There are several possible ways in which the Word of God fails to accomplish its intent in our lives, because of various aspects of our unreadiness. These include what Jesus described as “smooth soil,” “shallow soil,” and “thorny soil.”
Smooth soil: “ ‘Some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them’ ” (Matt. 13:4).1 Because they could not work their way into the soil, the seeds are exposed to the birds. They simply lie there on the hard surface vulnerable to extinction.
This is one of life’s truisms: anything that does not sink into your heart makes no long-term impact. Change happens most effectively when the information reaches into the core of the person. So if you want to be empowered to experience new directions, to set new trends for your life, to accomplish significant things, you must get your heart involved.
What keeps that from happening? What are the obstacles that keep the seed lying on the surface of your life where it is easily snatched away? This story describes the soil as a “wayside,” a footpath. In other words, constant traffic has pounded the soil down to a hard, smooth surface. The reality of life’s busyness is that it hardens us and makes us careless about inner things. “Like the hard-beaten path, trodden down by the feet of men and beasts, is the heart that becomes a highway for the world’s traffic.”2
A cartoon pictures a man in a doctor’s office. The doctor has just completed the examination and is delivering the diagnosis. With a hand on the patient’s shoulder, the doctor says, “I diagnose your problem as a biterminal combustion of the parafinic illuminator. In other words, Charlie, you’re burning your candle at both ends.”
It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to conclude that we’re simply busy, busy, busy. We’re a society of doers, Type-A personalities who can’t stop or stand still for very long without getting fidgety or nervous or bored or feeling guilty that we’re just not accomplishing something. In fact, one of the great phrases we often hear used to motivate people to action is, “Don’t just stand there. Do something!” We’re obsessed with being useful, getting the job done, goals and objectives. Our culture revolves around action, activity, doing. We experience only the surface, no depth, just busyness.
But here is the question: Does life have to be this way, simply skimming along the surface, with no depth, no heart? Jesus’ story of the soils tells us that if this is the description of our life, then the potential for great fruitfulness and fulfillment, represented by the seeds, is terribly vulnerable to being snatched away by forces all around us. We’ll never become people with depth, balance, and inner strength.
Maybe we need to change the mantra to, “Don’t just do something. Stand there!” Stop doing and stand still long enough to pay attention to what’s on the inside, to allow the soil of your life to be cultivated, to notice your heart, to deal with internal health, not just external activity. The Bible says, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). Apparently the spiritual part of life can be experienced best in stillness, quietness, lack of frenetic activity and busyness, a fundamental change of focus and priority.
It’s said that the surface of the ocean can be whipped up into a frothing nightmare of chaos by hurricane winds. But drop down below the surface 10 or 15 feet and there is only calm and quiet. The awful effects on the surface aren’t felt down deep. The seeds of fruitfulness and fulfillment can grow only when they’re down deep.
Shallow soil: “ ‘Some [seed] fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up’ ” (Matt. 13:5).
Why do these seeds grow into little plants so quickly, unlike the seeds on the footpath? In this ground, there’s at least enough cultivated soil for the seeds to take root and begin to receive some nourishment. The truth is, most people don’t want to lead shallow lives and be seen as superficial. When they’re really honest, they recognize that there is more to life than just money, jobs, clothes, and the multitude of things society seems obsessed with.
Perhaps around New Year’s Day we make a resolution to pay more attention to the spiritual side of life, the heart stuff, go deeper than normal. We buy an inspirational book and decide to carve out of our busy schedules some regular time for reflection and meditation. We read. We think. We contemplate. And we like the experience. We get excited about what we start feeling and how being more centered impacts our lives. We feel better about ourselves. We seem to have more peace. We don’t get as anxious or upset with the little things as before. Life feels better and more balanced.
“ ‘But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away’ ” v. 13). As it turns out, this particular soil was shallow because there was a thick layer of bedrock not too far below the surface. The thin layer of soil was good, and it provided just enough depth for the seeds to take root and sprout. But because rock was just underneath, the roots couldn’t go deep enough to receive adequate nourishment. So when the external conditions became challenging (like the burning hot sun), the seedling couldn’t stand the heat and withered and died.
