I have a beloved tree that I planted in our garden many years ago. It’s called a palo verde tree because of its green bark. My favorite part about the tree is how it produces a bright yellow covering of flowers for 2-3 months in late spring.
After I planted it, I patiently waited for it to bloom. But it never happened. I had planted it well. I had watered it well. But it never bloomed. I prayed and prayed, and, instead of perking up, all the leaves ended up falling off.
During this planting frustration, I came across a verse written by the Apostle Paul:
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth … For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:5-9, ESV)
As I pondered this verse about how God grows the church, I was overwhelmed by the conviction that, when I try to grow plants, I presume that everything is about me — how I plant and how I water. I basically assume that the whole growing of the plant only happens because of what I do. When it comes to God, I had essentially narrowed His role to a friendly neighbor who simply walks by to say, “hello” or maybe, “looks good.”
It was the same with my investments.
When I started work as a professor at Biola University, I came from an investment consulting background. As an investment professional, I was paid to help clients outperform the market using modern asset allocation strategies. As I prepared to contribute into my new retirement account, I designed a great strategic asset allocation; this was my “planting.” I then started to contribute a portion of my paycheck into my retirement account and monitor my investment, my “watering.”
After planting and watering my retirement portfolio, I waited to see it grow. As I waited, I began to become more and more frustrated. My portfolio did not perform as well as the market. I was under-performing. Put another way, my portfolio was not blooming! In fact, my under-performance got so ugly that you might say all of the leaves fell off, too.
As this was happening, my prayers around my portfolio (and my palo verde tree) were desperate prayers for God to bless my planting and watering with growth. While prayer is always a great way to respond to disappointments, the problem with my prayers was that everything was about me and my agency: “Lord, bless my amazing planting and my sufficient watering!” or, “Lord, make me get better at planting and watering.”
But Paul speaks of a different way to think about our role in helping things grow: “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth…” (1 Corinthians 3:7, ESV).
Although this passage is about the growth of a church, its principles can easily map to the growth of just about anything. In this passage, Paul defines our role in a growing process as one of a servant who belongs to God. “Fellow worker” refers to a table-waiter. So, according to Paul, we are actually waiters, and it is God who is the owner of the restaurant, and it is He who actually has all of the responsibility for the restaurant’s growth.
As we plant and water, this truth makes God’s role so much larger that our role becomes nothing in comparison.
But, how can this be? My role seems absolutely essential since my investment would not be able to grow if I did not put money into an account, right? While this appears to be sound logic, this way of thinking essentially argues the opposite of what Paul is saying: our planting and watering is everything, while God’s actions are contingent on our actions and so are really nothing.
In order to get out of my man-centered thinking, I needed to stop and consider what growth is. Growth itself is a miracle! With gardening, God is the one that is multiplying cells and converting the energy from the sun into a productive process while we hold our rusted bucket of water and handful of soil. Likewise, with investing, God gives people creative minds to come up with a capital market process that allows products and services to be financed in a way that produces a net profit for shareholders, while all we have is a flickering computer screen, some pie charts, and a few formulas.
Growth can only be accomplished by God. But, while the growth has everything to do with God, we are asked to participate in God’s growth process through our planting and watering. We are just a small part of a much larger process, all orchestrated by our great King. We are asked to participate as a table-waiter, not as the boss, and we are wholly owned by God.
To illustrate this point further, imagine a waiter is asked by his boss to turn the lights on. No waiter who flips on a light switch would declare to his boss, “I made the illumination happen!” Flipping a light switch does not generate electricity. In the same way, when we instill and maintain our investments, we need humility that we are simply tapping into a growth process that is all about God. God’s role in the process of growth is everything, while our role is nothing in comparison.
God needs the credit for both the growth and the lack of growth of our investments. This can be greatly comforting when our investments languish since the lack of growth is not about us. Instead, because God’s role is everything, we need to act as good table-waiters who continually look toward the boss as the most important person in the room, the one in total control over the situation.
And my poor, languishing palo verde tree? After much research and prayer, I discovered that the problem was an infestation by a certain pest. Once I addressed the pest, the tree instantly perked up and adorned itself with gorgeous yellow blooms (my happy tree is pictured below).
So, was it my new technique that made my tree grow? It is so easy to fall right back into my old patterns of thought: “I did it! Thank goodness I figured it out. It’s all about what I did!”
Instead, I remembered that all I did was participate in a small way to God’s amazing work. I was the servant who flipped the switch, but God was the master engineer. And my service, while a privilege, was nothing compared to God’s work in putting together all of the pieces needed for a two-month cascade of bright yellow blooms draped across beautiful green bark.
In the same way, when it comes to our investing, while we do have a small part to play in helping our investments grow — which we should relish and treat seriously — God’s part is truly everything.