When the Lord brought back his exiles to Jerusalem,
it was like a dream!
We were filled with laughter,
and we sang for joy.
And the other nations said,
“What amazing things the Lord has done for them.”
Yes, the Lord has done amazing things for us!
Restore our fortunes, Lord,
as streams renew the desert.
Those who plant in tears
will harvest with shouts of joy.
They weep as they go to plant their seed,
but they sing as they return with the harvest. (New Living Translation)
Many people are familiar with the phrase, “You reap what you sow.” Although the saying is typically referred to in the context of avoiding poor decisions (Galatians 6:7) the principle is woven throughout Holy Scripture in other scenarios, as well, as it is in today’s psalm.
Sowing and reaping are, of course, agricultural terms. Farmers and gardeners tend to the soil through tilling, planting, cultivating, weeding, and eventually harvesting. The images of farming and the growth of plants serve as fitting metaphors for the spiritual life. Growth does not occur quickly. Instead, constant and vigilant attention to one’s spirit eventually brings a harvest of good works and godly attitudes.
Jesus said, “My food is to do what the one who sent me wants me to do. My food is to finish the work that he gave me to do.” (John 4:34, ERV)
In a culture which values immediacy and having things now, the slow growth of the spiritual life can be a difficult principle to grasp. We may think that whenever we sin – with no immediate lightning to zap us – that therefore what we did must not have been so bad.
Eventually, however, our implanted seeds will sprout and become visible to all. Conversely, we might believe whenever we dedicate ourselves to altruistic service, and then see no immediate results, that we must be doing something wrong. So, we may easily become discouraged and give up.
Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love. Break up your fallow ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you. (Hosea 10:12, NRSV)
The psalmist reminds us of the need for patience. Just as it takes continual watering to reap a harvest in the field, so the Christian’s life of weeping and tears, of tilling deeply into the things of God, is the necessary work to eventually spot a sprout, see growth, and finally bear fruit.
The tedious cultivating and weeding of our souls is the task before us. If we are patient and consistent, we will realize a harvest of righteousness.
Jesus taught his Beatitudes to help us understand that righteousness, peace, and joy come through connecting with our poverty of spirit; mourning over personal and corporate sin; embracing humility and meekness; hungering and thirsting after righteousness.
Only through the blood, sweat, and tears of spiritual agony will we come through to the deep happiness of seeing the Lord accomplish great things in our lives. In other words, joy is neither cheap nor easy. It is the fruit of many tears.
Spiritual farming involves sound practices of sowing and reaping. There is suffering before glory, tears before joy, lament before healing.
Just as a farmer cannot take short-cuts in the planting and cultivating process if he wants to have a bounteous and delicious harvest, so there is no getting around the painful work of grieving our changes and losses.
Avoiding the hard work of spiritual farming leads to a bogus harvest where we bite into a fresh ear of sweet corn only to discover a mouthful of worms.
The bulk of our lives are played out in the liminal space between sowing and reaping. The farmer plants and waits, attentive to the land and the weather until the time of harvest. We, too, exist in a time of patience. So, we pray, recalling past harvests and anticipate that with God’s good help, we will enjoy abundance.
This in-between time is often characterized by tears.
As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. (Luke 7:38, NIV)
I grew up on an Iowa farm. I only saw my father cry twice in my life. The first time, I was just a boy, two days after my eighth birthday – a devastating hailstorm destroyed the crops that had been planted just six weeks before. Despite farm equipment and technological savvy, the farmer is still at the mercy of the weather.
And we will always be at the mercy of God. Because God is good, just, and fair, the Lord does great and benevolent things. To be blessed, we need to embrace the dog days of summer in all its banality and its tears until we reach the time of reaping. There is joy, and it is coming, if we do the work of spiritual farming and wait patiently.
Likely, none of us awake in the morning, sit up on the edge of the bed, and say to ourselves, “Well, let’s see, I think I’ll cry and be sorrowful today.” We might do that with joy, but not with sadness. It can be easier to gravitate toward the fulfillment of dreams, laughter, and happiness than tears and weeping.
Yet, if we want to experience authentic joy, the path to it is through crying because it is our tears which find a better way.
Whether it comes from a certain denominational tradition, ethnic background, or family of origin dynamics, there are many Christians who love to emphasize Jesus as Victor and camp in resurrection power – while eschewing Christ as the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief and sadness.
By viewing only one dimension of Christ’s redemptive work, pastoral care often falls far short of true help. Trying to engineer cheerfulness and create solutions to a person’s genuine grief is, at best, not helpful, and at worst, damaging to their soul. It only leads to cheap inauthentic joy.
Sincerely singing spontaneous songs of joy, with a sense of abundant satisfaction, comes through suffering and sorrow. There must be a crucifixion before there is a resurrection. In the agrarian culture of ancient Israel, the metaphor of sowing a reaping connected well to the importance of planting tears and allowing them to flower later into an abundant harvest of joy.
Perhaps in contemporary American culture, a more apt metaphor would be financial investing and cashing out. The investment we put into attending to our grief with expressions of lament through tears, will eventually get a return, and we shall be able to cash out with a rich bounty of joy.
Easter is coming. Resurrection and new life will occur. The journey of Lent, with seeds repentance carefully planted, watered with tears, shall bring an abundant harvest of joy.
Gratias Deo. Thanks be to God.