A Parable of Christian Growth
J. R. Miller, 1903
"I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them. I will be like the dew to Israel; he will blossom like a lily. Like a cedar of Lebanon he will send down his roots; his branches shall spread. His splendor will be like an olive tree, his fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon." Hosea 14:4-6
God's forgiveness is astonishing. If we fail—He gives us another opportunity. Even the saddest ruin of a life, may be built into a holy temple of God. We have it all in a chapter in Hosea. We have the Divine pleading: "O Israel, return unto Jehovah your God; for you have fallen by your iniquity." Then the way back is marked out—confession, repentance, consecration. Then comes the assurance: "I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them." Then follows this wonderful promise of restoration and prosperity: "I will be like the dew to Israel; he will blossom like a lily. Like a cedar of Lebanon he will send down his roots; his young shoots will grow. His splendor will be like an olive tree, his fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon."
It is a picture of beauty and fruitfulness. There had been bareness and desolation. Sin is drought. It causes blight. Every flower fades and every green thing withers. But God's love is like rain. It falls on the parched life and changes it to garden loveliness.
The prophet's words contain a parable of spiritual growth. We may note some of the features, for they belong to all true Christian life.
One of these qualities is purity. "He shall blossom like the lily." Recently a friend sent me half a dozen white lilies, and all the days since they have kept their freshness and their unblemished whiteness. They have preached their little sermon to everyone who has come in, saying, "Blessed are the pure in heart—for they shall see God." Have you ever noticed how earnestly this lesson of purity is taught in the Bible? Thus in one of the Psalms we have the question and the answer: "Who shall ascend into the hill of Jehovah? and who shall stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands, and a pure heart."
Then James tells us that we are to have "pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father." He tells us also that we are to keep ourselves "unspotted from the world." We are not to flee away from the world, for our duty is in it, and we must be in it to bless it, to do good in it, to be light in its darkness, to comfort its sorrow; but while in the world we are not to become stained by its sin or to have our garments soiled by its evil.
Someone tells of seeing an enameled plant growing on the edge of a coal mine. Though the black dust floated about it continually, not a particle of it adhered to the plant, and its snowy whiteness took no stain. This illustrates the purity which should always be found in the Christian life—in the world, but unspotted by its evil. That is the way the Master passed through this world. That is the way He would have us go through it.
Something else is necessary, however—more than our own good resolve—if our hearts and lives are to be like the lily in its immaculate whiteness. We need both Divine cleansing and Divine keeping. Meyer tells of calling one day, in his pastoral rounds, on a washerwoman whom he found hanging the last of her day's washing on the line. During his brief stay in her house there came a thick and sudden fall of snow. When he came out the ground was white. "Your clothes do not look as white as they did when I came in," Mr. Meyer remarked. "The clothes are just the same," the woman answered, "but what can stand against God's perfect white?" Compared with the snow, the whitest garments look soiled and dingy. We think we are reasonably pure and good—but when we stand beside the holy Christ—we see that we are unholy and unworthy and need cleansing. We must pray the prayer, "Wash me—and I shall be whiter than snow." Only Christ can cleanse us. Only He can keep us pure and clean. Purity is one of the qualities of the ideal Christian life.
Another quality of a true spiritual life is root. "Like a cedar of Lebanon he will send down his roots." Lilies are pure and gentle—but they are very frail, with shallow rooting, easily torn out of the ground. No one comparison tells all the story of a noble and worthy life. The cedar sends its roots down deep into the earth, anchoring it so securely that the wildest storm cannot tear it loose. Purity is essential in a Christian life. Gentleness and delicacy are unfailing characteristics of a Christlike spirit. But there must also be strength. It is never easy to live well in this world. We cannot hope to be kept always in a shelter of tender love, where no storm beats, where there are no struggles. Jesus Christ, God's only beloved Son, faced the most terrible temptations. His life was exposed to all manner of trials. No follower of His can pass through life and miss antagonism. There must be strength to withstand the tempest—as well as purity to look into God's face. Roots are important, as well as whiteness. The trees that grow on the mountains are deeply and strongly rooted. So if we would stand true, steadfast, unmovable, as we are bidden to stand—we must be anchored by an unwavering faith in Christ.
The root is not the part of the tree that we admire the most. Indeed, it is not seen at all. No one praises it. It creeps down into the dark earth and is hidden. But we know its importance. It feeds the tree's life and then it holds the tree in its place amid the storms. Every strong character must have a deep root. Shallow rooting means a feeble power of resistance. Because it lacked root, the seed sown on rocky ground withered away in the first hot sun. We must be deeply rooted in Christ—if we would endure unto the end.
It takes both the gentleness of the lily, and the strength of the cedar—to make a true Christian character. Gentleness without strength is not noble—it is weakness. Strength without gentleness is not great—it is only brute force. But sweetness and strength combined, yield heroic manhood. Such a man was Jesus Christ.
Another quality in the beautiful life is breadth. "His branches shall spread." If there is strength with deep rooting, there will also be the extending of boughs. Life broadens as it grows. We all begin as babies—but we ought not to continue babies. We ought to grow into men, putting away childish things. Some people, however, seem never to advance in spiritual life.
