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Lessons from the Herb Garden on Spiritual Formation

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I sit on the back patio with Henry at my feet, listening to birdsong and feeling thankful for the light breeze that decided to gently float my way. 

Even in the shade, I can feel the heat of a hot Indiana summer day radiating toward me. I look out into our tiny backyard and notice the herbs I planted earlier this spring. They’re perched in their garden box hanging from the fence looking a little parched. 

I watered them only yesterday but in 90-degree southern Indiana weather, they could use another long, cold drink. 

Tending to them has been easier than I thought, as rosemary and thyme, tarragon and oregano do well in lots of sunshine and dry soil. But, it’s a balancing act and a learning experience all the same. Too little water and they’re sure to dry out and burn up. Too much water and they’ll surely drown. 

And then there’s the matter of the sun itself. While these herbs crave lots of sunshine, they do need a bit of shade, especially on the really hot days. I remember when I first brought them home and planted them securely in their little box. 

I fretted around the yard switching the position of the box on the fence every few days, worried that they wouldn’t get enough sun and worried that they would get too much. My husband’s laughter and the shake of his head as he watched brings a smile to my face when I think back on it. 

This was my first year planting herbs. Actually, this was my first year planting anything on purpose. Ask anyone who knows me well and they will tell you that I am not your usual green-thumbed gardener. Until about a year ago, every house plant in the state of Indiana feared the Miller household. 

Lessons from the Herb Garden on Spiritual Formation

But the beginning of 2022 brought with it a longing and a thirst for deep spiritual growth. 

Words like cultivating, planting, and tending when used in a spiritual sense captured my attention when I would read them in articles and blog posts. My belief that we have many lessons to learn from the way gardens grow is only magnified by my own personal experience in herb gardening. 

So that’s what brought me to this mini herb garden and I’ve begun leaning in and listening to what God has to teach me through it. Just like we tend to a garden in hopes that it will grow, we must tend to our own inner life – our souls – in order to cultivate spiritual growth. 

What a lesson in spiritual formation, isn’t it? 

If our goal on this side of heaven is to be made more wholly into the image of Christ, to be held ever close by His loving hands and walk in step with His Spirit of grace, then there is required a bit of tending, isn’t there?

Pruning the Soul Weeds

Even Jesus, in His own way and words, describes this tending first as “pruning” in John 15:1-2,

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (ESV)

The definition of the word prune is to trim by cutting away dead or overgrown branches or stems, especially to increase fruitfulness and growth. 

I mentioned that I decided to plant rosemary, oregano, thyme, and tarragon this spring. Well, I also decided to plant cilantro and was laughed at by a gardening friend of mine later when I shared that it was beginning to take up my whole garden!

My friend, who has much more experience in gardening than I do (clearly), patiently told me that I would have to prune the cilantro back or else it would choke out and kill all of the other herbs. 

Ok, first of all, how barbaric and inconsiderate of cilantro. And second, the Holy Spirit requires this same kind of pruning within ourselves in our spiritual lives. 

Tending to our souls and our inner life on this path of spiritual formation must require that the dead and the overgrown be cut away so that new, fresh things have room to grow. I know this may sound a bit scary and a little painful, and that’s because sometimes it is. 

Dying to ourselves and surrendering our whole souls to Jesus feels exactly what it sounds like: dying! But, friend, that dying and that cutting away brings new life and new spiritual fruit that God can use for His purpose and glory. 

With the action of pruning and dying comes also the promise of new growth. 

After I decided to prune my cilantro, I noticed that the other herbs in the garden began taking up more space. My rosemary and tarragon sprouted fresh stems and even the cilantro itself perked up a bit. 

When we choose to intentionally surrender what God wants to prune, we’re giving Him the room to grow the things inside of us that may have been overshadowed by what I like to call “soul weeds”.

Soul weeds are just as they sound; weeds in the garden of our souls that keep us from being who God created us to be. Soul weeds kill the beauty of our souls by keeping us from close communion with God. So pruning back these soul weeds and giving to God whatever it is He’s asking us to surrender, allows the fruit of our souls to flourish and thrive.

Surrendering to God and His pruning process is necessary for our own spiritual growth and formation. 

Abiding in Jesus

The second word Jesus uses when referring to tending to our spiritual lives is “abide”, in John 15:4-5,

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (ESV)

Abide means to accept or act in accordance with; to obey, stick to, or go along with. What I find interesting about the word abide is that it comes from the Old English word, “ābīdan”, which means ‘wait’, ‘dwell’, and ‘remain’. 

So not only does the Holy Spirit require our inner lives to be continually pruned, but He also invites us under Himself for the entire process of pruning, growing, and everything else in between. 

This way of abiding is meant to be a way of life; a continual communion with our Creator. And I believe that the more closely we abide in Him, the more willing we are to surrender the rotten fruit and the dead roots that require to be cut away. 

We are called to wait on Him, in Him, and for Him. We are invited to lean in, pay attention, and listen for the beating of His heart inside of our own. 

We are called into a closeness with the Creator that can’t be found anywhere else except in our own obedient surrender of abiding in Him. 

The Lord prunes and takes away that which no longer serves Him or us, so that He can give more of Himself in its place. 

More love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23, NLT).

These are the fruits of the Spirit that lead to life and true freedom, and they are ours for the sowing, growing, and reaping if we are willing to allow ourselves to die to old ways while continuously abiding in Jesus. 

Tending to our spiritual lives is essential to our own spiritual formation as the old makes way for the new and thriving; as the daily walk of communing and abiding with the Spirit roots and grounds us deeper into a love that will outlast eternity. 

Our destiny and holy purpose as sacred image-bearers is to bear good fruit and walk in step with the Spirit all the days of our lives,

“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”

John 15:8, ESV

The fruit we bear is testimony to how closely we are abiding; to how intimately we know His heart inside of our own. Our abiding is what grows the fruit that glorifies our heavenly Father. 

A Holy Forming

When I first planted my tiny herb garden, I went to the nearest bookstore and bought a book on how to grow good, healthy herbs. There was an entire bookshelf dedicated to growing plants and I must admit, it took me at least an hour to settle on the right book. 

In a similar way, I imagine a massive library in heaven filled with an endless number of books. Among them, there are books on holy gardening; on how to grow spiritual fruit. Flip through its pages and I’m sure you’ll run across the words pruning and abiding; Jesus’ own language used in John 15 on how to cultivate a good, healthy, and holy life.

I look up from the page and notice that the shade from our tree has slowly slipped itself around my herbs. The day’s worth of heat is over for them and now they can rest in the cool breeze that comes with the end of a heated afternoon. 

It’s then I realize that God tends to my herbs, too. 

It’s He Who provides the sun, shade, and water they need to grow strong. We work in tandem, He and I; He provides what nature can give and I walk out in my slip-on shoes pruning back the dead and overgrown stems with my garden scissors, giving extra water when needed. 

And so this divine dance works itself into my inner spiritual life, as I hold out surrendered hands and abide in the One whom apart from, I can do nothing. 

We’re a team, He and I; my soul joined with Him as I show up surrendered and willing to follow as He faithfully takes care of the rest. 

A divine dance, a sacred communion, a holy forming.