Monday, 24 September 2012

A Theology of Weeding

1The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
2Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
3There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard”
Psalm 19:1-3

 A Theology of Everything

There is theology in everything.  That is not to say that we take our theology from anywhere except from the Bible.  Nor is it to say that everything is God.  As Daniel Hames says:

“Far from being a sort of polytheistic belief that there is a ‘divine spark’ in everything, or that everything is god, the Christian view of creation and indeed all of reality is that it bears the fingerprints of the one who formed it.”

Rather it is that in everything we can see reflections of theology, images of God and his nature.  It is somewhat like the fact that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are both material events which nevertheless reflect great spiritual realities.  Likewise, the mundane things in life can be seen to reflect profound truths.  The case for forming such a ‘theology of everything’ is laid out more fully by Daniel Hames in his article on Theology Network: Why and How to do a Theology of Everything from where the previous quote comes from.  What I want to do here is not to cover that ground again but rather just to offer some of my own application of that principle.

The wheat lettuce and the tares nettles.

The Bible often used weeds as a picture of sin and evil.  After all they are a direct result of the fall:

17And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.”
Genesis 3:17-18

Jesus himself often used weeds as an image in his parables:

7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them… 24He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away… 38The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one”
Matthew 13:7, 24-25, 38

So weeds are clearly an apt picture for sin. What lessons can we then learn from this picture?  In what ways do weeds really reflect sin and what similarities do they share?  I want to consider seven similarities here.

1. Weeds start out small

Weeds don’t turn up in the garden fully grown.  Rather they start off small, innocuous and helpless looking.  Hard to see and seemingly harmless, yet they grow and become more established, becoming harder and harder to eradicate and then seed more weeds.  Just so with sin, the seemingly harmless transgressions, the look, the glance, the thought… are easy to uproot and yet it seems so harmless to us that it seems not worth the bother of uprooting them and so we don’t.  Then thought becomes action, action becomes habit.  Our conscience rusts with lack of use and with no more gatekeeper, the sin keeps rushing in as our heart becomes hard to God and soft and fertile for more and greater wrongs.

The lesson is simple: Sin, like weeds, must be stopped in its youth. For

14…each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
James 1:14-15

Which leads to point 2:

2. Weeds choke plants

It is a well observed truth which even the least apt of gardeners knows: a garden chock full of weeds will not grow lovely flowers.  Six foot high nettles do not a prize-winning cabbage patch make.  Unless you keep on weeding your garden then the weeds will grow strong and fast and the plants will wilt and die, if they ever show at all.  Jesus used this very illustration in his parable of the sower:

3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow… 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them… 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”
Matthew 13:3, 7, 22

Jesus used the illustration to represent the “cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches” but it applies equally well to sin.  Persistent, endemic sinful habits will choke our good intentions.  Pride blinds us to our faults, selfishness will block any willingness to sacrifice for others and slothfulness will choke back any attempt to change.  As Jesus said:

43“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, 44for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. 45The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”
Luke 6:43-45

Likewise, you cannot have both flowers and weeds in the same patch, either the weeds thrive or the flowers do.  Never both.

13No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.
Luke 16:13

3. A field of weeds can look great from the outside

Consider these two scenes: A lush green field full of rows of vegetation or a messy bit of ground with yellowed piles of rubbish decaying in the sun and a few scraggly seedlings struggling to grow in sparse rows.  The former, for all its pleasant appearance, is full of weeds and latter is the aftermath of attacking those same weeds.

It is perfectly possible to have a heart full of sin and hypocrisy and yet seem fine.  It is equally possible for a fruitless life of separation from God to seem attractive from the outside.  It is only when you get into the thick of it that it starts to sting.  Remember Jesus’ words to the Pharisees:

27“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. 28So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Matthew 23:27-28

The lesson to be learned is that dealing with your sin and hypocrisy will involve breaking your masks, being honest with other people.  It will be messy, painful (more on that later) and it will lose you friends and admirers.  So which is more important to you?  Popularity? Or Fruitfulness?

4. Weeding hurts

Nettles sting.  Weeding isn’t fun at the best of times but it’s even worse when the weeds are stingy or thorny ones.  I imagine many people have seen a hawthorn bush in their garden and left it for later because the pain of the thorns discouraged them from pulling it out.  And meanwhile it grows.  Likewise uprooting sinful habits will be painful.  Unlike weeds, no sin is without its sting or its thorn.  They all hurt to remove, and the longer we’ve cherished them the more painful it is.

