We live in a society that promotes self-sufficiency. We are taught to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. When we struggle to overcome bad habits, the world tells us that we can change ourselves if we simply incorporate certain actions into our lives. Tragically, this message of self-reliance has crept into the Gospel message, under the guise of “God helps those who help themselves.” If we look closely at the way Jesus describes the kingdom of Heaven, we will discover that it is Christ’s intent to turn our society’s views upside down and inside out. There are priceless gems to be discovered in the analogies that Christ uses to describe the kingdom of Heaven. Jesus does not compare His kingdom to a palace that is constructed of the most precious stones and built to withstand the test of time and decay. He does not compare His kingdom to a majestic ship that glides effortlessly over the ocean waves, withstanding every storm it passes through. Incredibly, Jesus compares His kingdom to a tiny mustard seed, barely visible and easily swept away by the smallest gust of wind. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches” (New King James, Matthew 13:31-32). In this simple, yet profound, statement Christ directly challenges the self-sufficient mentality of society. Notice how the mustard tree begins as a tiny seed and grows into a tree. Also notice how God describes the righteous person in Psalm 1 verse 3 “He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not whither; and whatever he does shall prosper.” There’s a specific reason why God uses these illustrations. When a tiny, fragile seed is planted, it is entirely dependent upon the nourishment that God provides for its growth, and when it grows into a strong, majestic tree, it is every bit as dependent upon God for its existence as when it was a seed. In like manner, when we accept Christ and experience the new birth, we are like a tiny seed, entirely dependent on God for spiritual growth. As we grow into mature Christians, reflecting God’s character more and more fully, we are every bit as dependent upon God for our spiritual growth as we were when we first accepted Christ. We can do nothing of ourselves, and when we finally realize this fact and surrender completely to God, spiritual growth will take place.
Through this parable Jesus is also trying to teach us the necessity of patience and perseverance. We live in a very fast paced society that prides itself in finding ways to get things done more quickly and easily, but in our effort to make life more convenient, we’ve lost sight of the concept of delayed gratification. We can’t even handle it when our computers take two minutes to load a webpage! One of Satan’s master deceptions is to lead us to view our spiritual lives in this fast paced manner and to forget that the sanctification process is indeed a process. Satan is very aware of our faults; he is ever ready to bring them to the forefront of our minds. Satan would like nothing better than for us to try and exercise enough will power to correct our bad habits as quickly as possible, because he knows that this method is the surest way to defeat. When we fail, Satan attempts to lead us into discouragement by telling us that our situation is hopeless and that we will never grow spiritually. His goal is to make us feel so discouraged that we will give up on God entirely. But all the will power in the world will not change us. Even if we do succeed in resisting the temptation to do something wrong, or in forcing ourselves to do something right, these outward accomplishments will not change our hearts, because changing the heart is something only God can do. In our effort to correct our bad habits, we focus on the behavior, rather than the root of the behavior. Satan leads us to work from the outside in, while God, on the other hand, works from the inside out. God’s work of sanctification does not begin with external behavior; it begins in the heart. Just as the mustard seed is hidden in the earth, God begins His transforming work in the secret chambers of our hearts, unseen by the human eye. The mustard seed does not initially appear to be growing. No one can see the changes that the seed is undergoing in the heart of the earth. Likewise, it may initially seem to us that we are not growing spiritually. We are still keenly aware of our weaknesses, and we still find ourselves yielding to temptation from time to time. However, if we surrender our lives to Christ and choose to depend totally on Him rather than ourselves, we can trust ourselves to His care. Every gardener knows the necessity of patience and persistence. As the gardener continues caring for the seed, signs of growth become evident. The seed begins to sprout, and leaves begin to emerge. Jesus is the master gardener, and if we persevere in submitting our lives to Him and staying connected with Him, signs of spiritual growth will soon become evident to us, as well as to those around us. We will notice our thoughts, feelings, interests, and desires changing. We will find ourselves responding to people and situations differently. Just as the mustard seed grows into a great tree and becomes a place for birds to dwell, we will grow into strong, mature Christians, fully reflecting Christ’s character, and those who are hurting will come to us for love and support.
One of my favorite quotations goes like this: “Courage is not the towering oak that sees storms come and go; it is the fragile blossom that opens in the snow” (Alice Mackenzie Swaim). Many of us think that in order to be strong we have to be like that towering oak, but the mighty tree is much more likely to be uprooted during a tempest than is the delicate flower. We all experience trials in our lives, and many of us are told that these trials will make us stronger. God’s definition of strength is the opposite of the world’s definition of strength. “And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). As the mustard seed grows from a plant into a tree, it is continually hammered by the blazing sun and the pouring rain, both of which are necessary for its growth. In like manner, God allows trials to come into our lives that He knows will bring about spiritual growth. God does not intend for these trials to make us spiritually self-sufficient or to make us strong according to the world’s standard. It is His desire that through these trials we will see our weakness and become totally dependent upon Him. When we see our helpless state and fall broken upon His grace, then, through Christ, we will become strong. True strength lies in this dependence.
