I pray and do many good works. But, the labor and work I put into spiritual growth doesn’t seem to get any results. Help!!!!!!
OUR LORD FREQUENTLY described his kingdom, the growth of his lordship in each heart and in the world, by comparing it to plants. The mustard seed (see Matthew 13:31), the farmer’s field (see Matthew 13:24), the sower who sowed seed on various types of soil (see Luke 8:1-15)—all these images illustrate the essential partnership at the heart of our Christian journey.
The seed has an intrinsic power to grow and bear fruit. That power comes directly from God, not from anything the farmer can do. But the power to grow is only released under proper conditions: good soil, water, sunlight. Creating and maintaining the proper conditions for growth is the farmer’s job. And it’s a hard job. Lots of work is involved. But even if he did all that work extremely well, it would have no result without the God-given life inside the seed.
Which is more essential to a healthy crop, the seed or the soil? Neither. Both are equally essential. So it is with our growth in holiness. God’s grace is the seed of new spiritual life planted in our souls through faith and baptism, the potential to become a saint, a unique reflection of God’s infinite beauty, the glorious truth about God and ourselves in God’s eyes. The soil is our part, our cooperation with and response to God, the healthy or unhealthy exercise of our freedom in the midst of the spiritual combat.
Our efforts—our choices and decisions—can provide and maintain healthy soil for the seed of God’s grace to take root and flourish. Our lack of effort or misguided efforts can harden that soil or otherwise corrupt it, so that the seed of the kingdom is stolen, choked, or its growth truncated.
Seasons of Growth
Myriad practical lessons flow from this concept of spiritual growth:
- First of all, patience. Have you ever seen a farmer standing in his fields, yelling at his crops to grow faster? That would be absurd. Yet isn’t that exactly what we do when we become frustrated with our slow spiritual progress, or the slow spiritual progress of others?
- Then there is the lesson of rhythm. Spiritual growth goes through seasons. Plants need to grow to maturity before they bear fruit. Likewise, we need time in our Christian journey to get to the point where we can really bear abundant spiritual fruit. We need Nazareth seasons—seasons of quiet, ordinary, and undramatic activity and experience, when we are being prepared for the mission.
- Even when plants are mature, they have periods when they are seemingly dry and dormant, under attack, so to speak, by harsh conditions: the wintry months. So too, in the spiritual life, we experience wintry seasons, when all we find in our souls is dryness, darkness, the brittle starkness of bare branches coated with frost. Jesus had these seasons, too—when he sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, or when he suffered rejection and crucifixion on Calvary.
- Other periods are full of blossoms and buds, vigor and hope: spiritual springs, like Jesus during the early part of his public life, being followed and admired by huge crowds as he preached and healed and performed miracles. Those springs are followed by seasons of waiting and guarding and weeding and watering: spiritual summers, like the latter period of our Lord’s public life, when he spent time with his twelve apostles, keeping a lower profile because he was becoming so controversial. Harvest season comes, too—the Resurrection, the Ascension into heaven, the Holy Spirit-filled Pentecost.
Love is Patient
Our mechanized, technology-driven world prepares us poorly for the seasons of spiritual growth. We are conditioned to expect immediate results, to be able to go to the spiritual grocery store and buy exactly what we need at any time, regardless of the season. We are conditioned by a consumer-centered, on-demand culture; we rebel at the spiritual realm, where humility and faith and wisdom can’t be downloaded with the touch of a finger but must be asked for simply, sought after avidly, and cultivated perseveringly over various seasons of gestation.
It’s hard to change our expectations, to travel life’s pilgrimage at God’s pace instead of trying to force him and ourselves to go at the world’s 24/7-news-cycle pace. We all need to reflect frequently and deeply on this mysterious partnership between God’s part and our part, between the seed and the soil. The Lord comes steadily and surely into our lives, transforming us gradually, the way that nature transforms a seed into a plant. We simply have to keep giving him the chance to do so.
St. James, who died a martyr’s death at the hands of his own people in first-century Jerusalem, learned this lesson well. He wrote to the Christians of his time:
Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand. (James 5:7–8)
Heeding the Call
Yet the most comforting lesson flowing from our Lord’s parables about seeds and soil is the assurance that we are never alone in this work of following Christ and building his kingdom. The seed and the soil go together, always. God is not only our goal; he is also our companion, our light, our support, and our guide: “I am the way and the truth and the life…. I will not leave you orphans” (John 14:6; 14:18).
Certainly, God loves us too much to force our hand, but he also loves us too much to ever give up on us. He will always do his part, his 99 percent. But he will always respect our freedom, giving us space to do our part, our 1 percent. He will give us rest and comfort; he will make our lives fruitful; he will lead us into complete joy—but only if we heed his call, a heartfelt call that he never stops issuing:“Come to me…follow me…abide in me” (Matthew 11:28; 4:19; John 15:4, RSV). This is the great adventure, the joyful striving, the glorious toil of being a follower of Christ.
Art: The Sower, Winslow Homer, wood engraving appearing in Scribner’s Monthly Volume XVI, 1878, PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.
About Fr. John Bartunek, LC
Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller “Inside the Passion”–the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: “The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer”. He has also published four other titles: “Seeking First the Kingdom”, “Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions”, “Meditations for Mothers”, and “A Guide to Christian Meditation”. Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN’S BOOKS include: “The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer”, “Inside the Passion”–The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, “Meditations for Mothers”, and “A Guide to Christian Meditation”.