Root Cause

As part of an unofficial afternoon ritual, Hubs and I would gaze out our front window at the cul-de-sac outside. We’d chat about our day, enjoy watching the kids playing outside, and usually identify some yard work that needed to be done on the weekend. 

Over the years, we noticed something peculiar about our yard. Specifically, about a tree in our yard. The homebuilder had planted the same type of tree in front of every house in the neighborhood. Despite being the same variety of tree and having been planted the same year, our tree looked different than all the others on our street. In a word, ours was punier. It wasn’t sick—it still grew, leafed out in the spring, and turned vibrant colors each fall. But it was unmistakably smaller than the others nearby. 

As someone with little interest in gardening, I usually just shrugged. Okay, so ours is smaller… why do we care? But Hubs was baffled. That puny tree became a topic of conversation often, a puzzle he wanted to solve. He’d wonder aloud why it was smaller, positing a variety of theories. He checked the watering. He fertilized. And he treated it for pests and protected the trunk from damage. Despite these wise interventions over the course of a few years, the tree’s growth still seemed stunted.

One day he came into the house to find me and elatedly announced that he’d solved the mystery. 

“What mystery,” I quizzed. “The tree!” he exclaimed. Oh, the tree mystery. Right. I had forgotten that we (he) cared. “Come see.”

Curiosity had gotten the best of him and I learned he’d spontaneously taken a shovel to the soil around the tree, digging down around the spherical mass of roots anchoring it. He had, indeed, discovered the reason our tree wasn’t growing like the others: it had been planted with the protective layer of burlap fabric still on. Apparently, the landscapers had forgotten to remove the fabric (used in transport) before dropping it into the earth years before we’d even moved into the house. 

He wrestled the burlap away from the root ball as best he could (most of the tendrils were still encased in the shroud) before gently pushing the soil back into the hole and patting it down. 

Despite my lack of a green thumb, this experience proved most instructive to me. When Paul described the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life, he used an agricultural metaphor, likening it to fruit that grows on a tree or vine rooted in the soil of the Spirit’s presence—a single fruit bearing the flavors of “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22). 

As followers of Jesus, moments of prayerful self-reflection—gazing inward instead of out—help us see whether our lives are spiritually fruitful. Through the window of Scripture, we can see where the Spirit’s work isn’t yielding plentiful fruit in us. We don’t measure that fruitfulness in comparative terms like “taller” or “broader” or even “leafier” the way we discussed our tree not meeting the same growth curve as that of our neighbors. Instead, the calibration is expressed in our interactions with those around us—the people (Christians and others) who will test our patience, tempting us to “bite and devour each other” instead of “serve one another humbly in love” (vv. 15, 13). When we find ourselves prone to “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions” among other “acts of the flesh” (vv. 20, 19), it’s a signal that something is hindering the work of the Spirit.  

In those moments, we can invite God to tenderly unearth our hearts and remove whatever is constraining the work of the Spirit in us. What we might fashion as protective might actually be a hindrance to the fruitful expression of His work in and through us.  

Our tree began to flourish almost immediately after having its “protective” burlap barrier removed. It had unimpeded access to the nutrients of the soil. I wished I’d been more interested in why, as my husband had. I won’t make the same mistake with the garden of my heart. 

—Written by Kirsten Holmberg. Used by permission from the author.