One of the strange freaks of Japanese horticulture, is the cultivation of dwarf trees. The Japanese grow forest giants in flowerpots. Some of these strange miniature trees are a century old, and are only two or three feet high. The gardener, instead of trying to get them to grow to their best, takes infinite pains to keep them little. His purpose is to grow dwarfs, not giant trees. From the time of their planting—they are repressed, starved, crippled, stunted. When buds appear, they are nipped off. So the tree remains only a dwarf all its life.
Some Christian people seem to do the same thing with their lives. They do not grow. They rob themselves of spiritual nourishment, restrain the noble impulses of their nature, shut out of their hearts the power of the Holy Spirit, and are only dwarf Christians—when they might be strong in Christ Jesus, with the abundant hfe which the Master wants all His followers to have.
There is not enough breadth in many lives. We ought to grow in height, reaching up to the fullness of the stature of Christ. We ought to grow in the outreach of our lives. We ought to know more of God and of heavenly things tomorrow, than we do today. We are told that if we follow on we shall know, that if we do the little portion of the will of God, we understand we shall be led on to see and know more of that will. We ought to grow in love also, becoming more patient, more gentle, more thoughtful, more unselfish day by day, extending the reach of our unselfishness and helpfulness.
There is something else about these spreading branches. A little farther down in the chapter we read this: "The people will return and live beneath his shade." People find shelter and rest under the shadow of the good man's wide-spreading life. We all know people of whom that is true—others come and live beneath the shadow of their love, their strength, their beneficence. They live to serve others—not to be served by others. They seek always to do good to everyone they meet. Their doors are ever open to those who come needing counsel, cheer, help, and hope. They are an unspeakable blessing and comfort in the world. Their lives are like trees which cast a wide shade in which children play, beneath which the weary stop in their journey to rest.
There is something very admirable in the beauty of such a life as this picture suggests—a tree putting out its branches to make grateful shade and shelter for earth's hunted ones, hungry ones, weary ones, sorrowing ones. Too many people seek to broaden their lives—only to gather the more into their grasp for their own selfish ends; not to bless the world—but to gain the world for their own enriching. Others there are who seek to draw people to them—but whose branches do not make a safe and wholesome shelter for the weary and the troubled—but rather a poisoned and perilous shadow in which the innocent are harmed or even ruined. We who are Christians should be like trees of blessing, under which others may come, sure of finding only comfort and good.
Another of the qualities of the spiritual life suggested here is beauty. "His beauty shall be as the olive tree." Beauty is a quality of the complete Christian life. Writers note the fact that the beauty of the olive tree is peculiar. There are other trees which are more brilliant, more graceful in form. "The palm tree at once impresses by its elegance, the apple tree by its blossoms, the orange tree by its golden fruit and unique fragrance, the tulip tree by its gorgeous flowers. The olive tree, however, is by no means picturesque—it often looks even stunted and shabby. . . . But the soft delicate beauty grows upon you until, stirred by the wind, the shimmering silver of its leaves makes a picture. Just so, Christian character is often not in the least brilliant, heroic, or striking. The noblest men and women are modest, humble, simple souls; yet they reveal a mild and serious grace which is, in truth, the perfection of beauty."
Thus the olive tree becomes a true symbol of Christlike character—not showy, not flashing its brilliance in the eyes of men—but humble, quiet, adorned with the beauty which pleases Christ. Peter has some good words about true adorning for women: "Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight." 1 Peter 3:3-4
There is a clause in Paul's cluster of "whatsoevers" which make up his picture of noble, Christlike character that fits in here, "whatever things are lovely." We must never leave out the things that are lovely, when we are making up our ideal of spiritual life. There are unlovely things in the dispositions of too many people. We who are Christians should seek always to be rid of whatever is not beautiful. Our daily prayer should be, "Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us."
Paul told Timothy that the Word of God is "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction." We know what correction is. Young people at school write exercises, and their teachers go over them and correct them, pointing out the mistakes. The Bible, if we read it as we should, corrects our faulty essays in living, shows us the errors in our lives, the defects in our characters, the flaws in our dispositions. What then? "Count that day happy," says Ruskin, "when you have discovered a fault in yourself!" Not happy because the fault is there—but because you know it now, that you may cure it!
Another quality of a true life suggested in this parable of growth is fragrance. "His fragrance will be like a cedar of Lebanon." "A good name is better than precious oil." Another of Paul's "whatsoevers" is very suggestive, "whatever things are of good report." There is an aroma that belongs to every life, which is the composite product of the things that are said about the person. Some men live beautifully, sweetly, patiently, unselfishly, helpfully, joyfully— speaking only good words, never rash, intemperate, unloving words, and walking among men carefully, humbly, reverently; and the fragrance of their lives is like that of Mary's ointment. Other men are ruled by SELF or by the world or by greed—they are of the earth, earthy. They are untruthful, resentful, unloving, of hasty speech—and we know what the stench of such lives is.
