Three Lessons from the Farmer About Faith
My brother-in-law Travis, a farmer, daily dips his hands in the fertile south Texas soil that is his family’s very provision. In the current season, the realized hope of summer harvest has past, and the remnants of harvested crops have been destroyed, and now the soil he sifts in his hands has once again taken center stage. He, along with his farmer-father and his farmer-uncles, has already turned, tilled, leveled, and molded the soil into neat rows and borders, preparing ready receptacles for seeds. These February days are for fertilizing — acres and acres must be covered, and then acres and acres must be implanted with various species of seeds: sorghum, sugar cane, cotton, sesame, or cabbage.
Their work — the daily wrestling with the soil — is circadian and perennial yet has only ever just begun. After planting, they will scrupulously monitor the soil, coaxing it with aeration, searching it for even the smallest of weeds, scrutinizing it for signs of pests or worms. And then they will wait, giving time and space for the sun and the rain and the mysterious and miraculous work of seeds becoming sprouts becoming stalks.
A farmer, perhaps more than most, knows something about faith.
Lessons from the Farmer
It’s no wonder that Scripture encourages us to look to the farmer as an example. When Paul tells Timothy to be strong in the grace of Christ, he points specifically toward the hard-working farmer (2 Timothy 2:6). When he exhorts the Galatian churches toward endurance, he speaks of perennial planting and patient waiting for an inevitable harvest (Galatians 6:9).
In my own life, I recognize my need to look to the farmer. I find myself more often growing weary in doing good as I plant and wait for growth and harvest. My husband and I have been married and in ministry for 16 years. We have parented for 13, with 14 years of intense parenting left to go. We’re completing our eighth year of planting and growing a church, and I’m staring ahead at years of more cultivating, weeding, and watering. I feel like a farmer who has enjoyed a good crop but who is looking at bare fields, preparing to start the planting cycle all over again.
At times, I feel trapped by the everydayness of life and how much work there is yet to do. I stand with the soil cupped in my hands, wondering if my labor matters or will amount to anything in the end. How do I continue in all God has called me to do without growing weary, especially when the work is demanding and the harvest appears so far into the future?
I look to the farmer for answers.
A Farmer Has an Unwavering Commitment to the Harvest
Travis tells me that farming is a way of life, a lifelong commitment. It’s not a typical job, he says, where you can give your two weeks notice and walk away. When you farm, you’re connected to a specific land, and you’ve invested in expensive equipment, a community, and oftentimes to previous generations of your family who have farmed before you. In other words, there is a deep-roots, big picture perspective required. The big picture is this: The farmer is covenanted to his work for a lifetime, and he works his land with the yearly harvest ever before him. Every investment in equipment, every decision regarding the precise planting time, every weed uprooted — all of it is done with the harvest in mind.
This reminds me that I too am called to a lifelong commitment to the harvest, and this lifelong commitment is played out in everyday small acts of devotion. A lifelong commitment entails unrelenting hard work with brief moments of harvest. I’ve believed the opposite about the Christian life — that short-term hard work would produce an unending harvest. I suppose I prefer a simpler, more glamorous way, but Scripture never portrays the Christian life this way. At its very center is a commitment to self-death — to a deep-root, big picture where instant growth, instant fruit, instant reward can never be the goal but rather a steady pace over the long haul.
A Farmer Lives and Works by Faith
Farming is backbreaking work, dirty work, detailed work, and, most of all, it is risky work. There aren’t any guarantees. A few years ago, Travis reminds me, when the crop stood beautiful and bountiful in the fields, ready for harvest, a hurricane blew through the Rio Grande Valley and wiped it away entirely. All that labor, all that grime, all that waiting, for nothing.
What is the point? Why would we invest everything in a risky venture? We might ask this, thinking of our own lives and our own efforts to produce a spiritual harvest and have seemingly harvested nothing or been wiped out entirely.
The farmer looks at his failed crop as a tangible reminder that the harvest inevitably belongs to the Lord. The farmer must be faithful to lay the groundwork for the harvest, but the harvest cannot be forced; it can only happen through the Lord’s providence.
Travis tells me of his cautious optimism as the harvest approaches each year, how at the last minute the weather can change, and how there is nothing he can do to protect his crop. He draws the connection for me to the Christian life:
It’s like parenting. I’m parenting my kids over a long period of time, and there are little moments that show me I’m on the right track, but I know I won’t see the full reward until the end. Even then, I may not see the reward that I want to see. As in farming, however, there are steps you have to faithfully take to get to the harvest. There are things that pop up in the growing season that aren’t helpful or what you want to see. We get rain that we don’t want on the crops. I’ve learned not to go look at the crops on the day it rains, because that’s when it looks the worst. It’s never as bad as we thought after we come through it, though, and even what doesn’t look good is working toward the end goal of the harvest. In the end, no matter what the crop looks like, we have to trust God that he’s going to take care of us.
To focus on fruitfulness is a frustrating endeavor; to work in faith is all we are asked to do. And it’s really all we can do. Our lives, like the farmer’s, are ongoing and various exercises in learning to trust God despite what we can see today.
A Farmer Enjoys a Unique Reward
I ask Travis if he thinks about the harvest every day. He says most days he does. On the days when you’re knee-deep in manure? “Yes.” When the irrigation line bursts? “Yes.” When you’re working sun-up to sun-down in the summer? “Yes, especially then. It’s the time of the year that we work the hardest, but it’s the most satisfying. You’ve made it another year, you’ve grown another crop. It’s financially rewarding, but it’s also the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve put it into the ground and you’ve harvested it.”
The reward is always in sight. There is joy in the harvest, and the greatest satisfaction belongs to the one who carefully cultivated it all along the way. The hard-working farmer, as Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:6, is the one “who ought to have the first share of the crops.” I’ve taken that to mean that the farmer eats of his labor, but, in talking to Travis, I see that it means so much more.
Joy results from his long-term faithfulness. He is content in his work and in seeing what it’s produced over the years. He has learned the secret joy of trusting in God’s providence and experiencing his constant goodness. But there is also joy for Travis in what he cannot see. He explains how one tiny seed becomes a huge plant that produces a thousandfold of seeds. The harvest multiplies itself and goes out into the world in a way that he will never see with his own eyes. But because he can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
In our work and in our weariness, let us look to the farmer. Let us keep the deep-root, big picture in mind. If we don’t give up, one day we will enjoy the final harvest and its bountiful rewards. Unlike our farming friends, this harvest, one cultivated by faith, is absolutely guaranteed.