Editor’s note: For those of you who haven’t met Brandon Hatmaker yet, you’re in for a treat. He’s the husband of one of our favorite authors and speakers, Jen Hatmaker. Brandon is an author, biker, TV personality, and a huge fan of the underdog. He is founder and CEO of The Legacy Collective, a giving community focused on partnering, pioneering, and funding sustainable solutions to systemic social issues around the world. Enjoy this excerpt from his new book, A Mile Wide.
For the majority of my life, whenever I felt that I was missing out (#FOMO*), needed a word from God, or simply was not feeling as close to Christ as I needed to be, I would instantly assume I needed to do more. My natural response was to grow by adding something to my schedule. I hoped that by making myself busier doing church things, I would intuitively experience more Christian depth. But I didn’t. I was just busier and had less time to slow down, be still, think, or listen. I did more but gave less to each endeavor. I became a jack-of-all-trades, but master of none.
A quick look at our calendars might give us an indicator as to whether we’re spiritually thriving or just getting by.
Width does not create depth. If anything, it’s the opposite. In many ways it’s depth that determines our capacity for width. Jesus taught this concept in the parable of the four soils (parable of the sower), a beautiful illustration of how the receptivity and condition of our hearts determines the fullness of our faith. Each condition assumes a certain level of depth and a certain quality of depth.
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around Him that He got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then He told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop — a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
The disciples came to Him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.” — Matthew 13:1-11
It’s important to frame this parable well. It’s meant to be a diagnosis, not a prognosis, and the central point is found in verse 9: “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” This is meant to be a temperature check, and we are all in need of spiritual examination. Humans are famously un-self-aware. We can see other people’s flaws so much more clearly than we see our own. Yet, we are all soil in this story, not soil inspectors. We’re not capable of that, because a lot of soil looks the same on the surface. The only person, besides Jesus, who can dig honestly beneath the surface of our hearts is us.
And here’s the good news. Our diagnosis is not permanent, or inevitable. In fact, we are rarely just one type of soil all the time. I have been all four and at times have two coexisting soil types. I have receptive depth in one area but am shallow and hardened in another.
We manage a weird paradox where we can be both un-self-aware and also incredibly self-condemning. This parable should lead us to neither denial nor condemnation. Regardless of our circumstances, even the worst soil can be brought back to life.
We’ve all got ears, so the central question to ask of ourselves is: What kind of listener am I? Essentially we’re asking, How deep is my receptivity? How do I typically receive God’s Word, His instruction, His leadership, His ways? And what’s getting in the way?
It’s interesting to take a look at the disciples’ response to this story. They wanted people to understand who Jesus was, yet Jesus was making it hard on them. Their desire to make things easy was getting in the way of them understanding the depth of His teaching.
“Why do you speak to people in parables?” they asked.
They didn’t ask, “Why do you speak to us in parables?”
They were already privy to the ways of Christ, but they were worried about the people.
In essence they were asking Jesus to make it simple. But Jesus knew something they didn’t. His kingdom would come at an incredible cost. Presenting it as a low-hanging fruit might net way more early adopters who liked the advantages, but that kingdom would lack depth. And the early church had to be supernaturally strong to endure the next century without caving. The true gospel has never appealed to the masses, nor did it ever try to.
Jesus didn’t want fans; He wanted followers.
Yes, this kingdom will save your whole life, but you have to lose the one you have first. There is no resurrection without a death.
There is a danger in attempting to widen the front door that Jesus said would always be narrow. It is not narrow because God wants to keep people out. It is narrow because so few are actually willing to do what it takes to enter. Jesus taught the kingdom in a way that made sincere converts work for it. He drew them with depth and mystery and truth.
Here we see a mysterious partnership between God’s sovereign preparation of our hearts—making us able to hear and understand—and our personal responsibility to be good hearers, to address the soil of our hearts.
In Matthew 13:14-15, quoting Isaiah 6:9-10, Jesus explained a willful blindness and deafness and hardness of heart that would never be receptive to salvation and transformation.
You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.
What kind of hearers are we? If we shut out the truth long enough, we may lose the ability to even notice it anymore. In Exodus, it says that after seeing all God was doing, Pharoah “hardened his heart” (Exodus 8:15, Exodus 8:32, Exodus 9:34). Seeing, hearing, and understanding are necessary for depth, and we must be careful not to block those senses out.
Nothing matters more than humility, teachability, and repentance, because the opposites — pride, arrogance, and obstinacy — make us blind and deaf to every goodness and truth in the kingdom. We must not lose the power of our spiritual senses if we are to find the fullness that comes from spiritual depth.
Now, let’s look more closely at the parable. There are three elements to consider in this story: the seeds, the sower, and the soil. The seeds represent the gospel, which brings forth fruit in souls. Jesus called it the “secrets of the kingdom” (Matthew 13:11), and it is packed full of life. The sower is Jesus, who teaches these life-packed words everywhere and anywhere there are people with ears. But the reception depends upon the receiver, the soil.
