“The one who sows righteousness gets a true reward.” (Proverbs 11:18b)
I love fall. It is a transformative season of contrasts: red/yellow foliage and blue/grey skies, warm days and cool nights, afternoon walks and evening fires, decaying leaves and ripening apples, settling frosts and migrating people, shrinking daylight and expanding darkness, spicy mulled cider and sweet pumpkin pie, and chilly mornings and warm fleeces. So many memories come rushing at me in autumn – school classrooms, football games, cross-country meets, falling leaves, flocking birds, and soaking rains. But above all, for me, fall is harvest time. Whether it is a neighbor searching a tangle of vines to find one last red ripe tomato, or a massive combine chewing its way through endless rows of brown stalks to extract a river of bright yellow corn kernels, there is a fascination and excitement in the fall harvest. And there is something deeply reassuring to know that the fruit of summer’s labor has been safely collected. It is a time to rejoice with the words of the old hymn, “Come, ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home; All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin; God our Maker doth provide for our wants to be supplied; Come to God’s own temple, come, raise the song of harvest home.” Henry Alford (1844)
A fall harvest, of course, does not happen without a spring planting and summer of weeding, watering and insect control. For when it comes to agriculture, sowing and reaping are two sides of the same coin; one does not reap what has not been sown and carefully nurtured. This is simply the way of the natural world. I was never much of a gardener, and my brief foray into raising vegetables was forgettable, except for one year when I grew potatoes. Instructed by local hippies, I embarked on a strangely effective cultivating method. Potatoes I discovered are not planted from seeds, rather, they are started from “seed potatoes,” which are simply potatoes that have been set aside from the prior year’s harvest. These are cut into pieces making sure that each piece has an “eye,” and then planted in the ground appropriately spaced apart with the eye pointing to heaven. After about a week or so, leaves of tender young plants emerge from the ground. At this stage, one might expect to enjoy watching their rapid growth. But no, the counterintuitive wisdom from the counterculture community was to bury most of the tender leaves by mounding soil around them – a process that is repeated every few days until a large hill of soil has been heaped around the plants. Eventually they are allowed to grow undisturbed (other than periodic weeding and watering) until harvest time. This is when the real magic starts. As the hills around each plant are turned over, potatoes are uncovered like so many precious gems. It was a wonder of the highest order on our Maine farm in the fall of 1976, when we reaped a harvest of golden brown potatoes from what we had sown in the spring.
The principle of sowing and reaping is foundational to other areas of our outer lives. For example, if I exercise daily, I will experience better physical health. If I am frugal during my working years, I will have savings in retirement. If I am faithful about building relationships with others, I will experience better emotional health. And on it goes. However, just as crops sometimes fail, these are not guarantees. I exercised regularly for decades yet needed major heart surgery to correct a congenital heart defect. Our elderly neighbors saw their retirement nest egg wiped out in a Ponzi scheme. And friends invested years raising and loving their children only to have their daughter run away in a fit of rebellion. And so, in external matters such as health, finances and relationships, sowing and reaping are correlative but they are not assured.
The pursuit of virtue alone promises that we will reap what we sow. As Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Galatians 6:7-10).
Paul is clearly telling us that we have a choice to make in how we organize our life. We can either arrange it around our selfish desires (flesh) or around the needs of others. And depending upon our choice, we can count on becoming a certain kind of person (ungodly or righteous) irrespective of the circumstances of our life. He does not leave us to speculate on what it means to sow to please the flesh, enumerating some such acts: “sexual immorality, impurity, … hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy.” (Galatians 5:19-21) Nor must we wonder about what it means to please the Spirit: “serve one another humbly in love … Love your neighbor as yourself … [and] do good to all people.” (Galatians 5:13-14; 6:10)
When we sow love, we reap a life of virtue, characterized by the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) Paul doesn’t say we will prosper in the things of this world, or even that our love will be reciprocated by those we love. But we can count on becoming conformed more and more into the image of Christ. Which is why Paul also writes “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” (Romans 8:28-29) And why Paul can assert unequivocally that “Love never fails.” (1 Cor. 13:8)
The challenge, of course, is to love others in the rough and tumble of everyday living. It’s not that we Christians are unaware of God’s word, but rather that his word is in direct opposition to our flesh; His commands standing in stark contrast to our feelings. And as observed by Dallas Willard, “A great part of the disaster of contemporary life lies in the fact that it is organized around feelings. People nearly always act on their feelings, and think it only right.” (Renovation of the Heart) For example, we may feel justified in repaying evil with evil, but that is not the way of God’s kingdom where we are to overcome evil with good. Often we Christians struggle to get this right, particularly in the political arena where we are tempted to destroy our enemies with our words. Jesus tells us something radically different – to reject anger; to love our enemies and pray for them; to guard our tongue, our eyes, our heart; and to forgive even when we don’t feel like forgiving. I submit that Jesus’ teaching is every bit as counterintuitive as piling up soil on newly emerging potato shoots.
Notwithstanding my one-time success growing potatoes, I am not a gardener because I lack stick-to-itiveness. Although many times I planted a garden in the spring with great enthusiasm, inevitably my will power faded in the face of encroaching weeds, biting insects, and the heat of summer. Yet despite my own ineptitude there was a time on our Maine farm when the unexpected happened – we reaped a harvest that we had not sown. It was in the early years when we were still establishing ourselves on the overgrown and untended land that we discovered a lovely patch of asparagus – the remnants no doubt of a kitchen garden that had been planted in a time long past. For several springs we were the beneficiaries of tender stalks of asparagus, descendants of plants that other hands had lovingly set out and nurtured. For me, this is a great reminder that what I sow determines not only my character, but also my legacy; that my pursuit of virtue affects not only my destiny, but the lives of those around me.
And so, I pray with Paul that we “never tire of doing what is good” (2 Thes. 3:14), which is our singular challenge as Christians. And by the grace of the Lord that we will be like sown wheat – growing as wholesome grain unto a harvest of joy. Or in the words of Henry Alford, “All the world is God’s own field, fruit unto His praise to yield; Wheat and tares together sown, unto joy or sorrow grown; First the blade, and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear: Lord of harvest, grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be.”