry, dusty summer months, weeks went by without rain, the concern became palpable. Farmers would mention rain as a prayer request at every prayer meeting. My grandfather would call us early in the morning to find out if the latest rainshower had hit our farm or not.

But if the crop had developed deep roots in the early part of the growing season, it could survive even a month or longer without rain. Roots grow toward the water. Even if the top few inches of the ground are dry, the crop can survive by drawing on those resources well below the surface. The roots of wheat can grow to a depth of 1.5 meters, but they can’t grow through bone-dry dirt and their growth is impeded by compacted soil. So during spring seeding, the soil must have sufficient moisture and be loose enough to allow those seeds to germinate and to send their roots down to the level of the moisture.

Shallow roots

A few days ago in my NT Bible reading in Mark 4, I read about the seed that is sown on rocky soil.

Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. – Mark 4:16–17, NIV

If the seed of the Word of God falls on rocky soil, the roots will not go deep. Lack of deep roots evidently means that a person does not have the faith that sustains them through times of hardship, distress, or opposition. When times become difficult and they are criticized for their faith, their commitment to following Jesus quickly wanes.

Deep spiritual roots

This sounds like the opposite of the person described in Jeremiah 17.

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” – Jeremiah 17:7–8, NIV

In a prior chapter, Jeremiah encourages the people of his day to do some plowing to prepare themselves to hear God’s Word.

This is what the LORD says to the people of Judah and to Jerusalem: “Break up your unplowed ground and do not sow among thorns. Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts, you people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or my wrath will flare up and burn like fire because of the evil you have done— burn with no one to quench it. – Jer 4:3-4, NIV

Who does the plowing?

In my last post, I used another analogy from farming. I talked about how in the past, God uses calamity and hardship to disrupt lives and prepare people for receiving the message of truth. Based on the analogy from farming in the book of Isaiah (Is 28:24-26), I noted that God does not continually disrupt. There comes a time when he transitions from plowing to sowing. In Isaiah’s prophecy, a time of spiritual revival and blessing follows a time of disaster and destruction. I believe that we can draw the same conclusion about what God is doing and will do through the worldwide and pervasive disruption caused by COVID-19.

But in Isaiah, God is the one plowing. Here in Jeremiah, the prophet tells the people to do the plowing themselves. This divine/human mutually shared responsibility shows us what we all understand. A crisis does not automatically lead to a time of fruitfulness. We have a responsibility to respond in appropriate ways to the crisis at hand (in our time, the COVID-19 pandemic) so that our hearts are ready to receive what God wants to do in our lives and ministries. Roots do not go deep if rocks or hardpan are in the way.

How do we encourage roots to go deep?

How do we make sure that the Word is deeply rooted in our lives as disciples of Christ? What can we do as disciple-makers to encourage the development of deep roots in those we are teaching and mentoring? These are the questions that I have been asking myself in the last while. Here are some thoughts about how to answer these questions.

Study the soil conditions.

In spring, my father would walk on to each field before seeding to evaluate the moisture content, the amount of soil compaction, the degree to which weeds have already sprouted, and a number of other factors as well. With this information, he would then decide what to seed, when to seed, how deep to seed, what type of pre-seeding tillage was needed, and the amount and type of fertilizer he should use.

In the spiritual context, take a good look at the soil on which the seed of the Word is going to be sown. For yourself, do a spiritual inventory. SEND U’s “Helps for A Day Alone with God” contains some inventories that may be of help.

As a cross-cultural disciple-maker, be a student of the culture. Understand how the Gospel impacts your host culture at the worldview level. Deep spiritual roots penetrate the disciple’s cultural values and change the way he thinks about all of life. Dr. Gary Ridley has summarized the 10 CQ cultural value orientations in an article found on the SEND U wiki. He will be publishing a number of blog articles, explaining these orientations in greater detail. The first can be found here.

Choose good seed.

Not all types of wheat are equally drought-resistant. Plant breeders are continually working on finding better varieties of grain crops that will be more tolerant of drought conditions. One of the things that they are looking at is the length and depth of the roots.1

When looking at spiritual health, we want to make sure we get the Gospel right. Understand and explain grace and faith thoroughly. Give careful thought to how to present Jesus as King, deserving our full allegiance. Shallow spiritual rooting may be due to an inadequate understanding of the Gospel. See a blog post from a few weeks ago. I particularly recommend The King Jesus Gospel, a book by Scot McKnight.

Fertilize the seedbed.

My family farm is now an organic farm so no chemicals are used (fertilizers or herbicides). But when I was a child, the seed drill put both the seed and the appropriate fertilizer into the soil at the same time.

For a disciple of Christ to develop deep spiritual roots, he or she needs spiritual nutrition on an ongoing basis. We need to know how to feed ourselves spiritually and develop well-established rhythms of self-feeding. See a blog series on this topic from a few years ago.

As a disciple-maker, train others to feed themselves as well. Ask them to share what God is teaching them from the Word, and show them how to read the Scriptures so that they are looking for spiritual insight and application. This blog post in particular deals with how to train others to feed themselves.

Kill the weeds.

A few weeks after the seed sprouts, it is time to spray for weeds (at least on non-organic farms). Weeds choke out the crop by competing for the nutrients, sunlight, and water.

As a disciple of Christ, we need to be looking for things that can prevent our spiritual growth. For me, one of the most helpful ways to do this is to monitor my reactions to difficulties. We need to own our reactions to stress and deprivation (e.g. shelter-in-place restrictions), and not simply blame them on our circumstances. Acknowledge that these reactions are God’s indicators of what is really in our hearts (see Luke 6:43-45). In his grace, God is showing us what is preventing a deeper relationship with him. God is giving us a chance to confess and repent of the evil in our hearts that he has revealed to us. I would highly recommend a series of lectures on spiritual formation by Dr. John Coe of the Talbot School of Theology if you want to learn more.

As a disciple-maker, encourage people to share their struggles and help them to understand how these point to heart issues, but also God’s grace.

What would you add to this list of suggestions?