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Like a Tree- Lesson 4: The Root System

By Rev. J. Patrick Bowman

Photo by mali maeder on

Most of us don’t consciously consider that when we look at a tree, we only see that which is visible above the ground. We are impressed with the great height of the tree. We are impressed with the mighty canopy that spreads out before us. We are impressed with the lush fruit that hangs from its mighty branches. The truth is, none of those public attributes would be possible without a healthy root system. The root system, although hidden, is the most crucial part of a tree. You can plant a tree in perfect conditions, considering its preferred soil type, sun exposure, and moisture requirements. Still, if the root system is not healthy, that tree will not live up to its
potential. And may I suggest that we too, as God’s planting, will not live up to our potential either, without good roots.

The first function of the root system is as an anchor and support for the tree. The tree has a foundation under the ground, much like a building does. If a house’s foundation is weak, no matter how pretty that home looks, eventually cracks will show in the upward structure. In our Christian walk, it’s what we do in private, in the hidden place, that allows us to produce fruit for the hungry and leaves for the healing of the nations. If we are not purposeful with those practices that anchor us in our faith, we will see it in the quality and quantity of the fruit we produce.

Let’s look at Matthew 7:15-20:
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly
they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather
grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good
fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth
evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth
not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits
ye shall know them.

We can consider this passage to protect ourselves from false prophets and as a warning to protect and care for our root systems. We are all, in one sense, mouthpieces for the Lord. We will be known by the fruit we bear. Notice that King James calls the tree with evil fruit corrupt, and likens it to the false prophet in sheep’s clothing which is inwardly a ravenous wolf. Corruption begins in the inward parts and manifests outwardly. A tree may look good for a while, but eventually, the compromise of weak or damaged roots will show in the overall health of the tree.
I’m sure we can all think of ministers, ministries, or people in the pew, that looked good on the outside but suddenly fell because the hidden corruption manifested itself in destruction.

The anchoring aspect of the root system is further referenced by Paul in Colossians 2:1-7:
For I would that ye knew what great conflict I have for you, and for them at
Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh; That their hearts
might be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full
assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgment of the mystery of God, and
of the Father, and of Christ; In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and
knowledge. And this I say, lest any man should beguile you with enticing words. For though I be absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit, joying and
beholding your order, and the stedfastness of your faith in Christ. As ye have
therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him: Rooted and built up
in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with

Notice that rooting comes before the building. That’s an important statement. When I
worked as a retail nurseryman, we were careful to inspect the plants from wholesaler growers. One of the things an unscrupulous grower might do is to fertilize little 4” pots to produce a lot of top-growth. That accomplished, they would then transplant these 4” pots into one-gallon containers and charge us for the larger size. So the plants looked good on top but had underdeveloped root systems. We would then quarantine these plants for several months and sell them only when the root systems had grown in proper proportion to the top growth.

This also happens in a spiritual sense. Let’s continue reading in Colossians 2. Verse 8
says, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.”

Empty philosophies, traditions of men, and the rudiments of this world are like those plants’ top growth. It might sound impressive, look impressive, and even give an air of sophistication, but there is nothing to it but show. The roots just aren’t there. We must be rooted in Christ.

The anchoring aspect of a tree’s root system can be seen every time we have a wind
storm. Without roots that hold it to the ground, a tree would soon be lying on its side. We too, as Christians, need to be grounded. Did you know that a tree’s root system is often 4 times the circumference of the tree’s canopy or drip line? That’s some long roots! But unless the root system has some width and depth, there is always the danger of being blown over.

Ephesians 4:11-15 says:
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.

Here again, we face the deception of the top growth; every wind of doctrine, by the
sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive. As I just said, as we looked at Colossians, it might sound impressive, look impressive, and even give an air of sophistication. Still, there is nothing to it but show. The roots just aren’t there. If we want to grow up in all aspects of Christ, we can’t continually be blown around and tossed like waves. We need not only wide roots but deep roots.

Many Christians have grown wider than they have grown deep, and here is why. I
believe, for the most part, the church has surface-watered its members to a place of shallowness. Our typical Western church system provides excessive splash that we drink up readily without going to any depth. Placing the responsibility of Christian maturity on the Christian himself or herself is undoubtedly out of vogue. The system we now have is to show up for your shower once or twice a week, and all is good. So our roots run wide as we drink a little here and drink a little there, with no incentive to dig a well ourselves. Roots have a tendency to grow only as deep as the water source. Has the church hindered her own ability to weather the storm? Has adding
program after program at a surface level made her members lazy in searching for the Spirit’s deep things? And not only lazy but unaware that there is anything deeper. Discipleship has slipped from the meaty process of ever more significant discovery, devotion, and development it was meant to be, to a meager diet of milk and cookies.

Where a shallow root system shows up most is in times of drought. When I landscaped my former property, I put in a drip system that watered more heavily on a less frequent basis. This forced the trees to search deeper for the water than they’d have to if I watered more lightly daily. The result of that strategy was that those trees developed a healthy deep root system. They could easily handle times of drought because they were forced to find a deeper source of moisture in the ground.

