There’s no fast track to a full and beautiful life. And it starts with a humble beginning.
In 1963, a team of Israeli archaeologists excavated Herod the Great’s palace at Masada. They unearthed the usual suspects—skeletal remains, ancient artifacts, wall frescoes, and the like. But the most important find may have been a jar of preserved seeds. The seeds belonged to an extinct species of trees called the Judean date palm, which was wiped out around A.D. 500. In 2005, three were planted in the Arabah region of southern Israel, and eight weeks later one sprouted—the oldest known seed to be successfully germinated. Named Methuselah, after the oldest person in the Bible, that one seed grew into a four-foot tree with a dozen leaves by 2008 and flowered for the first time in 2012. Today, Methuselah is a 10-foot tall, pollen-producing palm.
In the field of botany, there are two types of seed—orthodox and unorthodox. What sets an orthodox seed apart is its ability to survive. Unorthodox seeds die when exposed to temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius, but orthodox seeds are able to survive droughts, glaciers, and the ravages of time—even 20 centuries, like Methuselah.
Long after you are gone, the things you plant have the potential to impact the world, near and far, for generations to come.
Faith, too, is an orthodox seed. It can survive any and every circumstance. Even when you die, your seeds of faith do not. Long after you are gone, the things you plant have the potential to impact the world, near and far, for generations to come.
To the Third Generation
On May 17, 1902, Christian Schmidgall boarded a ship in Antwerp, Belgium, and set sail for America. He was 16 years old, had 10 dollars to his name, and didn’t speak a lick of English when he landed on Ellis Island. Christian boarded a train bound for central Illinois, where he took odd jobs. After renting a farm for many years, he was finally able to buy 80 acres of farmland in Minier, Illinois. That land is still in our family—farmed by Christian’s great-great-grandson. The original owner raised oats and hay, and now his farm produces beans and corn as well. But the seeds he planted a hundred years ago are reaping a harvest to the third and fourth generation.
Was Christian Schmidgall thinking of this when he immigrated to the United States or bought the farm? I doubt it. We tend to think right here, right now. But God is the God of three generations—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. His thoughts are so much bigger, so much longer than ours. And what God does isn’t just for us. His blessings have a trickle-down effect to the people who come after us.
When Christian Schmidgall put his faith in Christ in the 1940s, God became the God of Christian. He also became the God of Edgar, the God of Bob, and the God of Christian’s great-granddaughter—my wife, Lora. Christian may not have been aware of it at the time, but his decisions—both to immigrate to America and to follow Christ—have had a domino effect in our family. And so it is with our lives, far beyond our ability to control or comprehend. We don’t know when, where, or how, but every mustard seed of faith reaps a harvest, often where we least expect it.
In Matthew 13, Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed. He says, “This is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches” (Matt. 13:31-32).
Yes, the mustard seed is unassuming—only two millimeters in diameter—yet grows into a 10-foot-tall tree its first year. It is packed with vitamin B6, B12, C, E, and K and is a natural source of calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, iron, and zinc. And it’s the key ingredient in one of my favorite condiments—mustard. Whether you like classic yellow, spicy brown, or Dijon, it’s hard to imagine a hot dog without it, right? But if you didn’t know what that seed was, you would never guess what it could do.
Such is faith.
There is a little phrase in this parable that I want to focus on—so that. It’s the key that unlocks a mystery. But first, a little backdrop.
In 1936, a sociologist named Robert K. Merton wrote a paper titled “The Unanticipated Consequence of Purposive Social Action.” Simply put, he said that every decision we make, every action we take has unintended consequences beyond our ability to control and our ability to predict. Those unintended consequences come in two flavors—unexpected drawbacks and unexpected benefits. An unexpected drawback is when a decision backfires and has the opposite effect of what you intended. For example, if you’ve ever taken a medication that treats one symptom but causes complications, those side effects are unexpected drawbacks. An unexpected benefit, on the other hand, is when a decision doesn’t just accomplish what you intended, but also has a net benefit beyond what you imagined.
Every action we take has unintended consequences beyond our ability to control and our ability to predict.
Here’s a fun example. When our family started attending Calvary Church in Naperville, Illinois, I didn’t know the pastor had a daughter and didn’t care. But that daughter was meant to capture my heart, and we dated throughout high school. I grew spiritually at Calvary and am so grateful for the teaching. So grateful for the worship. But I’m also beyond thankful the pastor had a daughter I’ve been married to for 23 years! She wasn’t our reason for attending Calvary Church. She was the unexpected benefit.
Bearing these two things in mind, let’s look again at Jesus’ parable. What is the purposive action in this story? Why does the man plant the seed? I think it’s pretty simple—he wanted mustard on his kosher hot dog. It was a culinary decision. But there was also an unintended consequence. Jesus said, “It is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches” (Matt. 13:32).
Is that why the man planted the tree? So the birds could build a nest in its branches? Absolutely not. But God has a way of taking the seeds of faith we plant and accomplishing His purposes in a way we couldn’t predict. In other words, God has ulterior motives for your life, and that’s good news. Consider this:
• He has plans to prosper you (Jer. 29:11).
• He’s preparing good works in advance (Eph. 2:10).
• He is working all things together for the good of His followers (Rom. 8:28).
• He is ordering your footsteps (Prov. 16:9).
• And He who began a good work will carry it to completion (Phil. 1:6).
Our so that is different than God’s sometimes, but God’s is so much better than ours.
The Speed of a Seed
Our job is to sow the seed of faith. God’s job is to make it grow. And it doesn’t just grow in a linear fashion. It grows exponentially through time and eternity. The dream God has given you will probably take longer and be harder to accomplish than you imagine, but that’s because God wants to do much bigger and better things than you can imagine. And the seeds of faith you plant will often reap a harvest where you least expect it.
Our job is to sow the seed of faith. God’s job is to make it grow. And it doesn’t just grow in a linear fashion. It grows exponentially through time and eternity.
Like a mustard seed, our faith often goes underground for a season. There is no visible evidence of what God is doing, but it isn’t for naught. Take heart. Faith has to take root before it can bear fruit. And it’s often in this phase that we give up on God’s plan.
We want success to happen at the speed of light. We want what our parents worked a lifetime for to come to us in half the time with half the effort. But in the kingdom of God, success happens at the speed of a seed planted in the ground. It’s not 15 minutes of faith. It’s a lifetime of faithfulness. And as Eugene Peterson—quoting Nietzsche—said of discipleship, success is also created through a “long obedience in the same direction.”
Here’s the good news. We tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in a year or two, but we underestimate what God can do in a decade or two.
The Talmud—a book of Jewish law and tradition—records a telling story about Honi the Circle Maker. He’s famous for the prayer that saved a generation. But there is another story. Honi was walking by a man planting a carob tree and questioned him. “Since a carob tree does not bear fruit for 70 years,” he asks, “are you certain of living so long as to eat from it?” The man answers, “I found the world filled with carob trees; as my forefathers planted them for me, I likewise plant them for my descendants.”
We don’t plant seeds of faith for ourselves. Faith is thinking in 70-year timelines. What God does for us isn’t just for us; it’s for the third and fourth generation. For what it’s worth, that’s why I write books. They are time capsules to the third and fourth generation of Battersons. And you can do the same for the people who will come after you.
The mystery, the beauty of it all, is that only eternity will tell the full story. Someday God will connect the dots between what we plant and the story of redemption He is writing across nations, across generations. We will never know when or where or how our lives will reap a harvest. But God is faithful. He is also able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine. All we need is a little bit of faith.
Photography by Ryan Hayslip
BY MARK BATTERSON