The spiritual life is like…photosynthesis…
In the class I just finished, we have a final project to creatively express how we view the integration of life and faith. I’m not the most creative person in the world when it comes to things like this, but I did my best. In the end, as I reflected on faith and life and how they intersect, I was drawn to photosynthesis as a paradigm of the spiritual life.
In photosynthesis a tree needs three things to grow: water, sun, and carbon dioxide. I liken these three elements to God’s character and being (water, absorbed through the roots of the tree), God’s presence (sun), and our life experiences (carbon dioxide). We (the tree) need each to grow into the people God intends us to be.
We need to sink our roots deeply into the character and being of God, allowing our souls to connect with Him. We need to experience him through spiritual practices that allow his living water to pour into our lives and revive and transform our souls. We need his presence by the Holy Spirit to surround and guide us throughout our days. We need that presence in the midst of life’s experiences to take and use those experiences to produce in us the character of Christ.
Trees receive water through their roots in the ground. We need to be grounded in God’s incredible love for us. We need to believe that he has created us for intimacy with him and that he longs to have that relationship restored as we are transformed into the image of Jesus. This is foundational – we need to be “rooted and built up” in the love of God shown to us in Jesus Christ. There is a sense in which trees do nothing but rest and receive the life-giving water from the soil. We need to rest and receive from God his life-giving nutrients through silence, solitude, Sabbath, times of retreat and waiting on the Lord, surrender and the like.
But trees also have an active role to play. They manufacture their own food by trapping the sun’s light and using its energy. We have an active part to play in our spiritual growth as well. We must intentionally seek to be aware of God’s presence and to live our lives from the energy and direction He provides. We do this through meditation and study of God’s Word (study, memorization, lectio divina, etc.); prayer (centering prayer, breath prayer, intercession, self-examination, etc.); community (spiritual friendship, spiritual direction, church, small groups, service, etc.); simple living (wholly devoted to God, giving generously, etc.); and through many other intentional practices that help us to live with an awareness of God’s presence all around us.
Sometimes clouds can block the sun from a tree’s view. In the same way, there are things that can block God’s presence from our “view”. Our choices (white clouds) can take us away from God’s presence. Outright sin; choosing the good rather than the best; refusing to respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and many things like this are choices we make that prevent us from experiencing God’s presence. At other times trials and suffering (dark clouds) can hinder us from experiencing God’s presence. Cognitively we may know he is there, but we do not sense his presence. But, it should also be remembered, that the dark clouds bring rain which replenishes the soil’s water, which the trees need. In the same way, the trials of life often offer lessons in God’s character and deeper experiences of who he is that enable us to grow even when we can’t immediately see or feel his presence.
Trees also need carbon dioxide to be able to make the food they need. A tree uses the energy of the sun to combine the carbon dioxide and water so it can grow. In addition to God’s love and his presence, we need the experiences of life. As we interact with people and are stretched and challenged, we grow. Some life experiences are challenging and painful, but even those (and often especially those) are the ones that produce the most growth in our lives if we will stay rooted in God’s love and seeking his presence.
As trees conduct photosynthesis, they grow to physical maturity, but they also produce fruit. In our spiritual lives, as we grow to spiritual maturity we will produce fruit as well. We will become more like Jesus and show forth the fruit of the Spirit living lives of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). And we will enjoy the intimacy and connectedness for which our souls yearn. And, photosynthesis produces life-giving oxygen. In our spiritual lives, as we grow and bear fruit, we also offer the life-giving fragrance of Christ to those around us.
A tree’s growth is measured on the inside – by the rings within the trunk. As we grow into maturity we grow into our true self – the person we are in Christ – but that growth may not be evident from outside. Even so, it is surely taking place as rings are added to our spiritual tree trunks!
Trees usually are found in forests or woods with other trees. This helps with cross-pollination and offers protection as well. As believers, we need to be connected to other believers to spur one another on in our faith.
Here is the picture of all this when it’s put together: