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It’s garden-planting time where I live. And that means I’m spending more time outside in the cool air and warm sunshine with my hands in the dirt. Time outside often gives me space to think, and time in the garden gives me a lot to think about–including the attitudes that I bring with me.

I can be a bit of a perfectionist. Wanting to get things just right. Spending way too much time researching a subject until I know it thoroughly enough to not mess it up (as if that were somehow possible). Perfectionism is a kind of obsession over performance and results. While it focuses on improvement and promises fulfillment, it actually tends to get in the way of both.

gardening cure perfectionist perfectionism

When I walk out into the garden and away from my other chores and plans and projects, I’m confronted by something very outside of myself. It’s easy to assume that my home and my work and my plans are all somehow a kind of extension–or at least a reflection–of who I am. But when I walk outside, I encounter something obviously other. There’s a wild beauty to things that grow. And in the presence of this wild beauty, I’m less tempted to delusions of control over it. Instead I’m drawn into wonder.

By the time I’m out planting our first seeds, the snow has just melted and revealed that under a thick blanket of frozen white, our daffodils have not only been surviving but actually growing–green and tall. And I didn’t do a thing to make this happen. I’m in awe of their happy refusal to stay dormant in our recent and unseasonable cold snap. Arguably not the perfect conditions. Yet they respond to the call to perk up–a call that doesn’t come from me or my plans.

daffodils in snow spring garden

Stepping outside of the four walls of my home usually gets me out of the four walls of my perfectionistic, all-or-nothing head. You could say that going outside prepares the soil of my heart to receive seeds of truth. To that soil, the garden adds images, active reminders of those seeds, of that truth.

As I plant and marvel at seeds in the dirt, my Father sows and tends seeds in my heart.

Here are a few of them:

  • Not every seed will sprout. When you have an all-or-nothing mentality, it can be discouraging to know that if I plant just one seed it may not work out. Planting more seeds than the number of plants I intend to grow feels potentially wasteful. I don’t ultimately control germination. I can help it along, but I mostly have to sit and wait and see. And be generous enough with my seeds to see something come to life. If I’m seeking perfect outcomes and efficiency, I might be upset that I won’t get a return on every little bit of my investment. But that’s just reality. God calls me to generously plant seeds anyway.
  • But somehow seeds DO sprout. We’ve been at this gardening thing for at least six years and yet it never fails to amaze me when tiny bits of green pop out of the ground where we planted seeds a few days or weeks before. God is good. He made this beautiful process and I get to take part in it. How much more delightful when God is at work in human hearts and invites me to participate and marvel at His work?
  • Frost may come and kill. Sun may scorch and burn. Those precious little seedlings that do sprout are up against the elements. I do what I can to protect and provide for them, but I cannot shield them from everything. In fact, a measured exposure to the elements is actually part of the process for these little plant babies to grow strong and learn to stand up on their own. Oh, how this speaks to me as a mama!
  • It pays to be firmly rooted. That exposure to the elements can benefit the plant only if it has a good root system–both for taking in water and nutrients from the soil and for keeping the plant sturdy enough not to topple over. When we transplant tomato seedlings, we burry about three quarters of the plant! It feels like a setback. Like we’ve now put ourselves behind in terms of growing a nice, big plant. But that apparent setback results in greater health and fruitfulness.
  • Bugs may devour. Vigilance is required. Whether it’s squash bugs or tomato hornworms or aphids, we’re always on guard. This is not a once-and-done thing, as though picking all of the bugs off in one day would keep us from having problems the rest of the season. A perfect sprint doesn’t work here, but rather faithful watchfulness. And even still, we will lose some fruit and some leaves to pests. That’s how we know they are there.
  • Pruning is hard. Cutting off potentialities doesn’t feel good. But we don’t have infinite space in the garden (nor does each plant have infinite resources). Despite aiming for high-intensity growing methods, there are still, by nature, limits within which we must work. Refusing to stay within the limitations of nature results in stunted growth and disease. That perfectionistic tendency to push for more-and-better often ignores the reality of limitation. If we don’t cull the excess seedlings, if we don’t prune the lower and non-productive branches, we aren’t helping our plants. I, like my plants, am finite. I, like my plants, have limitations. Culling and pruning are necessary and good.
  • Results will vary. With all these variables of seed conditions and weather and pests, it should be obvious that I can’t perfectly predict the outcome. I can’t guarantee the results. Sure, I plan carefully and consider quantities needed in advance. But the results simply aren’t that much in my control. We may get a lot, we may get a little. Our harvest may be beautiful or riddled with holes. Related to this fact…
  • Imperfect fruit still eats. In the store, when I’m putting down money for fruits and veggies, I inspect every piece, making sure I get the most perfect and untainted produce possible for my dollar. But when I’m harvesting out of the garden, a tomato that is only half-eaten by a worm is still good for half a tomato. A couple of these “bad tomatoes” can dress a salad or tacos. A bunch of them can make a batch of salsa or a tomato pie. It requires more work to make the most of the imperfect gifts from the garden, but they are gifts nonetheless. It’s an opportunity to grow in both thankfulness and resourcefulness–two things that I might miss if I continued to always insist on “perfect” produce.
  • God causes the growth. This is the real “capital T” truth. And it’s the truth that runs through the rest of these bullet points. I’m not in control, God is. I’m not on the throne, He is. I may plant the seeds and provide what I can, but God causes the growth. The reason gardening is so powerfully instructive, so beautifully corrective of my perfectionistic tendencies, is because it visually, tangibly illustrates the truth that God is the Creator and Sustainer of all things, and that He simply invites me to participate with Him in His beautiful work.

