“Just ask the animals, and they will teach you.”

(Job 12:7)

I suspect most of us have felt like a worm at one time or another.

In one of his lower moments, King David of Israel wrote, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help? Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief. . . . But I am a worm and not a man. I am scorned and despised by all!” (Psalm 22:1-2, 6, NLT).

Centuries later, the first words of this passage were spoken by the Messiah himself as he hung on the cross, rejected by people and “forsaken” by His heavenly Father for the burden of sin He carried. Even Jesus had His low days—perhaps one of His most important days being the very lowest.

Bildad, one of the friends of Job, echoed David’s thought in a more general way: “In comparison [to God], people are maggots; we mortals are mere worms” (Job 25:6, NLT). Though Bildad’s wisdom might be questioned on some points, what he says in this case is hard to argue with. People who think too highly of themselves probably don’t see things very clearly.

As a gardener, I’ve come to think that being like a worm, though perhaps tough on my ego, isn’t all bad. It may even be essential to my spiritual growth and  a necessary part of me becoming a positive force in the communities I’m a part of. Time spent feeling like a worm isn’t necessarily time wasted.

As I work the soil in my garden, it makes me happy when I see it alive with wiggling earthworms. Worms are a good indicator of the health of garden soil and sign of freedom from pesticide pollution. Worms are essential members of the soil-building community, breaking down organic matter to a refined form, gathering minerals from deeper layers, then mixing these together and spreading them, all the while aerating compacted soils.

Earthworms travel through the soil by muscular contractions that alternately shorten and lengthen the body. This digging action is aided by tiny bristles (setae) that strategically anchor parts of its body as it lengthens and shortens, allowing it to gain traction and move forward. The burrowing process is also lubricated by the secretion of mucus, the reason why healthy earthworms are so slimy to the touch. As they move around and do their thing, earthworms work to improve the soil on biological, chemical, and physical levels.

Many species of earthworms feed on humus on the soil surface and carry it down to lower levels, enriching the soil with digested organic matter. Their biological work involves eating, digesting, and spreading humus throughout the soil. This creates a rich environment for countless other microorganisms to live and do their work of providing micro-nutrients to plants. The high level of organic content also allows the soil to better hold moisture, another necessary ingredient to an environment healthy for the living microorganisms.

Worms also alter the chemical make-up of the soil by ingesting minerals from deeper layers, normally as small stones. Tiny fragments of grit in a worm’s gizzard grind these stones into a fine mineral paste, ready to feed plants. The worms often mix these minerals with humus in their digestive system, thus leaving castings rich in both humus and nutrient minerals.

As worms alter the biological and chemical make-up of the soil, they are also altering the soil physically. By burrowing in the soil, especially through existing tunnels, worms force air down into the soil, oxygenating it to deeper levels, thus adding another element needed for most organic life. The passageways they create also allow water to flow down to deeper levels, aiding in the soil’s ability to absorb and retain water. These tunnels also soften and lighten compacted soils, allowing roots to grow more easily.

Since a high level of organic matter is essential for fertile soil, an abundance of earthworms is essential for any gardener, especially those who take an organic approach. Any healthy organic soil is filled with these humble creatures. One of the troubles with the industrial farming practices so prevalent in our day, including the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, is that they kill off the earthworms and other organic life that sustain a healthy soil. As the soil becomes sick, farmers tend to use more and more chemical solutions, which over time ruin the earth so essential to their livelihood and ours.

The work of earthworms is going on constantly, but most of us are blind to their amazing, life-giving activity. Oh, that more of us were like them! It seems a human trait, perhaps a reflection of our fallen nature, to want praise and compensation for all we do. Most don’t choose to work unless they get something directly for their effort. But all of us have heard of, or perhaps had the privilege of knowing, that rare person who goes against the trend, who serves quietly and selflessly in the background. Often it is only in their passing that we discover all they were doing to help others and transform their communities. And when they are gone, they are greatly missed, even though few even know their names.

Jesus talked a great deal about this sort of person—it is the sort of person he calls us all to be. And though he held the power of the universe in his hands, he demonstrated quiet service throughout his life. The evening before his death, he demonstrated this truth in a most memorable way.

Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God. So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him. . . .

After washing their feet, he put on his robe again and sat down and asked, “Do you understand what I was doing? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that is who I am. And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message. Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.” (John 13:3-5, 12-17, NLT)

So is being like a worm really so bad? Our very lives depend on such people, just as we depend on the worms! We need to open our eyes and hearts to the good things going on behind the scenes and beneath our feet. We need to find places and opportunities to serve others in transformative ways, whether we are ever recognized for them or not. The health and life of our friends, families, and communities depend upon it.

Garden Tip: Look for ways to encourage the presence of earthworms in your garden soil. This will certainly involve adding organic matter in the form of compost. Start a compost pile to recycle your leaves and other yard waste and then spread it for your plants—and for the worms. Their activity will, in turn, feed and improve your soil in multiple ways. And the enriched soil will feed your plants, which will then feed you! Also be careful not to add things to your soil that will hurt the earthworms, including chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Look for organic solutions that encourage a living soil.

As you find ways to protect and delight in earthworms, also (as strange as it might sound!) look for ways you might be more like them as a life-sustaining force in the places you find yourself.