And 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; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. – Genesis 3:17-19 (ESV)
The curse placed upon Adam upon his disobedience shows that thorns and thistles are in some sense a product of the Fall of man into sin. In this passage, thorns are the result of sin, and no doubt intended to remind the man and woman of the consequences of rebellion against God. Thus, in the mind of Adam there would have been a fundamental connection between thorns and sin, not only as cause and effect, but also a type and anti-type. Thorns remind us of sin, not only because they are the product of sin, but because in many ways thorns resemble the sins of which they are a product.
I was reminded of this recently in doing yard work. We recently bought a house with a yard full of stickers. I hate stickers. It's like growing legos in the yard that you can't play with. Step on one and you will know what I mean. So I am determined to root them out. Thing is, they are just as determined to stay. I have probably spent 10 hours so far in the past couple of weeks trying to dig these little buggers out. There is still a long way to go, though after digging up half the yard, I have made some progress.
In the process of digging up stickers and getting stuck by thorns, however, I have been struck by the similarity between sin in my life and these plants we call stickers. I suppose it has therefore been a profitable exercise in more than one way, for it has reminded me again just how devious, bad, and intractable sin is in my heart. It has also reminded me that I don't hate sin as much as I ought. If I hated sin as much as I hate stickers, I would probably have a lot less trouble with it in my life. So if I can get myself to see sin in the same way as I see stickers, it would move me further along the road to sanctification.
What I want to do is to draw six analogies between stickers and sin. Sin is a thorny weed in the heart, and if we do not wage war against it, it will take over our hearts. So in delivering this message, my aim is to help us hate it more, and prepare ourselves to better fight it in the heart. And surely this is what the Lord wants for each of us: “O you who love the LORD, hate evil!” (Psalm 97:10). “Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Rom. 12:9). “Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:22). “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin” (1 John 2:1).
The following lessons or analogies are not in any particular order. They are all, however, related to the central theme of why we should hate sin, and how to fight it.
Analogy #1. Just as stickers can grow almost anywhere, even so sin can find root in any heart. No one is immune from sin, no matter how good they think the soil of their heart is. There is no part of my yard that is completely free from stickers. Because the yard was neglected before we moved in, the result is an almost complete infestation. Even so, not even the holiest man or woman is free from danger. There has only ever been one heart in which sin did not find a place to grow – the heart of Jesus Christ the Son of God.
There are many examples of this in the Bible. King David sinned after a lifetime of walking with God. After slaying Goliath. After being chosen by God as “a man after my own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). After defeating the enemies of Israel. After writing dozens of Psalms. What a lot of people probably don't realize is that David was an older man when he fell for Bathsheba. He had a lot of experience of loving and serving and following God, but he fell nonetheless. The soil of David's heart, rich with the spirituality of the Psalms, was nevertheless susceptible to the sins of murder and adultery.
Or consider Abraham. The father of the faithful doubted God and lied about his wife, putting her at jeopardy and risking her purity to save his own neck. Or Peter, who walked three years with Christ, was chosen as one of the twelve original apostles, and who later spear-headed the advance of an infant church into a Gentile world. This man cursed the name of Christ out of the fear of men. No one is immune from sin.
Perhaps more fearful are the many examples of those who started well but did not end well. David, Abraham, and Peter repented. But not all do. Some are like Demas, who loved this present world more than the world to come and forsook the work of God to seek the wealth of this world. Some are like Alexander and Hymenaus, who began as faithful elders at the church of Ephesus, and ended up having to be delivered over to Satan on account of the lies they were teaching in the name of truth.
It is so easy to read the warnings in the Bible and think that they do not apply to us. But nothing could be farther from the truth. After speaking of those who perished in the Old Testament narrative because of their disobedience, Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). Likewise, such warnings are written down for us. Beware of presumption. Beware of the sin of thinking you cannot sin: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). The ground of your heart may have been made good by the Holy Spirit, but the fact is that such ground is still fertile soil for the thorns of lust, greed, and pride. What the new birth does is to make the ground of our hearts able to produce good fruit, but until we are in the next world, sin can still find root in our souls, and will – unless we are always vigilant.
A hymn, written by George Heath that we occasionally sing, puts it well:
My soul be on thy guard;
Ten thousand foes arise;
The hosts of sin are pressing hard
To draw thee from the skies.
Ne'er think the victory won,
Nor lay thine armor down;
The work of faith will not be done
Till thou obtain the crown.
Analogy #2. Stickers, like sin, grow best in untended ground. Stickers have taken over my yard because for some time it was not tended to. In the absence of such care, the thorns thrived. Now I am paying for the lack of aggressive attention to the yard. In the same way, sin thrives in the hearts of those who do not guard their hearts.
