This is a joke that many preachers have used over the years, so my apologies: A minister was painting the exterior of the church and as he did so, he realized that he was going to run out of paint, so he began thinning it to make it go further. He’d thin the paint and then apply some realizing he still wasn’t going to have enough so he’d thin it some more. He went on this way until finally he was able to finish, but only with a faint color of what he had started with. Still, he was glad to be done and just in the nick of time. Clouds began to gather and lightening began to light up the sky followed by rolling thunder. And then the rain came. First it was lite and small drops, then bigger and faster, until finally it was pouring down buckets and before you know it, he could see his new paint job running down the sides of the church walls. Almost as suddenly as the storm started, it stopped and the skies cleared except for one remaining cloud. The minister, feeling quite demoralized, shouted at the sky “Why? Why? Why, Lord?” And from the cloud a booming voice returned with “Repaint and thin no more.”
This is one of those jokes that won’t translate into other languages because it’s a play on the sound of the words and their similarity to the Biblical phrase in English: Repent and sin no more.
Sin and thin. I think one of my common sins is to thin—to try and get by with the least amount of work. I try to stretch or squeeze my efforts so that I can fudge my way with a passing grade or a finished task or an okay relationship or an adequate apology or a decent enough job. This often, too often perhaps, works. Albeit, it has its drawbacks—I don’t really learn the material, or feel the depth of accomplishment, or know the richness of love, or feel the freedom of repentance. I continue to thin.
There is probably no other aspect of life where this is most evident than in spiritual growth. Spiritual growth—it doesn’t sound difficult or even worthy of much attention. Some of us scoff at spiritual growth and think its for priests, nuns, missionaries and religious nut-jobs. Some of us probably shudder at the thought of spiritual growth and we ignore it all together. Some of us say a few prayers, drop into worship on occasion, try and remember a verse of scripture or two and think that’s spiritual growth.
My experience with spiritual growth is that it is the most arduous endeavor of my life. It has to do with my posture and attitude toward everything. It has to do with pruning my heart and behaviors in ways that are not fun, but often painfully difficult. There is no thinning our way to spiritual maturity. It takes all we have, all we are and more. Yes, more than we have or are. How? Because spiritual growth is a gift. But being ready to receive it and recognize it and celebrate it is the hard part. I have experienced unimaginable joy and freedom through spiritual growth--the growth that is given and not earned in any way.
So let me refine what I wrote: there is no thinning our way to be prepared to receive spiritual growth. What I have sometimes imagined to be spiritual growth has been the strength I feel from exercising my spiritual muscles through various kinds of spiritual disciplines. While these are valuable, they are not spiritual growth. The spiritual growth is something that comes, not as a result of the effort, but because our hearts are hungry and willing to receive it.
Imagine a gardener who sees a weedy patch of ground and begins pulling weeds and clearing the area. It takes a long time and seems to never be finished. Just as one size or type of weed is removed it seems another has sprouted up to take its place. Finally, the gardener has it ready for tilling and hoeing—more work. The gardener completes this and begins planting seeds and watering and tending the garden plot. The gardener continues to find weeds and pulls them. Eventually, tiny sprouts begin to appear and grow. Now the gardener has a new challenge: keeping vermin away from the tiny stems and eventually the fruit growing on the vines.
Did the gardener make the seeds? Did the gardener cause them to germinate? Did the gardener teach them to grow toward the surface and find the sunshine? Did the gardener program any fruit-bearing code into the plants?
The gardener cleared the plot, prepared it, tended it, protected it, watered it. The gardener knew all the things necessary for producing the vegetables and fruit in a garden, but the gardener couldn’t make the plants produce no matter how much effort was made. In truth, the gardener is really just a steward. The Real Gardener is the One who makes the seeds and causes them to grow.
Such is spiritual growth. We prepare the plot of our hearts and God brings about the growth. While we must thin the weeds, there is no thinning of the work we must do.
© Stephen Carl