(Mat 13:22 NKJV) "Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful.
The hard soil prevented fruit because it was impenetrable and needed to be broken up. The stony soil prevented fruit because though it was able to receive the Word, there was not enough soil in the soul for it to really take root and get deep. Both of these types speak to the quality of the soil itself.
The thorny soil differs in a significant respect. This soil is fertile and ready to grow the Word, and it receives it as did the stony soil. The problem lies not in the quality of the soil itself, but in what else has been planted in that soil. These are the two basic areas that we need to focus on if we wish to give God's Word the opportunity to grow and produce fruit in our lives.
In the farmer's field there would often grow up thorn bushes. They had to be cleared out, but they would usually be gathered up on the sides of the field. They kept them around for fuel. In the dry areas, often the thorn bushes were the only thing they could burn while they camped out during the planting season.
So it is with the cares and riches of this world. Like the stones, the object is not so much to get rid of them as to refocus their use and purpose. They provide fuel for our "fires" while in this world. To a certain degree we must pay attention to our responsibilities and provide for our families. We must begin to find the proper focus for these items, so like the thorn bushes were for the Palestinian farmer, a tool that enabled them to focus on producing fruit in the field, we can use these responsibilities to aid us in focusing the cultivation of our own hearts towards God.
The problem, however, is that we so enjoy the "fire" the thorns produce, we find others are really impressed with our thorn bushes or we become so concerned with running out of the material for fire that our focus shifts more towards the growing and gathering of thorn bushes than it does with growing the seed of God. I don't think we need to get into a list of what the thorn bushes are, a list of our cares or those material possessions that take up valuable soil space. Like Martha, we worry about so many things, but Jesus says there is only one thing that is needful. A relationship with God and each other. To do this requires some resources, especially when it comes to providing for a family. However, for most of us, we worry about things which are not so needful and think we need much more stuff than we really do in order to accomplish this "one thing needful."
In order to make more room for God in our lives, we need to simplify, thin out, and discover just how much of what we focus on is really a psychological addiction to the thing itself rather than something we really need to keep us going. Dr. Morris Weigelt, in the book "Upward Call" which he co-authored wrote a chapter entitled "Blessed Subtraction." It is the same principle there which we are talking about here. It is what is also called "asceticism" in the history of the Church. It is the practice of taking distractions out of your life in order that we may focus more fully upon our relationship with God and the growing of His fruit in our field of the heart.
Following Christ's command to "deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me," Christians through history have worked to find out how to apply that. The ones that get the most attention, often, are the monastic saints who denied themselves their own material wealth, their own positions of honors, their own promising careers in order to focus more fully and completely upon Christ. There is definitely a calling for some to do that. For most Christians, however, our asceticism is practiced not so much in a monastic cluster, but in the midst of all the distractions of the world put upon us by bosses, friends, family and others that we encounter. So, how do we bring this about? What is our goal?
Actually, the "solution" is quite simple. Stop working on growing thorn bushes for their own sake, and begin to burn them. Begin to use them as tools to accomplish what God has for you instead of making them your goal. Well, simple to understand, but not so simple to put into practice. The Rich Young Ruler found that out. When Christ asked him to do some blessed subtraction, to sell all he had and give it to the poor, he found that he could not give up some thorn bushes that he really liked having around. He couldn't bring himself to burn them. Consequently, his field full of riches kept him from experiencing God, choking out the seed planted there despite the fact that he had done so much to cultivate the soil in keeping the commandments. He had good soil, that was the first need. But, he had the wrong stuff growing in it.
Have you ever put yourself in the picture? What would Jesus say to you if you were asking Him, "What else do I need to do?" What are the thorn bushes in your life that you find you simply cannot dig up and burn? The answer might surprise us. If we are really honest with ourselves, there is some object, some goal, some desire in our hearts which we will not let go of. Maybe there are several.
This really gets at the root of what the Apostle Paul was talking about in Philippians and to Timothy. Contentment. God asks us to be content with where we are at as well as where He wants to take us. If we are content with where God has us, then we are not seeking after the things of this world that are on our desire list. If we are content with where we are at, then there is nothing holding us when God says it is time to move. Contentment is not being distracted from God by these cares and concerns. It is keeping the thorn bushes on the edge of the field rather than growing in the field.
When we are content with something, then whether we have it or we don't, it doesn't matter. We can enjoy it without it consuming us and if we don't have it then we don't sit around thinking about how we would like to have it. Rather, we must learn to be content whether we have it or not. As the Apostle Paul puts it, we need to learn how to be full and hungry, and yet be content with either. We need to learn how to be content whether we have an abundance of things or we are poor. In either case, the situation does not distract us from God because we keep the thorn bushes at the sides of our field and burn them as they are meant to be used.
This is really what "Blessed Subtraction" is about. If something is a distraction, is growing in our field, taking up good soil that should be devoted to God's purposes, we must deny ourselves in order that we can take up our cross and follow Him. If we want to open a deeper communion with God, we need to identify those areas in which we are not content. That is, if they were to be gone overnight, our focus would shift from what God wants of me towards how to satisfy what I want. Once we have found them, begin to seek contentment in them in order that they become vehicles to bring us to God rather than distractions which keep us from God.
We might ask, "Well, how do I become 'content', isn't it practically impossible?" The Apostle Paul, apparently in anticipation of that question, answers back just how we are able to be content with whatever situation God places us in.
(Phil 4:13 NKJV) I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
The answer is that Christ will strengthen you so that you can find contentment even in those areas where you currently seem to be anything but content. But that is the ascetic struggle we are all called to, to deny ourselves in order that we may focus on our relationship with Christ and learn to follow Him. In our non-monastic environments, that means learning to be content with our jobs, our financial situation, our cars, and the list could go on and on. Instead, focus on those responsibilities and things as means to achieve God's will in your life. To that specific point, we will deal more in depth with the good soil. We need to ensure that we are using them as tools rather than as desires of our heart. Tools that could be replaced by other tools, and may not be important in and of themselves. Their value, however, lies in what God can do with them in you. When we come to that place, then we can find God in the midst of these cares and riches rather than them being a force pulling us away from God.
Keep the thorn bushes around, but not in the middle of your field! Sanctify it to God. Then watch the results.