On the other hand, one of the best ways to keep stickers back is to have a healthy yard. To get the good grass to choke them out. Even so, we fight sin best by cultivating the opposite graces in our hearts. Covetousness is best fought by cultivating contentment in the Lord. Pride is best resisted by humbling ourselves before Almighty God. The problem is that contentment and humility don't just happen; they have to be planted in our hearts, first by the Holy Spirit in the new birth, and then by the daily process of sanctification, in which we play an integral part.
Holiness is not automatic. As another hymn puts it, we have to “take time to be holy.” All the exhortations to holiness in the New Testament assume that we are waging vigorous assault upon the bastions of sin in our heart. Paul writes to the Roman believers, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions” (Rom. 6:12). We are the ones who are to prevent the reign of sin. How are we to do this? Paul tells us in Romans 8:13, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Who is putting to death the deeds of the body? The believer is. And if the believer is not doing this, sin is not going to die. Like thorns in a vacant lot, sin will thrive in the absence of opposition.
In order to fight sin and cultivate holiness in our hearts, we have to speak to God and hear God speak. The way we do this is to hear God's word in the Bible and share our needs and wants and worship him in prayer. His word is the sword of the Spirit, and prayer the attitude in which all Christian warfare is to take place (Eph. 6:10-18). We have to sow the seed of the Word in our hearts and then pray for God to send the blessing of his Spirit to make the seed grow and bear fruit. In other words, holiness is not going to happen unless we are consciously seeking the Lord in a life of consistent prayer and meditation on his Word.
The danger is, of course, for these practices to grow into mere formality, so that we are praising God with our lips when our hearts are far from him. But that does not make these things any the less necessary. You don't avoid the danger of hypocrisy by fleeing into the danger of spiritual negligence. You simply will not grow spiritually by winging it. You have to be intentional about seeking God in his Word and prayer.
If you do not feel like seeking the Lord, you should do it anyway. The farmer may not feel like getting up long before dawn and getting in the fields to sow the seed. But if he doesn't do it, he isn't going to get any crops. I certainly didn't want to get out into the yard and pull stickers. But I did it anyway, because it wasn't going to happen by itself! And you're just going to keep sliding down into deeper and deeper ruts if you are not willing to put the effort into pulling weeds and sowing good seed in your hearts. Just waiting for God to do something isn't going to get you anywhere. Just as Paul encouraged Timothy, so also, God says to each believer who feels the fire growing cold in his/her heart “to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you” (2 Tim. 1:6).
So fan the flame! Fan it by prayer. If you don't feel like praying, that's okay: pray anyway. Tell the Lord the reality of your condition. Look into his Word and wait for his voice. Seek him. The great thing is that there are promises all over the Bible that God will not forsake those who do seek him through the Lord Jesus Christ.
Analogy #3. Sticker plants can sometimes be hard to spot, unless the stickers themselves are showing. A few days ago, I was trying to weed out all the sticker plants I could see before mowing the yard. But the grass was so tall, I was having a hard time seeing them. They were not obvious. It seemed like they were intentionally hiding from me. Even though, after hours and hours of spending time weeding them out, and having become pretty adept at spotting sticker plants, nevertheless sometimes I still have a hard time distinguishing weed from good grass.
Even so, sin is not always obvious. Sin often masquerades as something good. Isn't this what Paul means when he says “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires” (Eph. 4:22)? Here Paul describes sin in terms of “deceitful desires.” How are they deceitful? Sin lies to us by telling us it will bring us good and happiness and joy.
Sin unfortunately has an ally in our heart, and too often they agree. That is what makes it so easy to be baffled by sin's lies. It feels so good to do it, and so we do. With such help, sin can creep upon the soul unseen. It is like a sniper hidden camouflaged and in the bushes right beneath our feet, ready to take us out.
This is why it is so necessary to be constantly vigilant against sin, and to constantly be bathing in the reality that is God's Word. If you follow your feelings, you will almost certainly go wrong. Feelings are no guide – God's Word is the only sure map to the path that will lead you into the blessing of God and into a life that honors him. You're heart is “deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9); it is a hopeless guidepost.
During the Battle of the Bulge in the Second World War, English-speaking German soldiers dressed in American uniforms in order to sneak behind Allied lines to take down signposts and misdirect traffic. And they were partially successful in their mission. The only way they were found out was by asking these so-called American soldiers questions that only a true U.S. Soldier would know (like “Who won the World Series last year?”). In the same way, sin dresses up in the uniform of obedience to God and misdirects us to paths that will bring us into sin's bondage. And the only way we will be able to detect the deception is by comparing what it is telling us to the Word of God.
Analogy #4. It takes hard and constant and sometimes painful work to root stickers out of the yard. If you've ever had to do this, you know what I'm talking about. Working under the hot sun with sweat rolling down in buckets is bad enough, but then on top of that you are constantly getting stuck with these thorns. Even with gloves on, you are not exempt from getting a beating from these pugilistic plants.