So first costly, and now painful.  I’m not doing the best job of selling this then.  But it is vital that we understand that fighting sin is a struggle.  So often we think it will be easy, try, fail and give up in discouragement.  We need to realise that it will be a long, slow, painful fight.  Our fallen human heart loves our sins and it hates to see them go.  We love their pleasures and that makes it so difficult for us to fight to remove them.  Don’t be deceived: fighting sin is not easy, nor is it enjoyable, but it is necessary.

5. Growing weeds is easy

Standing in stark contrast to the pain and difficulty of keeping them out, growing weeds takes no effort at all.  You don’t need to plant them, water them or feed them.  All that you need to do is to stop pulling them up and they’ll take over pretty quickly.  Weeds are the natural state of the garden – just take a look at any abandoned stretch of ground and you’ll see what I mean.  Likewise sin is the natural state of the fallen human heart.  As soon as we stop tending our hearts, stop studying the word, stop praying for help and forgiveness, stop listening to our conscience and guarding what we watch and read and do.  As soon as we lose sight of God, even for the briefest of moments, the devil will jump in with his sin filled seed packet and the weeds will start to grow.  The only solution is, in the words of that esteemed theologian Mad Eye Moody: “Constant vigilance!”.  Keep on watching and, as we considered in point one, keep on plucking them out as soon as they appear.

6. Weeds don’t stay in your garden

Weeds spread.  And not just from rose bed to border to rockery but from garden to garden, field to field.  Why is this relevant to sin?

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
John Donne

Just as a garden full of weeds makes it harder to keep the gardens around it weed free so the sin in your life will affect those around you.  No man is an island, no man stands alone.  All sin has ramifications far beyond those you see.  All sin causes harm far beyond that which it causes to you either from the direct effects of sin, or from the spread of it.  There are many obvious examples: like people who starve because of the selfishness of those who have plenty; or the victims of murder.  But there are less immediately obvious examples too: like a cruel word spoken that fosters hate or anger in someone’s heart; or passing on gossip to people that pass it further, spreading the judgemental attitude attached to it.  Even things we view as our private problems, like struggling with lust, affects others.  Every click on the internet only serves to encourage those who make the content you watch, perpetuating the cycle of objectification and leading so many other people astray.  What’s more, the taint of hypocrisy often persuades us to stay silent when we should speak out, leading to people not hearing the good news that they need to hear.  Sin is no private matter.

7. Weeds keep coming back

The fight against sin is looking pretty bleak at this point. But I’m afraid not only is it easy to be lulled into a false sense of security; not only will any weeds choke your good intentions; not only is it costly, painful, and easier just to give up; not only will any failure in the fight hurt those around you but the fight is also futile.  My friend, you can pull out every nettle in the garden, sooner or later they’ll be back in force.  Sin is a persistent thing and for as long as you live you will never, ever be rid of it.  It will always be back, always be attacking and always be there, looking over your shoulder and just waiting for a moment of weakness.

So why bother?  I’m not saying all this to be discouraging, but rather to paint a realistic picture of the problem we face.  This bleak reality is why the grace of God is so important to grasp.  If you hold any delusions at all about earning favour by killing sin then when the weed you thought dead comes back and takes over it will crush you with the weight of guilt and hopelessness.  But only remember the grace and the love of God.  Remember that the blood of Christ covers all your sins, even the recurring ones.  To the judge of all, the weed choked garden of your broken heart appears to be the finest of rose beds because all that he can see is the beauty of Christ that covers you.  So fight sin, but fight it in the knowledge that every time you fall, you will rise.  He will pick you up and if he has to, he will carry you.  There is no sin that the Christian cannot come back from.  No number of failures that God cannot forgive.  He paid an unimaginable price to make you holy and acceptable to him and he will have what he has paid for.  Christ did not die to forgive you for past sins, leave you on your own to struggle and then abandon you when you fail.  No, he paid that price to bring you home, to make you new and he is with you every step of the way.

A true understanding of the price that bought your freedom, of the grace that was given to you, will act like holy weed killer for your soul.  Sin cannot exist in the light of the beauty of Christ because sin is placing something else before him and no one who truly sees him; his grace, his love for us, his suffering in our place; can ever do anything but love him above all.  In this life we will never see him fully but oh, pray that we may see him better.  Pray that God would instil such a grasp of his glorious grace that we would never, ever forget it.  It is the only way that we will ever triumph in any meaningful way in this life: fixing our eyes on Jesus and weeding with his glory and his grace in mind.

1Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:1-2


Further reading/listening:

Considering the Beauty of holiness as opposed to the ugliness of sin, great post from Not at the Dinner Table.

<<I know this is a horrendous gap between posts but unfortunately the very job that inspired this post from long hours of weeding also left me very tired and not at all in the frame of mind to tackle such a weighty issue.  Still, it came together in the end and hopefully I’ll write with increasing regularity as I get back into the swing of Uni life.  Hopefully.>>

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