It may seem odd, but one of the other ways to ensure profitable, healthy root growth is to offer some resistance above the ground. A newly planted tree will often be anchored with a tree stake. This helps to keep the tree upright in its initial season of grounding. In most cases, though, it is recommended that the tree stake be removed after the first year so that the tree feels the need to hasten the growth of roots and the anchoring process independently.

Suppose we are always relying on someone else to see us through the latest spiritual
storm. In that case, our roots will forever remain shallow and ineffective. The job description of the fivefold ministry is one of equipping. There are two sides to this task. One is to walk beside a person, or group of people, in discipleship. The other is to know when to challenge that person or group to put down some roots of their own. When someone becomes dependent on prophecy or comes for counsel time and time again for the same issue, it may be they want a word from God without making effort to get the word of God into their lives. In other words, they want the benefits of someone else’s root system without taking the initiative to grow their own. By
carefully reminding them we are not their source, we put the responsibility on them to search for and find God’s grace for their situation. I’ve heard of one pastor who will not pray with someone in his congregation who has not prayed themselves first.

In Matthew 25:1-13 we read:
Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.

Our root system is like that oil. We must be proactive about our spiritual development and relationship with Christ. The hour that our roots are needed is not the hour to decide we need to grow them.

Besides being an anchoring system, the root system of a tree is also the conduit through which water and nutrients are accessed by the capillary network and moved to the tree’s upper part. The water and nutrients are essential in themselves, but they are worthless without proper means of transport.

The Winter 2014 issue of Leadership Journal, a quarterly for ministry leaders, featured
an article by Jen Pollock Michel titled, “The Force of Habit.” In the article, she writes about the long-term advantages of cultivating a commitment to reading her Bible and prayer that began in her youth. She says:
Perhaps those commitments sound legalistic. I’m sure I kept them for years in that spirit. Perhaps daily disciplines seem to reduce the desire for God to a dry perfunctory routine. At times, these habits, I admit, have all the explosive fireworks of a child practicing their times tables. And although these criticisms may be valid, they do not invalidate the beautiful and nearly invisible process of transformation that was inaugurated in my life when someone recommended to me the value of spiritual habits, and I took them seriously.”

It’s important to note that spiritual exercises are not an end in themselves. They do,
however, provide a valuable service, as do the roots of a tree. The same article also quoted from the book “Sacred Rhythms” by Ruth Haley Barton: “I cannot transform myself, or anyone else for that matter. What I can do is create the conditions in which spiritual transformation can take place, by developing and maintaining a rhythm of spiritual practices that keep me open and available to God.”

You see, people are content living with what they receive from the outside rather than
creating conditions for spiritual vitality on the inside. Imagine a tree trying to maintain growth, health, and fruitfulness on just the rainwater that fell upon its leaves. Yet how many Christians are content to sit in a pew once a week for an hour, convinced they are getting all they need to live a growing, vital, fruitful Christian life? It’s no different than putting on the newest, trendiest exercise clothes with no intention of going to the gym. Our hour to “weigh-in” is coming. What will we have to show for our pretty outfits?

We can further learn from the coppice. A coppice is a wooded area where certain shrubs and trees are repeatedly cut back to the roots. This creates abundant small shoots to appear that eventually grow to become a source of firewood or small poles. The early shoots are good for nothing. 17th Century English writer, Owen Feltham, said, “He that would build lastingly must lay his foundation low. The proud man, like the early shoots of a new-felled coppice, thrusts out full of sap, green in leaves, and fresh in color, but bruises and breaks with every wind, is nipped with every little cold, and, being top-heavy, is wholly unfit for use. Whereas the humble man retains it in the root, can abide the winter’s killing blast, the ruffling concussions of the wind, and
can endure far more than that which appears so flourishing.”

The root system of a tree anchors the tree and provides for the essential feeding of the tree and serves as food storage for current needs and future growth. The food-producing process of photosynthesis ends with colder, darker weather when leaves fall to the ground. In anticipation of this, the root system “puts something back” to sustain the tree through winter and prepare it for spring growth. It’s easier to create those opportunities of availability to receive of the Lord when we aren’t so burdened with the affairs of life, or illness, or emotional distress; those times we need
refreshing the most. But there is also the tendency to get caught up in the pleasure of these unburdened times and forget to “put something back” for the cold, dark, stressful times we all face.

We are reminded of the ant in Proverbs 6:6-11. “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest. How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? when wilt thou arise out of thy sleep? Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man.”

There is spiritual poverty that awaits us if we fail to gather our provision and lay it aside when the time is right. In other words, as I recently read, we need to have more in the pantry than we do on the shelf. The root system of a tree knows this well.

Now that we’ve looked at the three functions of a tree’s root system and applied them to our spiritual lives let’s look at what actually makes up a spiritual root system. Turn with me to Acts 2:42, as I believe it gives an accurate description of the parts. “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” Here is the foundational root system that will anchor, feed, and provide for us as we endeavor to grow into Him in all things.