There are four kinds of soil mentioned in this story. It says that seeds fell on the path, on rocky ground, among the thorns, and on good soil. Each represents a condition of the heart and is an indicator of receptive ability. The seed on the path never got past the top layer of soil. Never sank in. Not one inch. So many of us can recall the tilling season before Christ took root in our hearts, the tenderizing of our souls, searching, listening, asking questions… This soil is the opposite. Matthew 13:19 goes on to say,
When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path.
The gospel goes in one ear and out the other. It makes no impression and leaves no trace. The Greek word for “understand” in this verse means “consider”; thus there was no consideration, no delight in spiritual things, no fascination with God, no hunger for any of this truth. Hardened at the surface level and stuck there. Superficial. Shallow.
Characteristics that result in inhospitable soil to God’s movement are cynicism, bitterness, entitlement, and arrogance.
All are characteristics of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day and a threat to us today. Jesus reminds us that we have a real enemy, and this is his favorite type of hearer. This person hears the Word, but it makes no sense. He finds no tenderness in any of it. The empty-hearted person says no to God.
The seed on rocky ground found itself on soil that was softer, but only at the surface. When people’s hearts have this kind of soil, they are quick to hear, ready to receive, and the gospel bursts quickly right out. Scripture says they receive it “with joy” (Matthew 13:20).
This reminds me of my days as a youth pastor. Each year we would come back from summer camp, and the youth would lead the Sunday evening worship service. It was a “report from camp”–type event where students would lead worship and share a short testimony from their week.
One Sunday we had a middle school girl share how she’d had spiritual experiences before, but this time, this time, it was different. She assured us all that this was a mountaintop experience, and she was never coming down. Never! We were all hopeful for her. We were encouraged by her zeal. But the adults in the room all knew from experience that life comes with both highs and lows—both are important to spiritual growth. And it was unrealistic to think that all of life would be peachy keen from then on.
Being moved by a week of good sermons is not the same as being transformed by the gospel. Transformation is the continuing work of the gospel in our lives that never stops. It’s a lifelong journey, and we learn from this life.
But take caution; the heart may melt under the Word but not be melted down by the Word. Translated: the seed may have broken through, but without the process of purging the soil over time with the gospel of life, the roots have no place to grow. What was above ground outpaced what was below. The good soil was shallow. Without depth, the dazzle won’t hold. We have to spend far more time nurturing what no one ever sees under the surface than worrying about what’s above the soil.
Things like Scripture and prayer and community root us so deeply. They are the unglamorous, unfancy work of discipleship. They fix our principles and resolutions; they root our habits and affections — they make us strong. They prepare us for what’s to come. The same sun that warms and develops the well-rooted believer withers and burns up those who aren’t.The seed among thorns is at first received deeply. Scripture tells us that it was well-rooted and bearing fruit. But there is a necessary practice for a fruit-bearing plant to stay healthy: weeding.
That the thorns “grew up” (Matthew 13:7) suggests they weren’t there when the seed was sown but attacked later, once the seed was already developing. Where, in the last soil, rocks spoiled the root, here the thorns spoiled the entire plant.
Jesus explains this soil in Matthew 13:22:
The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.
This explanation lists two main distractions to proper depth: worry and wealth.
While each is a sermon in itself, notice that both come from a lack of trust in God’s leading or provision.
When fear and worry become so big they drive out all else, they become weeds within our hearts. They choke out fruit. We get obsessed and preoccupied and consumed. What we care about is what we think about, what we spend our time on, what we talk about, what we spend our energy on, what we focus on protecting. This is what we prioritize, and if it’s not depth in faith, then our faith is suffocated.
Finally we have the seed on good soil. What distinguishes this good ground from the rest is, in a word, fruitfulness. It produces the kind of fruit that Galatians 5 tells us we ought to see in a mature Christian:
love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. — Galatians 5:22-23
No soil is impervious to drought or weeds or malnourishment. Jesus did not say that this good ground has no stones in it, or no thorns, or that the sun will not beat down on it, but only that it is fruitful in the real, hard world.
Where there is fruit, there is the reign of God.
Anytime you demonstrate kindness, there is fruit. When you show joy in the face of struggle, there is fruit. If you are gentle when you could be harsh, there is fruit. When we are generous, selfless, good, loving, self-controlled: fruit, fruit, and more fruit.
*Fear of Missing Out
Watch the Video for A Mile Wide
Excerpted with permission from A Mile Wide: Trading A Shallow Religion For A Deeper Faith by Brandon Hatmaker, copyright Brandon Hatmaker.
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The receptivity and condition of our hearts determines the fullness of our faith. What kind of soil does your heart tend to be? I always want mine to be good soil, but the truth is the thorns get me way too often. I worry and sometimes I find myself in a situation where I realize that my worries and concerns have strangled out my faith and I have to command myself to think different thoughts, and to remind myself of God’s goodness, His provision, His mercy, His love, and His faithfulness. What about you? Come share with us on our blog about changing the soil of our hearts so we can be fruitful in the kingdom! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.full