How Can you Be a Tiller?

By Mark D. Roberts

June 1, 2015

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”

Genesis 2:15


One of my favorite sections of Home Depot is the power garden tool department. Even though I have all the tools I need, I still like browsing through Home Depot’s collection of power mowers, chainsaws, and string trimmers (better known as “weed whackers”). Among all of those machines you can find some power tillers. These tools look rather like lawnmowers, but in place of horizontal blades that cut grass they have vertical blades that cut and turn up the soil. In a word, they till.

According to the NRSV, God put the man in the garden “to till it and keep it.” “Till” is a reasonable translation of the Hebrew verb ‘avad in this context (though we’ll examine other nuances of this verb later). “To till” means to break up, plow, or turn up the soil before planting. Tilling enables hard ground to accept seeds. It aerates soil that has been tamped down. It can help fertilizer to be absorbed into the dirt prior to planting. Tilling isn’t planting seeds, caring for young plants, or harvesting. Rather, it is preparing the soil for fruitfulness that is to come.

There is an element of metaphorical tilling in work beyond farming. Teachers till when they prepare a learning environment. Managers till by seeing that the environments, systems, and relationships in their care will allow those they supervise to work well. Leaders till by shaping corporate cultures, defining core values, and lifting up compelling vision. Often, we have to break up old assumptions and practices for the seeds of innovation to be planted and grow.

Of course, so much more could be said about how our work is a form of tilling. Preparing, planning, and prioritizing could all be forms of tilling. Tilling describes work that prepares the soil, so to speak. It gets things ready for new life and for ultimate fruitfulness. Tilling is a central task of our lives, one that God has entrusted to us so that we might fulfill his intentions for our work.


What aspects of your work are like tilling? How do you “prepare the soil” in your leadership? How does the metaphor of tilling help you to think creatively about your work?


Gracious God, most of us do not literally till in our work. But most of us do “till” in a way. We break up the hard ground of unrealistic expectations and dysfunctional systems. We create contexts in which people can flourish. We have the opportunity to open things up so the “air” of your Spirit might refresh and nourish.

Help me, Lord, to be a faithful and wise “tiller.” Show me ways in which this metaphor can shape my leadership today and in the days ahead. May I prepare the “ground” for planting, growth, and an abundant harvest. Amen.

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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