Meffing Goatsheads: or, all I need to know about sin I learned from my garden.

Goatshead thistles, or puncture vine, is the most obnoxious weed in the world (according to myself) and one I never had the acquaintance of until I moved into our current home.



That’s a picture of a bucket of the stuff.  I’ve spent the last year trying to figure out how to get rid of it. I suggested burning all of the stuff growing in the driveway and was met with laughter.  Why?  The seeds are so waxy that burning them only helps them germinate faster.  You can spray the vine with weed killer but if it has already seeded, the weed killer won’t affect the seeds.  You can pull it up as it grows but you’ll be doing that for years, and years, and years.  The seeds can live for ten years or more in the ground, and it’s only a matter of weeks from germination to seed.

So what do you do?  There’s one thing that most of the gardening blogs seem to agree on:  Goatsheads thrive in acidic or base soils but don’t do well in soils that are well balanced.  They do poorly in competition with other plants, so planting another kind of groundcover and fertilizing the hell out of it will quickly crowd the weeds out and prevent them from seeding.


The best way to get rid of them, to put it simply, is to make sure that your yard is a healthy place for other things to grow.

Which is tidily the best analogy I’ve ever heard for how to deal with sin.  Want to get rid of anger?  Focusing on your anger will never work.  Focusing on your anger will only amplify it. The only way to get rid of your anger is to make your heart the right condition to cultivate gentleness.  Want to get rid of judgmental attitudes?  Trust me on this, focusing on sin will only lead to more judgment and deep hypocrisy.  You weed it out by planting other things there: understanding, love, trust.  This is true of so many other things.  Greed can be treated with giving, addiction can be treated with self-control or self-knowledge, jealousy can be treated with self-care, and bitterness can be treated with grace.

If I had an empty plot in my yard and I thought I had to get rid of all the goatsheads before I started my garden, I’d spend the rest of my life cultivating nothing but mud.

It’s gotten easier to keep them at bay the more the garden has grown in, and for the most part now they are only growing at the edges where they are easily pulled.

And I think about the times I’ve spent in dark depression spiritually, growing nothing but figurative mud as I dug myself deeper and deeper into a hole I thought I’d never grow out of.

And the whole time, God was throwing me situation after situation full of the seeds that I needed to hold onto and cultivate for myself.  Constantly I threw the seeds back and then petulantly asked God why he wasn’t helping me.

I imagine God was much like I can be when I serve my kids a great healthy meal they just don’t want to eat.  An hour later, their plate is still sitting on the table full of food and they are whining, “what can I eat?  Mom I’m hungry!”

And I’m trying very hard not to roll my eyes and very patiently saying, “you can eat the meal I have made for you.”

God must shaking his head and trying not to tap his foot and saying, “you can grow the things I want for you.  Seriously, kid, stop worrying about that sh**.”

So you can spend your life giving yourself splinters and sores pulling up a weed that can multiply faster than you can kill it, throwing acid and poison on it and killing everything good and beautiful while it burns and doesn’t even care,

or you can think about what kind of garden you want to grow.

Like I said, it’s all I feel I ever need to know about sin.  Because, like with my yard, it’s not the bad things that you should be focused on anyway.  It’s the good fruit that you can grow there anyway that really matters.

It’s all that matters.

Don’t tell me about what needs to be killed.

What needs to be cultivated?

Judgment, Discernment, and understanding God.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”  Matthew 10:16

I often caution people against being judgmental, saying something along the lines of this:  “God loves and desires for all of creation to be reunited with Him.  If our judgment of others separates them from the love of God that we can offer them, that is the worst kind of sin.”  That is something I believe wholeheartedly, one of the most core and fundamental tenets of my personal faith.  There are many things about my beliefs which I am willing to question and have questioned, many things which I could debate happily until my last breath.  But if any Christian tells me that they believe they have the right to judge others I feel literally ill.

Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.  But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.  (Hebrews 5:13-14)

The Bible seems clear on the fact that Christians are supposed to know what is sin and what isn’t.  Christians are supposed to understand the difference between good and evil, and cling to one while rejecting the other.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.  (Romans 12:9-20)

The problem is that while the Bible repeatedly speaks of discernment and understanding the nature of Good and Evil, the Bible often couples such terms with lengthier passages about the need for fraternity, forgiveness, and love in the Church.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:10-12)

So why is there this coupling of preaching discernment with commanding love?  Some modes of belief preach that judgment is good and necessary.  Not a week has ever passed on this blog where someone didn’t say “but we’re supposed to judge our brethren.”  It’s undeniable- it’s in the Bible.  But the question is why? 