In the same way, the fight against sin is just that – it's a fight. As we've already seen, the efforts of believers against the sin still in their mortal bodies is described in terms of warfare, in terms of killing, and mortification. We have to be willing to die to ourselves if we are going to serve Christ. The road to glory is not an easy one. Despite what the health, wealth, and prosperity preachers might say, a Christian is not guaranteed the American Dream. Faith does not bring with it material blessing, but justification and assurance of eternal glory.
Jesus described the Christian Way in the following terms: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13,14). It has always been this way. The way is hard. Sometimes the hardness comes from within and sometimes it comes from without. But we all need “to endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” if we are to be in his army and wage war against sin.
Of course, this is not the whole story. Every soldier fights on, often in the midst of tremendous obstacles, because they believe they will win in the end. Once hope is drained from a soldier, it is almost impossible to get them to carry on. However, for the Christian, the end is sure. The victory not only will be won, in a very real sense it is already won. Christ has risen, he is seated upon his throne, he is coming again. So let us endure hardness in the cause of Christ. He is the resurrection and the life; though we die we shall rise again.
Analogy #5. Stickers spread easily. They spread from yard to yard like wild-fire. Whenever I would spot a sticker plant in the yard, I would immediately look around it expecting to see others. And you know what? I almost always found another sticker plant nearby.
In the same way, sin is never an isolated incident. When David sinned God in taking Bathsheba and getting rid of her husband, he must have thought at least initially that he had wrapped up the whole incident nicely. But even though God forgave David of his sin, he made it clear there would be lasting consequences. The rest of David's history is one tragedy after another, a catalog of the sins of his sons. One weed leads to another.
Thus, to harbor one sin and think that we can keep it contained is pure idiocy. To save one sticker plant is to invite others into the yard. Holiness must be entire. If it is not, sin will leak out into other acts of sin and its consequences will haunt ourselves as well as those whom we love.
Analogy #6. To really get rid of the sticker plants, you can't just pull the stems that have the actual stickers on them, you have to go after the roots. Even so, we can't just go after those aspects of evil in our nature that are most visible, we must go after the roots of those sins in our hearts and souls. If we only do the former, we become like the Pharisees; when Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20), he was inveighing against such phony morality, and he illustrates it in the following verses (vs. 21-48). For example, it is not enough to simply withhold our hand from killing, we must rid ourselves of hate. It is not enough to not commit adultery, we must cleanse our hearts from lust.
Jesus was constantly reminding his disciples of the imperative of guarding the heart. In Luke 6:43-45, he told his disciples, “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The 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 mouths speaks.” The reason is obvious: God doesn't look as men look. We look on the external appearance, but God looks on the heart (cf. 1 Sam. 16:7).
Jonathan Edwards knew this, which is why as a young teenager, he wrote this resolution: “24. Resolved, Whenever I do any conspicuously evil action, to trace it back, till I come to the original cause; and then, both carefully endeavour to do so no more, and to fight and pray with all my might against the original of it.” Sometimes I think we are baffled in our fight against sin because we don't pay more attention to “the original of it.” We end up fighting with evil's offspring and don't go after the source.
We need the help of God here. This is why David prayed, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me, and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23,24). We don't know our hearts, but God does. The question is, am I willing for God to search my heart? Do I really want him to show me what's there? Am I really wanting to repent of everything?
We have to fight sin because we are sinners. Thorns remind us of this. But I am thankful that God did not leave Adam and Eve with a curse, and thorns are not the last word. In words full of hope, God told the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). A few verses later, we read where God made the first animal sacrifice in order to clothe Adam and Eve (verse 21). This word and this event pointed forward, even if in a rather vague way, to the one who would defeat Satan and clothe his people with righteousness. These were shadows of Jesus Christ, the one who has for all time conquered sin and delivered those who put their faith in him from its power, penalty and – one day – from its very presence.
We cannot fight sin apart from Christ. This is because unless our sins are forgiven, such a fight is futile and useless. Our moral filth has brought us under the just wrath of God, and until this is taken care of, everything else is a waste of time. But this is exactly what Christ has done – he has taken the sinner's place and suffered the penalty of sin so that they might be forgiven. The Bible says that those who believe in Christ have that forgiveness.
What that means is that if you are a believer, you are fighting forgiven sins. I used to wonder why Charles Wesley wrote that Jesus “broke the power of canceled sin,” but it was exactly the right thing to say. If we belong to him and he comes to free us from the chains of sin, it is sin that was canceled on the cross. And as we fight each day against, let us remind ourselves of this fact. Canceled sin! The cross is written over every victory against sin that we have, and when we shine like the stars in heaven at the end of the age, in resurrected bodies, we will sing, not of our prowess against sin, but of the Lamb who was slain and ransomed us to God.