A couple of years ago, I started to look into gut health and the way it relates to the rest of our bodies. I'm a born information-gatherer, so I dove in headfirst. I came across one statement in a book titled Clean Gut that has stuck with me since then. The author talked about a time in his life when he realized that, as a doctor, he and most medical professionals were trying to treat symptoms and not causes (don't leave me now; I know this sounds like hippie ranting, but it's not just that). He described this all as trying to paint the leaves of a plant green without addressing the root system. It was simple enough, and very effective when thinking about all sorts of health -- physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
I'd been in this spot (for my whole life, I think) where, in my spiritual world, I did a fine little dance between tending the roots and painting the leaves green. I loved Jesus, heard Him, felt Him, learned about Him, and wanted to be good enough for Him. I went from being filled and thankful for grace to feeling so inadequate and heartily discouraged that God would never be able to use me and then back and forth, back and forth. It was exhausting.
Thankfully, God has been slowly (ever so slowly) redirecting my efforts. I could say that it was the performer in me, and that was true, sometimes -- I did want others to see green leaves and good fruit. But even when that went away, I wanted to see green leaves and good fruit, too. Something in me believed the lie that some satisfaction would come if I tried hard enough, if I applied all the right things and got rid of all the wrong ones, if I told myself, "Don't doubt! Don't sin! Don't be insecure!" The cycle could go from the feeling that I might be starting to get it right to great frustration when my efforts weren't enough. I couldn't paint the leaves green enough to convince myself that they were real.
But, as I said, God was there the whole time, nudging me to put down the paintbrush and dig my hands into the dirt, keeping my eyes on Him, asking Him to grow my roots into Him. This required me to let go of how the outcome might look, what other people might see, even how I might evaluate myself. I've learned, though, that if I tend to the roots, the innermost parts of my thought life and my spirit, then God will take care of the rest. He makes them grow. He is the life-force, the Master Gardener. He guides us, pointing out areas that need watering and attention. He prunes those things that need to go so that more life can come.
Nothing is hidden from Him, of course, but sometimes, we do our best to ignore the roots and the soil. Or perhaps we tend them some while also painting leaves green. That, friends, is not our job. It's exhausting to try to be all the things -- loving, patient, enduring, kind, gentle, strong, full of faith. We aren't meant to do that of our own efforts, but we do try. We struggle with anger (or shame, or insecurity, or fear, or jealousy, or selfishness), and we push it down. Christians aren't angry, we tell ourselves. We forget that God can take the brokenness (gave His son just for that reason), and instead of bringing it to Him immediately, we try to fix it ourselves. I think that perhaps this is why there are so many of us tired and weary at our core, doing our best to be who we think we should be.
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness. Those aren't the fruits of your labors. I fear that we have tried to make them items on a checklist that we can never accomplish on our own. They are, instead, fruits of the Spirit of God living in us, byproducts of His presence in our lives, evidence of Him doing the good work that He alone can do. We agree with Him, we submit to Him, but His Spirit produces the fruit.
If we can loosen our tight grips on our paintbrushes (for I think that they make us comfortable -- they give us some imaginary semblance of control), then when we open our hands, we experience freedom.
This wasn't an invitation to walk away from spiritual work. No, it's a call to draw nearer to God, to surrender more, to try less, to remind ourselves that feeding our spirits with the Word, letting go of how we might be perceived because we are sure that when our foundation is built on Him, God will do the work of making good things grow. It should drive us to Him more, not less. As we change our goal from being people who have pretty leaves to people who are well rooted, we will seek after the One who fortifies our roots, and we will grow strong under the surface, and the health will come because of Him, and we won't need to paint any longer.