In Romans 14 the author of that book writes about how there are arguments between believers about what is or isn’t unclean.  Some people believe one day or another should be sacred.  Some believers eat whatever they wish while others feel that eating some things are sinful.  The author states that a person’s convictions should never become a stumbling block to their brother or sister, that a choice needs to be made to honor each other’s convictions, because:

It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.  (Romans 14:21)

This is interesting to consider, but far more powerful is a verse that comes earlier in the passage:

You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.

Yes, we should know good from evil, and we should know which actions of our Brothers and Sisters are good or evil.  The Bible even says to expel the immoral brother from among us.  (1 Corinthians 5:13)  Yet with all of that, the scales remain tipped in the other direction, and the Bible never really spells out why.

Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.  (1 John 2:6)

We know what Jesus did.  We know that he ate with the tax collectors and sinners.  We know that he let prostitutes be in his company, he even let them hang all over his feet.  He did this prior to telling them to sin no more, so we also know that he let them do this while they were still sinners.  And, as it says in 1 John, we know that he died for us while we were still sinners too.  We know that we are all sinners, not just because we know ourselves but because the Bible reminds us of that pretty regularly too.  So here’s the thing:

If we all sin, and we all do, and we’re supposed to know good from evil and reject one and cling to the other, if we make the assumption that we’re supposed to judge each other where does that lead us?  If the judgment is about who is or isn’t worth communing with, the church is going to end up empty because we all sin and we all sin knowingly.  It’s part of who we are.  If the judgment is instead about what is or isn’t hurting ourselves or hurting the brethren and is made to edify instead of condemn, we do a good thing.  Because if we go to our brother or sister and say “I’m worried you’re doing something harmful” and they know and experience the love of God, we’re giving them a loving opportunity to lead a better life.  I’ve experienced both kinds of judgment against myself and I know which one changed me.  I’ve been guilty of making both and I know which one hurt and which one healed.

I also know that it’s impossible to tell, from who people are today, who they are capable of becoming.  One of the people most formative in my early faith was a convicted felon and murderer.  If my parents had judged him as unworthy of their friendship (an assumption many Christians would feel totally justified) I would have missed out on a tremendous opportunity to witness the extent to which God’s love can redeem a fallen man.

If we judge people by the same measure that we judge actions, labeling some people as “good” and others as “bad”, we do perhaps one of the most evil things that any Christian can.  The people we label as “good” get to experience our love and forgiveness, at times even when they reject conviction.  But the people labeled as “bad” don’t ever receive love at all.  We are only justified in such behavior if we feel we know with total certainty that God doesn’t love the “bad” people or want them to experience his forgiveness at all.  It is love, not rejection, that births repentance.

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the Lord will reward you.  (Proverbs 25:21-22)

The metaphorical burning coals being a sign of mourning and repentance.  Note that the verses don’t say “picket your enemy and call him a heathen and a godless blight on your society, and in that way you heap burning coals on his head.”  The solution is the most simple in the history of man:  community.  Bring him into your home, feed him and clothe him, and he’ll learn to mourn the error of his ways.  If that is the way we are to treat our enemies, then, how our we to treat our brethren?

We love because he first loved us.  Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen,cannot love God, whom they have not seen.  And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.  (1 John 4:19-21)

Love, love, love.  There is no excuse for anything else.  So discern what is good and evil- apply it to your own life and speak it to your brothers and sisters in Christ with love.  Everyone else, treat as beloved community.  Offer food and drink and solace, express God’s love with your hands and mind and tongue.  It doesn’t matter who someone is, if they are homeless or a felon or gay or just look strange or a tattooed punk or if they are wearing one of those oh so cute “God is Dead” t-shirts, God loves them.  They deserve to experience his love.  It is that love, and that love alone that can birth understanding and repentance.  If you withhold that love from them, you do grievous harm not just to them but more so to yourself.

Love, first and foremost and the most strongly.  There is no excuse for anything less.

longing for holiness

This has been something much on my mind lately.  I feel that most churches focus too much on the question of sin.  Eradicating sin out of fear of punishment or judgment.  We forget that Jesus has already taken care of the question of our judgment before God.  We forget that Ephesians 5 states that Christ presents the church to himself as “a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless”.

Of course it’s more complicated than that, it has to be, right?  Because if holiness were as simple as acknowledging that Christ already sees us as holy, we’d have a lot less headaches.  So I will say this now:  our salvation truly is as simple as accepting the fact that we, through Christ, are already seen as blameless.  But our temporal happiness, here, on Earth, our Earthly salvation, all hinges on our own love for and pursuit of holiness.

