Restoring Our Rocks

(Mat 13:20-21 NKJV) "But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; {21} "yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles.

I use to pastor a little mission church on a hill. It was in the midst of the Missouri Ozarks, a very wonderful place to experience nature. But one thing I learned, hills produce a lot of rocks! There was one spot in particular next to the church where there were always rocks.

When I first moved in, I thought I would keep throwing them off into the forest to help clear the area. But no matter how many I picked up and threw away, there always seemed to be more there the next time I looked. Rocks continued to pop up out of the ground and I never seemed to completely clear them out. When I left after two years of tossing rocks, it looked the same as when I had arrived.

The Mid-Eastern farmer tilled the ground among the hills of Palestine, and was having to deal with rocks as well. The ground needs a certain amount of rocks, at least small ones. But often they had to break up or get rid of some fairly good size rocks. Along the edges of the fields would be areas were the rocks were piled. And along the edges of the field, especially of particularly rocky soil, there would be a high concentration of rocks in the soil.

The one thing about rocks, is they are not good soil. Mostly because they are hard and a plant cannot really take root. The most it can do is to put its roots among the moss and small amount of soil and moisture in the early morning hours. But later, the sun comes out. The moisture dries up. The roots, not having the protection of the soil, are exposed to the heat and quickly dry up and become dead.

Jesus pointed to this type of soil because down under our good looking soil, just below the surface, can be a bunch of rocks. And of this type of soil, Jesus says they do receive the word. He indicates specifically "with joy." The Word, Jesus Christ, is exciting to them. This type of reception indicates that it coincided with their desires and wants. It meet an immediate need in their lives. In short, their reception was primarily self-centered. They received the Word because it made them happy. It was new and fresh.

There is a song I've heard before called "Sunshine and Roses". Basically, it talks of the perspective of a convert to Christianity. Before conversion, it was sadness and pain. Now, it is "sunshine and roses." The sunshine was the emphasized part, as well as the beauty of the rose. And the end of the phrase went "only a thorn now and then." That is the type of Christianity of which Jesus speaks with the rocky soil. Sorrow and toil are suppose to become an exception to the rule and Christianity brings us emotional happiness and pleasure.

But is that really the goal? Did Christ die on a cross, endure all sorts of humiliation and suffering in the flesh so that I could have "sunshine and roses?" Christ calls us to "take up our cross." Crosses don't seem very sunny, nor do they have the beauty of a rose. It just looks like one big thorn. For that one whose Christianity is founded on the emotional level, rooted only in the mossy desires of our flesh, as soon as Christ calls us to a cross we find ourselves checking out and heading down the road.

These "rocks" in our lives are really our own passions. We are made up of these desires, God built them into us for certain purposes. Hunger to let us know when we need more nutrition. Pain to let us know when something is not good for us. Sexual desire to keep us from going extinct as a race of people. These things provide the needed "minerals and nutrients" that are found in the rocks. But they are only broken open and released when under submission to Christ. Only when Christ is the focus and center do these desires find their fulfillment.

One of the effects of the fall, however, is that meeting the needs of our fleshly desires becomes our focus. We've learned about early man's struggle for existence, of searching for food. And even in this day, most of our time is spent in working so that we can have a place to live and food to eat. Most all of us have those things we really enjoy eating, doing, or partaking in. In and of itself, this is not necessarily "bad". Where it does get to be a negative area of our life, however, is when we find that we are controlled by this desire rather than controlling it. Our focus is on fulfilling this desire rather than on Christ.

St. Paul talked about this in terms of "walking not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit." (Rom 8) Many of the ascetics talk about avoiding indulging the flesh, even in things like how much water one drinks. The goal is a balance, only taking what the body needs but not causing it harm by over doing it. If we regularly indulge the fleshly desires, we soon find that we have no control when it comes time to face the "persecution" that will come from Satan. When it is time to take up the sword of the Word and put on the armor of God, we find we can hardly get off the couch because we have failed to "buffet" the body in training for God's battle. (1 Cor 9:26-27) Whether we admit it or not, many of us are so earthly minded that we are not of much heavenly good.

