It wasn’t until I was in high school that I began to notice my mom would often repeat a proverbial phrase in response to my anxious musings about the future. “Bloom where you’re planted,” she would quip as I worried openly about what I should do with my life. I wasn’t a Christian at the time, and I was right in the thick of my teenage years, so these sayings—she had a host of others—would, to borrow another idiom, “float in one ear and out the other.” What hath horticulture to do with a young man’s concern over the future?
When I trusted Christ during my sophomore year of college, my passion for the Scripture turned insatiable. I desired to know the truth and talk about it with others. My parents were already Christians, so it was natural that our conversations would often turn to the Bible. It was sometime after my conversion that I was talking with my parents, probably pondering over concerns about the future, when my mom again unearthed her agricultural wisdom: “Bloom where you’re planted.” But this time she added, “Where is that in the Bible?”
It sounds biblical, doesn’t it? The Bible is replete with agrarian references and illustrations, and there’s something about the prima facie wisdom of that short sentence that makes it sound like it fell straight from the lips of Jesus or Solomon.
Discerning a Catchy Colloquial Phrase
The problem, of course, is that there is no such phrase in the Bible. Pull out your concordance, open your Bible search program, and scour the Proverbs and the Gospels: you won’t find “Bloom where you’re planted.” The Law and the Prophets won’t help you; neither will Paul, Peter, James, or Jude. The phrase “Bloom where you’re planted” is simply not in Scripture.
There are many colloquial phrases that get tossed around in our contemporary cultural milieu that are often mistaken as biblical statements. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” is one with which you might be familiar. It’s not in the Bible. The famous “Footprints” poem isn’t either. What about “Cleanliness is next to godliness?” Nope. “God moves in mysterious ways?” He does, but that actual sentence is nowhere in Scripture.
As we grow in our walk with Christ, we should desire to know our Bibles so well that we are able to spot biblical-sounding statements that aren’t in the Bible. This is a matter of basic discernment and it is the responsibility of every Christian. But our task doesn’t stop here. In the case of the catchy adage, “Bloom where you are planted,” it’s not enough to say, “That’s not in the Bible!” We want to bring the whole teaching of Scripture to bear not only on the words of the phrase in question, but the meaning of it. This practice follows Paul’s admonition to “Abhor what is evil, cling to what is good” (Rom 12:9). In other words, we want to ask what is true about the statement, and what is false.
What Does it Mean?
But first we have to ask, What does this phrase mean? While I can’t speak for everyone who uses it, the most likely meaning of this saying is basically, “Be content where God has placed you in life and make the most of your particular calling.” If this is what we mean when we use this phrase, then we are close to capturing a biblical principle.
Theologically, the doctrine of creation teaches us that God has designed and outfitted His creatures with particular skills, interests, and abilities, and sovereignly placed them in their given circumstances in order to exercise dominion over the earth (see Gen 1:26-31; Acts 17:26). The Great Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin rediscovered this biblical doctrine of creation and taught Christians to fulfill their individual callings, whether that calling was to serve society as a banker, farmer, or homemaker. Giving careful attention to one’s calling would produce valuable goods for the greater community and, in the case of mothers, train the next generation. Careful attention to fulfilling one’s calling would also keep one out of trouble. Calvin wrote,
Finally, this point is to be noted: the Lord bids each one of us in all life’s actions to look to his calling. For he knows with what great restlessness human nature flames, with what fickleness is borne hither and thither, how its ambition longs to embrace various things at once. Therefore, lest through our stupidity and rashness everything be turned topsy-turvy, he has appointed duties for every man in his particular way of life. And that no one may thoughtlessly transgress his limits, he has named the various kinds of living “callings.” Therefore each individual has his own kind of living assigned to him by the Lord as a sort of sentry post so that he may not heedlessly wander about throughout life (Institutes, 3.10.6).
In other words, constantly daydreaming about a different life, a better line of work, or a new community will lead to personal instability and lack of productivity. There’s a good chance Calvin would have endorsed my mom’s idiom.
Live the Life God has Assigned You
Most importantly, it appears that Paul the apostle might have approved the parental counsel I received as a young man. In 1 Corinthians 7:17, Paul tells those who were anxious over getting married, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. . . . in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God (1 Cor 7:17, 24). Paul does not make this an absolute rule, for he tells the slave to be content with his status in life and seek freedom if possible (1 Cor 7:22). Those who were married must remain married, but the unmarried were free to marry or stay single (1 Cor 7:9, 27-28).
Nevertheless, Paul recognized that there was wisdom in burrowing oneself into their God-given calling and seeking contentment and productivity there rather than constantly looking around and hoping for something else (see also Prov 17:24). Nor does genuine repentance necessarily require a change in one’s work (see Luke 3:10-14). But it might, and that’s where we come to a deficiency in the saying, “Bloom where you are planted.”
A Time to Uproot
The problem isn’t so much in what the phrase says, but what it doesn’t say. Without the larger biblical context, the statement “Bloom where you’re planted” could imply that remaining in one’s calling is all a person needs to worry about in life. But this approach wouldn’t account for the callings that are overtly sinful and from which a person must “uproot” himself or herself if they know Christ. Christians cannot abide in Christ and work in the pornography or abortion industry, for example. True repentance in these cases would lead to blooming elsewhere.
But we can’t fault a proverbial saying for being, well, proverbial. Solomon’s catchy couplets don’t always give us the whole picture, but we don’t chide him for this reason. Diligence, most of the time, leads to abundance (Prov 12:27; 13:4; 21:5), but not when famines ravage the land. Generally speaking, a slack hand causes poverty (Prov 10:4), but it’s possible for a sluggard to inherit a large estate and much wealth. Whoever keeps his tongue keeps himself out of trouble (Prov 21:23), unless unsolicited trouble finds him. In other words, a good proverb doesn’t need to say everything in order to be true, or helpful. For Bible-saturated Christians, sayings like “Bloom where you are planted” can be insightful and encouraging because we are able to understand them within a biblical framework. That’s the blessing of biblical discernment all Christians can enjoy, no matter where we are planted.
This article originally appeared in GraceNotes 2.4 (May 2017)