There is something very mysterious about perfume. No one can describe it. You cannot take a photograph of it. Yet it is a very essential quality of the flower. The same is true of that strange thing we call influence. Influence is the aroma of a life. The most important thing about our life is this subtle, undefinable, mysterious element of our personality, which is known as influence. This is really all of us that counts, in our final impression on other lives.
"His fragrance will be like a cedar of Lebanon." Lebanon's gardens and trees and fruits made delicious fragrance which filled all the region round about. Every Christian life ought to be fragrant—but there is only one way to make it so. Men gather the perfume from acres of roses and it fills only a little bottle. Your influence, the perfume of your life, is gathered from all the acres of your years—all that has grown upon those acres. If it is to be like the essence of ten thousand roses—sweet, pure, undefiled; your life must be all well watched, pure, sweet, holy, loving, true. Only roses must grow on your fields. The evil as well as the good is gathered, and goes to make the composite influence of your life.
We know how easily one's influence is hurt, how little follies and indiscretions in one's conduct or behavior, take away from the sweetness of one's reputation. Says the author of Ecclesiastes, "As dead flies give perfume a bad smell—so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor." We need to think seriously of this matter. We are not always careful enough about keeping out the dead flies. There are many men who are good in the general tenor of their lives, godly, prayerful, consistent in larger ways—but the perfume of whose names is rendered unsavory by little dead flies in their common living. They are not always careful to keep their word; they are not prompt in paying their debts; they are not watchful of their speech; they are not loyal in their friendships; they are indiscreet in their relations with others; they are lacking in refinement or courtesy; they are resentful—we all know how many of these dead flies there are which cause the ointment of some people's names, to send forth an unsavory odor.
We need to watch our lives in the smallest matters, if we would keep our names sweet wherever we are known. Influence is most important. It is our mightiest force for good or evil. Let us keep it pure and good for Christ. Let us keep Christ always in it!
These are some of the lessons which this Old Testament nature-parable suggests. These are some of the essential qualities of a true Christian life. It should be pure. It should be deeply rooted in Christ and strong. It should spread out its branches and become a shelter and comfort to other lives. It should be beautiful with the beauty of humility, truth, and love. It should be fragrant with the aroma of a sweet, holy, and loving life.
Is the picture discouraging by reason of its lofty qualities? Is it so high in its excellence, that we seem unable to reach it? At a recent commencement, one of the speakers told of two scenes he had witnessed. The first was this:
He was in an artist's studio when the artist was about beginning his work on a canvas. He was putting a little daub of paint here, another daub there. There certainly was no semblance of anything beautiful on the canvas. Indeed, there seemed no evidence of any design, no trace of any form or figure, no clue to what the artist meant to do.
That was the first scene. This was the second:
A large company of people standing before a great picture, all admiring it and praising its beauty. This was the finished painting of which the artist, that day a year or two before, was making the first rough outline.
Let us not be discouraged because today the picture has almost none of the beauty which is envisioned in the noble ideal we have been studying. We are only beginning it. Let us continue at our holy task—until in every line it glows with the loveliness of the ideal. But remember we cannot dream the vision upon the canvas—we can put it there only by patient thought, effort, and discipline.
Then let us not forget that God will work with us in our efforts to grow into the Divine beauty, if only we seek His grace and help. There is a story of an artist-pupil who had wrought long at his canvas and was discouraged because the noble vision came so slowly, because his hand seemed so unskillful. Then one day he sat by his easel, weary and disheartened, and fell asleep. While he slept, his master came and, taking the brush, with a few swift touches finished the picture. That is the way our Master does with us, when we are doing our best and seem only to fail. He comes in the stillness and puts His own hand to our work and completes it.
There is one sentence in this parable of growth which is full of inspiration and hope: "I will be as the dew unto Israel." In the East, the dew is almost like rain with us. When there is no dew, everything burns up. When there is dew, the thirsty fields are refreshed. All the wonderful beauty described in these words, is produced by the night-mist or dew.
Now God says, "I will be as the dew unto Israel." What dew does for withering gardens and fields, God says He will do for His people—if they but repent and return to Him. He does not say He will send the dew—He says He will Himself be as the dew. So the dew which renews and refreshes withered lives—is God Himself! Let us learn well this great truth, that God would put Himself into our withered lives. That is the heart of our religion. We are not set merely to copy a picture upon canvas, to imitate a lovely model held before us. Christianity tells us of a Divine Spirit who with unseen hands comes to fashion the picture upon our spirits. "I will be as the dew unto Israel." What the dew or the rain is to the withered fields, God's Spirit will be to our bare, withered lives. We need only to yield ourselves to this gentle Holy Spirit.
Some of us are perplexed to know how we ever can grow into the purity, the strength, the breadth, the usefulness, the beauty, the sweetness of Christ. Imagine a field after long drought, its foliage drooping, its flowers withering, everything on it dying; perplexed and wondering how it ever can grow into garden beauty. Then a cloud comes up out of the sea and pours its gentle rains for hours upon the parched ground. The question is answered. All the field has to do—is to open its bosom to the treasures of the rain. All we have to do in our spiritual need—is to let God's Spirit into our hearts!