It is absolutely crucial that we learn the lesson of the mustard seed and apply it to our lives, especially as the time of the end approaches. If we think that we have to change ourselves, or, even more dangerously, if we think we are capable of changing ourselves, we will not see our need of God, and when the end time crisis suddenly comes upon us, we will fall. Peter’s experience is both a warning and an encouragement to us. Even though Peter had walked with Jesus for three and a half years and listened to His teachings, he didn’t understand his own powerlessness or what it meant to be strong through Christ. Peter believed that he had to be strong, and he was certain that he was strong enough to remain loyal to Jesus even to death. In fact, Peter was so confident in his own strength that he thought he could outdo his fellow disciples. He emphatically told Jesus, “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble” (Matthew 26:33). Ironically, of all the disciples who remained loyal to Jesus, the one who thought he could outdo them all fell the hardest. Not only did he curse and vehemently deny knowing Jesus three times in His presence, but also he completely forgot that Jesus had predicted this very event. Jesus’ prediction did not come to Peter’s mind until he denied Jesus the third time and heard the rooster crow. Peter’s failure was not the end of his story. The very same man who was afraid to acknowledge knowing Jesus in the presence of a group of servants became one of the boldest preachers of the Gospel—proclaiming the good news to thousands of people, defending the name of Jesus in the presence of the greatest religious leaders of his day, and even becoming a martyr for Christ.
What brought about this remarkable transformation? Peter discovered the strength that lies in weakness. Never in Peter’s wildest dreams did he imagine denying his Lord, and when he did the unthinkable, he was devastated. It was through his failure that Peter discovered his own weakness, and he came, broken and repentant, to his heavenly father. When he finally learned the necessity of depending entirely upon God, he was ready to receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that God had been waiting to bestow upon him, and God miraculously turned Peter’s devastating failure into an incredible blessing.
The work that God did in Peter’s heart is the work that He longs to do in every heart. In fact, God’s purpose in permitting a time of trouble to come upon the world is to accomplish this work in His last day people. In Daniel chapter 12 verse 10 we are told, “many shall be purified, made white, and refined.” The seventh verse of the same chapter tells us what the result of this refining process will be. We are told that “when the power of the holy people has been completely shattered, all these things shall be finished.” God will have an end time people who fully reflect His character, but this will be accomplished only when the power of God’s holy people has been completely shattered—that is, when they finally realize how utterly powerless they are and choose to rely on God’s power alone. When God’s people finally get out of His way, there is no limit to what God can do in their lives. Through their weakness, God’s people will become strong, and no storm will be too powerful for them to endure.
Do you feel as if your life is out of control? Have you repeatedly tried to overcome the destructive habits that enslave you, only to be met with failure? Do you feel as if you simply are not strong enough to make it on your own? Then take heart! You are in the perfect place for God to do a mighty work in your life. It is when we come to Him in our greatest weakness that He provides His greatest strength. Come to Him, wounded and broken as you are. Thank Him for sending His son to pay the price for your sin and to set you free. Accept the healing gift of God’s grace for yourself, and ask God to give you the mind of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a request that God will never deny. God, in His infinite love and mercy, can never resist the wounded cry of a contrite soul in need of His grace. When the mind of Christ is imparted to you through the Holy Spirit, you will gain the victory over sin. “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His god pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
Let God be the master gardener of your heart. He longs to turn you into a beautiful tree, deeply rooted in His love. Even when the process seems long and painful, do not give up hope. No matter how far you have come on your spiritual journey, you will continue to feel your need of Christ. Even those who will fully reflect Christ’s character at the time of the end will not feel as though they have attained perfection. In fact, as you draw closer to God and gain greater glimpses of His perfect character, the more clearly you will see your own imperfections. Every person has a unique conversion experience. Some people give their hearts to Christ in the privacy of their bedrooms, while other people take a stand for Christ in front of a large crowd. There are those who experience immediate deliverance from addictions, while others experience freedom over a period of time. No conversion experience leads to instant spiritual maturity. Every person must go through a garden-like experience. Keep your eyes upon Christ. Do not compare your experience with the experiences of other Christians around you. You are a unique and precious flower in God’s garden of life, and He will mold your character through the process that He knows is best for you. Through your weakness you will become strong in Christ, and “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” Philippians 1:6).