One person tells of a year in which she made a resolution to bicycle every day first thing in the morning. She had a good bike. She even recruited a partner to go with her so she had the support to keep it up even on mornings when she didn’t feel like it. She was faithful with that resolution. She was proud of herself. Every morning she was up early, working hard. She started feeling better. She got excited about her progress. And it was fun!
But then she encountered the rock. The fun factor dramatically diminished. She began to hate getting up early. When that alarm went off, she wanted nothing more than simply to turn over and go back to sleep. She began dreading the pain from pushing her lungs, heart, and muscles to their limits. The initial excitement was gone. Now it was just hard work!
She had hit the bedrock of difficulty.
Many of our resolutions get derailed when they become difficult to keep doing? The emotionalism of initial excitement wears off in time. If decisions are based purely upon a momentary high, they never last. The time in between whatever it is we resolved to do daily or weekly gets longer and longer. As a result, we often give up altogether. Soon, we’re back to our normal lives. We’ve failed again. And with each failure, it becomes increasingly difficult to make more resolutions because we simply don’t want to keep failing.
So our good intention of spending quality time deepening our lives, developing meaningful spirituality, often goes by the wayside when it gets difficult to keep doing it. Consequently, we never end up developing real depth in our lives. We stay on the surface, keeping extremely busy, doing the urgent things in our lives, following our significant routines, but maintaining only a superficial reality.
Then something happens; a crisis of some kind strikes. The storm winds blow—a marriage goes sour, a job is lost, a medical diagnosis is lethal, a friend betrays us. And we suddenly realize we don’t have the depth we need, the inner resources necessary to handle it well. We give up. We never get to the place of being able to enjoy fruitfulness and fulfillment that come from real depth that produces long-term commitment. The hot sun has withered the plant and it dies.
“No mere theory of truth or profession of discipleship will save any soul. We do not belong to Christ unless we are His wholly. It is by halfheartedness in the Christian life that men become feeble in purpose and changeable in desire. The effort to serve both self and Christ makes one a stony-ground hearer, and he will not endure when the test comes upon him.”3
Thorny soil: “ ‘Some [seeds] fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them’ ” (v. 7). The seeds in this soil end up growing quite well—at least well enough to produce plants, tender blades. So what’s the problem? Unchecked weeds, growing up alongside the seedlings, end up choking the life out of the plants. The plants die.
The storyteller explains: “ ‘He who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful’ ” (v. 22).
Have you noticed how easy it is to give attention to the loudest voices in your life? But often the loudest aren’t necessarily the most important. We use the phrase “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” to describe the positive nature of repetitive urgings, whether by an employee to a boss, or a child to a parent, or anyone who is trying to get something from another.
Unfortunately, though that paradigm often holds true and may help us get the resources needed to accomplish what we’re trying to do, it also suggests a reality that can prevent us from focusing on the most significant things. If we only pay attention to the loudest voices in our lives, we may very well not end up being fruitful.
The voice of our employer speaks very loudly and urgently. But if that’s the only voice we listen to, we may not hear other voices that may be even more important in the long run: a spouse, a child, a parent, the voice of conscience, the inner spirit that calls us to stop activity and be still long enough to reflect upon our values, the depth of our hearts, eternal issues.
As Jesus pointed out in this story, we can so easily be lured away from the significant by the cares of life and the obsessive pursuit of wealth. Those things become like the weeds that choke life out of the tender plant. “The soul ceases to draw nourishment from Christ, and spirituality dies out of the heart.”4
We come to the end of our lives and wonder about significance and realize we only listened to the loudest voices that demanded our immediate attention. We neglected the most important ones. As this story graphically indicates, there is no way to cultivate depth and fertile soil that result in great fruitfulness and fulfillment unless attention is paid to the subsurface of our lives, unless we’re willing to be bold and confront the weeds of life, to do whatever it takes to spend time paying attention to the right voices, to actually be still and listen, especially to God’s voice. To neglect the right voices results in a sad end.
It’s too easy to pay more attention to the loudest voices in our worlds; the voices that shout to us about who they think we should be, that we’re only valuable for what we possess or buy or influence or wear or accumulate or accomplish. Even weeds sometimes look attractive. So we’re tempted to keep them growing alongside us. But, at our peril, we neglect to pull out the weeds in our lives.