Before planting, a gardener will mix in generous amounts of top soil to loosen the dirt so that what is planted will be able to take root. He will remove any other growing things so that there is nothing in the soil to impede or compete with the growth of what is planted. And there are other threats. I was dismayed one morning to see small birds making a snack of my lawn re-seeding job.
These three distinct threats are highlighted in the Parable of the Sower and the Seed (Luke 8:4f.) The same seed was sown in every location. But it did not all bear fruit because of birds, hard soil and thorns or weeds. Jesus’ explanation makes it clear that these obstacles to growth correspond to what we call the enemies of the soul: the world, the flesh and the devil.
We should all be familiar with these. In baptism, we, or our godparents, were asked,
Dost thou renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the sinful desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow, nor be led by them? (BCP 277).
Our response was, “I renounce them all; and, by God’s help, will endeavour not to follow, nor be led by them.”
We should have some sense of what these enemies are and how they impact our faith. We cannot renounce something if we do not know what it is.
The devil is a malevolent spiritual force who attempts to destroy our faith. He imposes a darkness of mind. He causes spiritual blindness. He makes people afraid to trust God and change. The devil’s goal is always to attack our faith. Though we typically associate the devil with extreme forms of evil, the devil is just as content to tempt us with pleasure and prosperity. For the devil, the thing itself means nothing. He is only concerned with whether the circumstance undermines or encourages faith.
The flesh is the misdirected desires of our own hearts, which cause us to naturally want the things that are not good for us. The world is the lure of pleasure, wealth and status, which are idols that compete with God for our affection and allegiance.
In the Sermon of the Mount (Matthew 6:1-18), Jesus speaks of three foundational spiritual disciplines: Prayer, almsgiving and fasting. These are the primary means of overcoming these enemies. Demonic temptation is conquered through prayer. Through prayer, we gain the wisdom we need to see the larger spiritual battle that is taking place within the visible battles of our lives. Through prayer, we find the grace we need to act faithfully in response.
The temptations of the flesh are overcome through fasting. The funny thing about the flesh, our fallen nature, is that it leads us to desire things that ultimately make us unhappy–yet we still want them. To break this cycle, we must learn to purposely abstain from these things. This helps us gain control over our desires so that we may say no when we ought to say no and yes when we ought to say yes. Paradoxically, we fast precisely because we want to enjoy the good that God has given us.
The temptation of the world is conquered through almsgiving. People often think that the reason for giving is that the church and the needy require funds. But these are secondary reasons for giving. Jesus did not command the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor because he saw how much good his money could do for the poor (Luke 18:18-27). He commanded the rich young ruler to sell all and give because the man’s heart was too attached to his money. He was captive to the world and needed to renounce the world in order to be saved.
We tithe and gives alms because we must renounce the world, and the way to renounce the world is to take what the world gives and values and dedicate it to Christ and the least of his brethren. “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21).
Three of the four parts of the seed in the parable represent people with an unfruitful faith. These people seemed to be among the people of God. The seed of the word was present in them, and even grew a bit. But it did not “bear fruit to perfection” because they did not conquer the enemies that opposed their faith.
They heard the word, but did not commit themselves to the life of prayer and never conquered the evil one. The heard the word, but did not moderate the desires of the flesh through fasting and, so, were overcome by temptation and testing. They heard the word, but did not renounce the world through almsgiving and, so, their affections remained divided.
This unfruitful faith results when we make peace with our enemies instead of conquering them. This state of spiritual compromise comes upon us gradually, the same way plants in a garden struggle because we neglect to do battle with the pests, the hard soil and the ever present weeds. It happens over time because neglect to fight the enemies. Then we get comfortable with it, or overwhelmed by the prospect of changing it.
We are getting ready for Lent, which gets us ready for Easter and the resurrection when fruitful faith will be rewarded. The church gives us Lent as an opportunity to do things we would not otherwise do. The church gives us Lent as an opportunity to wake up and change, to uproot and overturn the unfaithful status quo.
We have a week and a half until Lent begins. This is a week and a half to consider what kind of gardening will be necessary to make our faith more fruitful. How are the devil, the world and the flesh attacking our faith? What combination of increased prayer, fasting and almsgiving will we arm ourselves with so that we may have greater success in the battle?
In baptism we pray, “Grant that he (or she) may have power and strength to have victory, and to triumph, against the devil, the world, and the flesh” (BCP 278). This is the victory of Easter and it is waiting for all who are willing to fight the good fight and “bring forth fruit, with patience.”