We read in the scriptures truth about God, truth about the world, and truth about ourselves. We know we are to respond to it properly. But sometimes the truth takes time to sink in. And sometimes it takes living the metaphor.

When God created Adam and Eve, He placed them in a garden. He told them to “cultivate it and keep it.” The Hebrew words in this phrase from Genesis 2 mean something along the lines of “work or serve it and guard or attend to it.” Working in a garden was part of the original earthly paradise. And I think it’s interesting to note that God’s calling here is not to make things grow–that was His job. His children were simply to work and guard, to serve and attend. Basically, to show up and care for it.

It’s the same for me, whether in the garden or in life. My responsibilities, beyond staying firmly rooted in Christ and His Word, come down to these:

  • Faithfully sow
  • Faithfully water
  • Faithfully tend
  • Expectantly watch
daffodils spring garden growth

Every time I wander out into the garden, it’s an invitation to enter into the metaphor, to contemplate the truth beautifully woven into the fabric of Creation.

Here are a few of the scriptures that bring my garden time to life:

And He was saying, “The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up daily, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the stalk, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. Now when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” Mark 4:26-29

“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 bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Remain in Me, and I in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit of itself but must remain in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; the one who remains in Me, and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. John 15:1-5

I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. 1 Corinthians 3:6-7

I’ll sign off with a quote my husband found in a gardening article some time back. He shared it with me, and I’ve made a point of hanging on to it.

The principle value of the garden . . . is to teach . . . patience and philosophy, and the higher virtue – hope deferred, and expectations blighted, leading directly to resignation, and sometimes to alienation. The garden thus becomes a moral agent, a test of character, as it was in the beginning.

–Charles Dudley Warner, My Summer in the Garden (found at this website: http://www.leereich.com/2012/06/every-time-i-go-near-my-apple-and-plum.html)

Post script: The day I started writing this article, I realized that our refrigerator went out. Nothing was cold. All the ice had completely melted. My day was not my own. We had to change gears, adjust, adapt. Within 30 minutes of wiping up the floor, I managed to drop a quart jar half full of coffee as I was attempting to put it in a cooler. Coffee splashed all over the floor, the fridge, and the cooler, requiring me to wipe up everywhere-again-and-then-some. I found myself saying, “Well! This is the day!” And then I laughed. And started singing, “This is the day that the Lord has made…We will rejoice and be glad in it,” inviting my kids to smile and laugh along with me. Yes, my friends, God is good. He graciously allows us many imperfections–and uses them to capture our hearts…if we but recognize the invitation.

Gardening is just one way God reminds us we’re not in control, that seeking to be perfect in ourselves is a fool’s errand. How else do you feel His gentle nudge?