"Practice makes perfect.” I am sure you have heard this wisdom before. It’s good advice. You need to work at a particular craft to master it. You may have been born with a better aptitude towards woodworking than I was, but you were not born with a chisel in your hand. You needed to try and fail. You needed to hone your skill. You needed to practice. We might even say this is true about certain virtues. If you want to be a patient person, then practice patience. Fair enough.
But it doesn’t always work that way. If it did, that would mean that a bad tree can try hard and produce good fruit. But a bad tree is a bad tree. Sure, you can add fertilizer and water it. You might even be able to move it to better soil, but even after all that, a bad tree is a bad tree. Can you imagine a tree having the cognition to say, “This is my year! I’m really going to produce a heck of an apple harvest. That farmer will see, I can do it. I can be a good tree.” A bad tree cannot make itself into a good tree.
Jesus does not say to us, “Try really hard, and you will be better.”
Humans aren’t trees. We are different. Yet considering our inability to practice our way out of vice and into virtue, maybe we are more like trees than we think. We can improve a little, for sure, but if we could master moving from vice to virtue so easily, don’t you think we would have at least eliminated genocide by now? Also, Jesus makes this human-tree comparison:
No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks (Luke 6:43-45).
Notice that Jesus does not say to us, “Try really hard, and you will be better.” Rather, he says, “People are like trees, good trees and bad trees.” There is no motivational speech, no ten-step program, no fertilizer, pruning, water, or sunlight that can turn a bad tree into a good tree. There is no amount of trying that can make you a good tree. You are a bad tree. If you doubt this, have a frank conversation with those closest to you.
So while our common sense (practice makes perfect) may be common, it makes no theological sense. In fact, it is devastating. Do you want to be in the position of striving for perfection? Do you really want to compare yourself to the commandments of God constantly? Do you really want to wager heaven on your life’s actions, thoughts, and attitude? Sounds like a prison to me.
So how do we become good trees? How can we become the ones who “bring good things out of the good stored in our hearts?” Here is how you are a good tree: God says you are. Period. Full Stop. End of story. His words have creative power. “That’s a good tree.” And it is not a process. He’s not forming you into something different. You are a good tree. He said it, and it is done. And good trees produce good fruit. You didn’t wake up and say, “Today’s the day! This is the day that I am righteous before God. Jesus will see, I can do it!” You might think that, but it is not true. It’s better than that. It’s more gracious than that. You are a good tree because he made you a good tree. All other alternatives are disastrous for fallen creatures like us. So don’t wake up and say, “Today is the today I will do it.” Wake up and say, “Today is the day God made me a good tree.”
You might be wondering what about all that talk in the Bible about God pruning us. What about maturity and spiritual growth and all the rest? That’s fine, but that comes after God’s justifying declaration of you as righteous, a good tree. That comes after Christ did what he did at the cross to pay the price for sins. That comes after the Spirit infiltrated your dead heart and made it alive. The dead can’t live. Only when you have been given life from outside of you will you live. Only when you are made good, will you do good.
Here is how you are a good tree: God says you are. Period. Full Stop. End of story.
The spiritual growth and the spiritual battle occur because we are both dead and alive at the same time, dead in our sins and alive in Christ. Here is when we look back and say, “I have matured at least a little bit” (though don’t be surprised when you say, “I have taken a step back or two”). Here is when you say, “Okay, going forward I am going to think about this more. I am going to try a bit harder, not for the sake of being good, but because that is who God has made me” (though don’t be surprised if you don’t try harder).
Think about it this way. Some of you grew up in a house where your height was measured, like on a doorpost. “Here is how tall Johnny was when he was five. Look how much Sally grew from eight to nine.” But you never said to yourself, “Grow!” or “I think I am growing today.” No, growth is always something you look back upon. And here is another thing with that doorpost marked with your progress: I bet you never finished. Maybe mom or dad made you get measured when you were in middle school or, for boys, in high school, but those last measurements were long after you cared. You grew up, and you grew out. You grew up enough that you grew out of caring about how tall you were. You had better things to think about at that age.
You grew up, and you grew out.
So it is with your so-called spiritual growth. You don’t say to yourself, “Grow!” Growth is always something you look back upon. That is when you realize, “Oh, God did prune me, he did add fertilizer, he did move me in the right place. I didn’t appreciate it then.” You grew up, and you grew out. You grew up enough to grow out of caring about whether you were good enough or not, or if you were righteous enough or not. You just were. God made you a good tree. And good trees produce good fruit (most of the time without thinking about it) because that’s just what they do.
So keep practicing your woodworking. You can even practice patience, courage, and all the other virtues to a certain extent. Practice is a part of life. Just remember that you are righteous. You are a good tree because God said so because Christ made you so. This is who you are and who you will always be. And only because of Christ. It is a gift from God.