First and foremost is the centrality of the apostles’ teachings: God’s word, the Bible. This happens at three levels. The first level is that we simply read the Bible. No other book has impacted mankind more than the Bible. In a country where we are still allowed to read the Bible, we have no excuse not to. Harper Lee, the American novelist best known for his 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning, “To Kill a Mocking Bird”, said, “The book to read is not the one which thinks for you, but the one which makes you think. No book in the world equals the Bible for that.”

If reading the Bible is the first level in being rooted in scripture, the second level is
understanding it. Regular Bible study will open up new horizons and reinforce established truths in your life. A.W. Tozer, one of the most beloved Christian pastors and thinkers of the 20th Century, said, “The Word of God well understood and religiously obeyed is the shortest route to spiritual perfection. And we must not select a few favorite passages to the exclusion of others. Nothing less than a whole Bible can make a whole Christian.” In other words, be a person of the book…the whole book.

The third level of being rooted in the scriptures is allowing the Bible to speak to you.
This is when in your reading and understanding, the Bible becomes alive to you on a personal basis. It is when the complete thought, the logos, becomes a nugget of truth for you alone. The words of a passage may jump off the page at you. The Holy Spirit may illuminate and bring new light to scripture you’ve read many times. When the Bible speaks, be prepared to hear it and obey what is said.

Following being anchored in scripture is being rooted in fellowship. The Greek word
koinonia means much more than coming together for a common cause. The church is more than a civic group, common interest club, or political party committee meeting. The fellowship of God’s people is a sharing of oneself with God and others as we gather around the person of Jesus. This kind of transformation comes only when we are rooted in Him so profoundly we can confidently say, “Lord, not my will, but Thy will be done.”

Along with being rooted in scripture and fellowship, we also need to be rooted in the
breaking of bread. This aspect of our rooting also happens at three levels. The first level is the communal meal. The early church, whether meeting in smaller groups of two or three families, or larger groups as space was available, had as part of their gathering what was called a love feast, or what we would call a pot luck.

The second level, that of Communion or The Lord’s Supper, was included in this love
feast. At a point in their meal, they shared the bread and cup as a memorial of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ, in the same way He shared with His disciples in the final Passover meal.

The third level of breaking bread is in the Lord using us as broken bread to feed each
other and a hungry world around us. After we come alive in His presence, He can break us and use us to do His will in the Earth.

The final element we need to be rooted in is prayer. Prayer is two-way communication
with God. Paul instructs us in Romans 12:12 to be instant in prayer. The word instant means to persevere, to attend to, to give ourselves to. In 1 Thessalonians, we are admonished to pray without ceasing. That means we are to do more than just be mindful of it. We can intellectually assent to any of these spiritual practices; point out how wonderful and beneficial they are without ever practicing what we preach. Felicity Dale of says, “The first thing to understand is that God wants to communicate with us. Following Jesus as a system of rules and traditions is merely religion. Jesus wants to have a vital, living, vibrant relationship with each
one of us. Living that way becomes an adventure! In John 10, Jesus tells His disciples, ‘My sheep hear/recognize My voice.’”

John Wesley, the 18th Century founder of Methodism, called the roots of our faith “means of grace.” He explained these as ways God works invisibly in disciples, quickening, strengthening, and confirming their faith.

I hope I’ve convinced you of the need for a healthy, vibrant root system for your success in growing up by growing down. Although we looked at this scripture earlier, I believe it a fitting way to end. Jeremiah 17:7-8 tells us, “Blessed is the man that trusteth in the LORD, and whose hope the LORD is. For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit.”

Questions for Reflection

  1. Top growth in plants might be impressive, but if there is not a healthy root system in place to sustain that growth, disaster is imminent. Have you ever tried to do something without the support system needed to be successful? What was it, and what was the result?
  2. It is easy to get blown around if we are not rooted and grounded. In reading Ephesians 4:11-15, we see the fivefold ministry’s primary purpose is to equip or perfect Christ’s body for the work of ministry, for the edification (building up) of the body. Much of that perfecting or maturing of the body comes by encouraging deep spiritual roots. Are you surrounded by leaders who teach you to grow deep, or are they more interested in performance (top growth)? What are ways you can help
    yourself to grow deep?
  3. I talk about surface watering that produces shallow roots. Do you feel ready for times of spiritual drought and opposition that are common to all Christians? Have surface programs and activities replaced concrete foundational building in your life? When the heat abounds, what do you have spiritually set back in reserve to see you through?
  4. Read Acts 2:42 and reflect on apostolic teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. At what level are you participating in these areas of root development in your own Christian walk? How can you strengthen weaker areas so that a balance is achieved?
  5. Read Jeremiah 17:7-8. Write out the passage as I have done below, replacing your name where appropriate. This is a blessing, and hope you can walk in. This is what God says is available to you! Meditate on it. Be fruitful.
    Blessed is the man/woman that trusteth in the LORD, and whose hope the LORD is. For____________ shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out his/her roots by the river, and ___________shall not see when heat cometh, but _____________’s leaf shall be green; and ___________shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall___________ cease from yielding fruit.


Published by doctorpaddy

An ordained minister, Christian communicator, and educator.

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