So how do we deal with these "rocks" of the passion that we all find in our life in one form or another? How do we prepare the soil so it will receive the seed and it will take root? How do we get it beyond just the emotions and desires and allow it to be "written on the heart" as God intended?

The tact that many take when they finally get serious about dealing with a passion which is particularly strong in their lives is to pick up the rocks and thrown them as far away as possible. Yet, just like my hill of rocks, such an approach does not even seem to make a dent in it. No matter how many times I fight to abstain or throw them away, I turn around and there are even more that I did not see the time before.

Even the Fathers of the Church tell us that the best way to deal with the passions is not to attack them head on. Rather, another approach is suggested which instead of getting rid of them will transform them, releasing their benefit to our souls and lives rather than distracting us from serving Christ.

The first thing we should do is to realize our utter helplessness in the face of our passions. This is really what attacking them head on teaches us...humility. For we want to think that by our sheer will power we can defeat this passion. We believe that we can quit any time we want, or deny ourselves when a sufficient reason presents itself. If you feel this is the case, then put it to the test. During a fasting period, if you are Orthodox or Catholic, decide that you will lay aside this one passion that you find most strongly in your heart. If you are Protestant, simply decide upon a 40 day period that you will do this. If you can lay aside this one passion for 40 days, then you will have shown yourself to be truly free from walking according to the flesh, and your mind is able to be fully focused on the Spirit. But then watch out for the serpent of pride who will then pop up at even the littlest success in order to make it all worthless.

If you find, however, that you fall, you will find humility before God, recognizing your dependance upon His grace and power to aid you in this struggle. You will come to realize just how much a slave of your passions your really are, that you cannot simply just "lay them aside." You will recognize that no matter how often you thrown them away, they are still there.

The next step is to focus our minds on Christ and upon the pleasures of His presence and will. This is what St. Paul is saying in Romans 8, that we avoid walking according to the flesh by focusing ourselves to walk according to the Spirit. We cannot serve two masters. Our minds will be focused either one way or the other. So if we want to avoid our minds being focused on our fleshly desires, fill our time with prayer and pray without ceasing, as Paul states, in order that Christ might become the focus and center of all that we do and experience. This will provide the grace of God an open door to infect our lives with His desires and heart. Whether we do this through the "Jesus Prayer" (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me a sinner), through memorizing the Scriptures and reciting them to ourselves frequently (especially the Psalms which often speak of our battle with Satan), or in whatever manner that God might direct us to keep ourselves in His presence and the grace of God operative in our lives through communion with Him; these are the things that can form a solid foundation upon which to transform our passions into supports for our spiritual lives.

Third, we must join God's army and go to boot camp. We need to learn how not to indulge the flesh. We need the training of the body which St. Paul talks about. This means that we need to get stricter with ourselves by not eating or participating in things purely for the sake of pleasure. This is not to say that if one experiences pleasure in what they eat that they are committing sin. Rather, if we always without fail satisfy our smallest desires for pleasure, what we end up with is one spoiled heart and soul. We need to learn how to say "no" to bodily pleasures when there is really no need for them. In such a way, we keep our body under control so that when the command is given to go to battle we will be ready and not "disqualified" on account of our own selfish interest. We know the need of this in relation to our children, so that they do not grow up to be "spoiled brats". Yet, we often forget this for our own bodies and minds that are hooked on certain pleasures and things of this world. With the grace of God working through our prayers and communion with Him, keeping our focus on Him, we will be like Peter who as long as he stayed focused on the Lord was able to walk on water. But as soon as he turned his attention to the storm of the passions, began to sink. Yet, Christ was there to keep him from going under and we must keep this in mind as well as we learn to walk on the water of these storms we find ourselves in. Only let us focus on denying ourselves, picking up our cross and following Him.

