Different Soils

Expected responses of those who attend recovery, as seen in the parable of the sower

It is difficult, no matter the setting, to have a man or woman attend but not benefit from recovery. Over the years, I have seen many come and go. In some cases, I could tell at the beginning that a man was going to quit, his arrogance and disdain for recovery on full display. For others, I was sure that a man was going to stay, thinking he had a sincere desire to get healthy. Whatever the cases may be, men have left, failed, or refused to grow in spite of the truth, love, or time given to them.

Often, I have wrestled with the difficult reality of this powerlessness over others. I have spent many an hour wondering and praying for guidance, hoping that perhaps there was something else I could do. In some cases, God has shown me attitudes, feedback or ideas I need to change, but in all cases, He has reminded me of the ultimate reality: I am not in control. There are no magic words, insights or program materials powerful to change a man. It is only God that can bring about change.

This reality of powerlessness in ministry is one that Jesus addressed when teaching the parable of the Sower in Matthew 13. In this parable, Jesus teaches of four responses to truth, which I find emphasizes the simple reality of man’s personal responsibility to choose Christ, and a minister’s inability to change the heart of man, no matter how pure the message. I will look at these four types, applying them to the men I encounter while working in recovery.

The Hardened

Matthew 13:3-4
And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying, “Behold, the sower went out to sow; and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up.”

The hardened men are incapable of growing. They may attend in order to gain information, satisfy a spouse or sincerely change; but, using a variety of tactics and methods, they refuse to accept any idea that disagrees with their worldview. Such men have no concept of submission, for they disagree that there is any serious change (perhaps other than the acting out behavior) that needs to be made. In their minds, change must be made in their version of reality, or it is not valid. As such, outside ideas are worthless, amusing, or insulting, but almost never valuable.

The end result of such men is that no change at all is seen, and regardless of truth is shared, or insights given, they refuse to accept them.

The Shallow

Matthew 13:5-6
Others fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. “But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.”

The shallow men are those who outwardly pursue recovery, but for all the wrong motives. Their core desire is to gain control of their lives, by their definition of control, and recovery is but a tool to achieve this outcome. They may appear to grow quickly, as they adapt to the group, but lack any true depth. Thus, when difficulty arises, they tend to fall away quickly. Difficulty may be the newness wearing off, a spouse’s frustration, job opportunities, or challenges to address a particular issue; whatever the reason, the difficulties of life strangle out the truth, and it dies.

The end result of such men is the same as the hardened, except that they often blame the environment for their failure, rather than seeing their own lack of submission before God as the issue. This is because they don’t believe submission to God is necessary for change.

The Distracted

Matthew 13:7
Others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out.

The distracted men are those who both pursue recovery and are willing to submit, but their submission is compartmentalized. They fear that God will not totally satisfy them, and so they refuse to submit all to Him. These areas of rebellion are normally wrapped in carefully constructed arguments of legitimacy. These may be relational dynamics with a spouse, work habits, or entertainment, but when examined, they are clearly unhealthy.

Because of this rebellion, although they may grow in sobriety or other concrete pursuits, they lack any of the benefits from these successes. They struggle to have boundaries in their marriage; anger and victim stance constantly influence their choices; or their value is still derived from what others think of them. Whatever the case may be, such a man is almost never at peace, and quite often, even though he may have achieved long term sobriety, he still struggles to stay sober.

This man, in my mind, is the most dangerous to recovery ministries, for he has some of the concrete measures for success but because of his own lack of total submission he leads others down the path of “partial” submission. Such men often view doing whatever it takes to be sober as “optional”, and place the focus on secondary issues, such as jobs, marriage or family, in spite of the fact that the addiction is destroying all of these things. This thinking is poisonous to any man seeking to achieve recovery, because it does not demand submission before God in totality, thus attempting to treat God as a partner, rather than Lord. God is clear: He does not bless pride.

These men believe they can both submit and retain control. These are often those who only seek to be sober, and care nothing for the underlying issues of rebellion in their lives.

The Submitted

Matthew 13:8
And others fell on the good soil and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.

The submitted men are those who receive the truth and grow at a steady rate. They wrestle with their view of reality in comparison to the truth being revealed by God. Their growth is less so in sobriety, though sobriety is achieved, it instead focuses on a continuous and increasing submission to God. As his understanding increases, so does both desire and action in submitting before God. These men not only achieve sobriety but find that all areas of their lives must be brought into submission before God. They learn sacrifice of self in return for truth.

In this pursuit, these men exhibit the fruits of the spirit, but most importantly, they show love. They learn to love their spouse unconditionally, to care for their children, and to give sacrificially. They experience peace and joy, coming to know the redemption of God. The insecurities and fears die down, being replaced by peace found in humility before God. As he experiences God’s love and recognizes God’s absolute authority, he finds peace, in that there is no longer a need to pursue control.

In this, the submitted are those who naturally bear fruit and draw others to the same submission before Christ, not just in achieving sobriety, but in achieving peace.


In conclusion, there are several important insights I believe need to be made.

First, I almost never know what type of man is sitting before me. Just as the prophet Samuel did not know the heart of Jesse’s sons, when picking the next king of Israel, so I do not know the heart of any man I meet with. However, over time the man will reveal to me what is in the center of his heart. As Jesus said, it’s what comes out of the mouth that defiles a man (Matt 15:11), and “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:20)

Second, the value of understanding these four types of men is in knowing that even the most perfect delivery of truth will not penetrate the hardened, create depth in the shallow, or submit the distracted. This is to say, my responsibility is not to “convince”, it is to “share”. Any ministry to the broken will encounter each of these men, but our responsibility is to God. All shall equally stand before God one day to answer for our personal decisions, not for the decisions of another.

Third, these four types are not unchangeable states, but present realities. The growing may become hardened, and the hardened may be broken and begin to grow. Just as soil is not always hard, a man is not always hardened. So, even if I believe that someone is hardened, I should not take that as license to ignore them. Who knows, God may use me as the means to break their hardness. As Paul encouraged Timothy to correct those who are in opposition, let us do the same.

2 Timothy 2:24-26
“The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.”

Finally, my greatest task in working with the broken is not the words I share, but in prayers I raise. For those of you who seek to help the broken, the most important thing you can do is pray. Pray for them and pray for yourself. God may grant them repentance, for He is willing that none should perish. Let us have hope for the hopeless, because God is powerful to redeem even the worst of us. I know this is true, for He has redeemed me.

Matthew 13:9
“He who has ears, let him hear.”