Finally, there is an attitude that will help us in this battle. It is called "contentment." We like to have immediate results. Sometimes God, knowing what is best, does remove the desire or the slavery to this desire that results in this passion. Often, however, He knows the battle will build character in us and so He calls us to actively battle so that we will continue to learn humility and relying upon God's grace. It could be that he wishes us to learn compassion for our brothers and sisters who are afflicted with this or similar passions. The faster we learn our lessons, the quicker we can conquer these passions.

However, we often tire of the battle, we begin to wonder like Job why this is happening and when will it end. Just when we think we might have gained some ground, Satan will throw a new curve ball and we find ourselves back on the ground again. We can find ourselves longing for the couch where we can relax with our favorite drink. We long for the "sunshine and roses" rather than the "horrors of war". But by God's grace, we can come to a place of contentment concerning our situation and what we are facing. We learn to bear with patience the suffering we are enduring, knowing that in the end it will be our salvation. It is not painful to have the Law written on tablets of stone, but to have them etched in our hearts can be difficult to endure. Yet, Paul says that with Christ, we can do all things. And we also recall that apart from Christ we can do nothing.

If we acquire this attitude, we will find our position like St. Paul who says that whether he has plenty to eat or is hungry, whether he is tired or rested, whether he is enjoying the company of the faithful or getting stoned by the enemies of the Gospel; whatever situation he finds himself in he has learned how to be at peace in it and not allow it to distract him from "this one thing". For that one thing, he will endure any and all hardships thrown his way by the enemies of his soul, resting and trusting in the grace of God to sustain and hold him in the mercy of God. Indeed, to the degree that we find ourselves in this state, we know that God has aided us in loosening the bonds of the passions which would pull us in the opposite direction and distract us from Christ.

In these ways we will find that we no longer need to try to get rid of the rocks in our soil, but we can through God's grace transform them into sacraments for union with Him. Food is no longer just to meet the bodies needs, but an avenue for fellowship with our neighbor and the Lord. That is why the Lord's Supper is so significant, for it joins us to Him through food, our most basic component of life, reminding us that man does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Hunger then is transformed from meeting the physical needs to a hungering for Christ to be in us and live in us so that we too can say it is no longer I that live, but Christ in me.

Sexual desire, rather than being a selfish fulfilling of bodily pleasure becomes a uniting sacrament. In marriage we find that the "two become one" and this physical act is an expression of that oneness. It is a joining together not only of body, but of soul and spirit. And not only us, but it also reflects on our joining with God to whom we are currently engaged to be married on that resurrection day to our bridegroom. Thus, it no longer is just a desire for ourselves, but should focus us on how strong our desire to be united to Christ should be.

Anger, rather than becoming a destructive force that brings up hate within us and causes us to act irrationally, can be transformed into one who is easily angered at sin in their lives and so brings them regularly to repentance and provides a motivation to engage self-discipline in their lives. Through it one can learn the art of forgiveness and asking forgiveness for each one we offend. This brings about our union with God due to the zeal in our hearts that is no longer directed at people in a prideful judgementalism, but toward God in an attitude of repentance and humility.

Many other pleasures and passions can be transformed by the grace of God and our cooperation with it so that they become sacramentally uniting rather than a point of division. If this is accomplished in us, we have restored that passion to the control of the Spirit as God had originally created it before the fall perverted it. In this manner, we do not try to make the soil rock-less by taking them out, but by allowing God's grace to break them up and turn them into rich soil in which the seed of Christ can be planted deep in our heart. As we work for these goals, we will find that God has used these passions for His purposes in our lives.

Just so it is clear, I don't want anyone thinking that I am saying all these things as one who as attained. I battle with the passions as others do. But these are the teachings and training of the Church down through the ages which have proven effective with many dedicated Christians. It is nothing new, so don't offer me any praise for them. These are not totally original ideas. But like many of you, I as a fellow traveler on the road of the Kingdom offer these things to aid us as they have aided so many. May God help us to identify the rocks in our soil that are keeping us from fully experiencing God and begin to break them up and submit them to God. Amen.

In His grace,

Rick