1 Corinthians 6:12-   Everything is permissible for me”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me”—but I will not be mastered by anything.

And this is where things get interesting.  We know that God will forgive us.  We know that our salvation is coming.  We could very easily take those facts and teach that sin, then, is of no consequence.  We could do that, and in fact the early church had a lot of problems with people teaching precisely that.  Which is why we find that one very interesting caution in Corinthians, a place where people were curious about no longer having to live under the law.  The Apostle says, “everything is permissible- but not everything is beneficial.”  Or, as my dad would less eloquently put it, “do what you want, but suffer the consequences.”

Because our heavenly salvation and our earthly one are not the same thing.  We must remember that the reason there are rules for holy living is not to torment us, to make us feel insufficient, or to set us up to fail.  Living a holy life is a reward in and of itself.  All sin, all falling short, comes with immediate earthly consequences.  Imagine a man has an affair because he knows he will be forgiven by God and he simply “can’t resist the temptation”.  There are two problems with this- one; will he ever be truly repentant if he feels it is allowable for him to do so?  and two; God may embrace him, but what about his wife?  God cautions us against certain behaviors because he attempts to protect us from the immediate consequences of living a life of sin.  The sins we see listed over and over in the New Testament- fornication, jealousy, deceit, coarse talk- these are all sins that seperate us not only from God but also from other people.  And the things that God asks us to do: share, care, embrace, live together- these are all things that draw other people to us.

I long for holiness.  Not for my own righteousness, but because I know that the ways in which I fall short condemn me to have more pain in this life, and they cause pain for others.  I just want to taste, if only for a minute, what life would be like if there were no sin.  I know I won’t taste the fulness of it until I am with God, but I long for it.  So I try to get as close as I can every day, and every day the journey takes me just a little bit further, and I am reassured that I have found the right path.

Sacrificed to Idols.

Let’s talk about meat.

In Acts 21:25, it is stated that the Apostles had given the Gentiles a command to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, which seems straightforward.  By a legalistic standard, then, the fact that the Apostles had prayerfully considered the purity standard to which Gentiles should be held, and then asked them not to eat food sacrificed to idols (as well as cautioning them to eat unbloodied, or “kosher” meat) one should logically believe that this rule is Godly, and unchanging.

And yet:

1 Corinthians 8
Food Sacrificed to Idols
Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge.  Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God.

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, won’t he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.  Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.

So here we discover why the Apostles thought it best that the Gentiles abstain from certain meats, or adhere to the Jewish purity code where food was concerned.  It was not that this law was necessary for holiness, but instead because not following it could become a barrier to understanding for others.  So one could paraphrase this passage in vaguer terms by saying, “Knowledge builds confidence but love builds understanding.  If you think you know everything, you don’t know much of anything yet…  …Be careful that your freedom under the law doesn’t lead to lawlessness for other people.  Because if someone without your understanding of God’s grace sees that you are freed from the law, won’t they be emboldened as well?  And in exercising their freedom, might they not be tempted into true sin?  So if your freedom leads one of your brothers away from God, haven’t you done a bad thing?  I would rather starve myself than be a barrier to others.”

And I agree.  I, too, would rather starve myself than become a barrier to others.  Which is why I am careful about which lines I cross and when I cross them. I might joke a certain way or say certain things when I’m out gaming with my friends, but I wouldn’t necessarily speak or behave in that way in Christian company, because I’m aware that by doing so I may either cause my contemporaries to question my faith or cause their children to question their parents authority, both things that have negative consequences.  And my stifling myself also can be misinterpreted as my being convicted that certain things are sin.  Which is also untrue- it’s possible to acknowledge something has negative consequences (food sacrificed to idols) without saying that it is outright sinful.

My dad always defined sin this way:  You are sinning when you are certain God has made a requirement of you, and you don’t obey.  God may ask you to never eat a banana again, a command that appears to have no qualitative moral value, but if you eat a banana after you and God had that conversation, you are sinning.

There are other things that are certainly more black and white.  Drunkenness, gluttony, laziness, lust.  These are all things that are condemned in no uncertain terms, as is selfishness and gossip.  There are large gray areas around things like the passages about Modesty in the Bible.  Take, for example, 1st Timothy 2:9&10, in which Timothy said that women should dress “modestly”, not with braided hair and jewelry and expensive clothing, but with good deeds and humility.

Now, braided hair and jewelry, in this day and age, is not really “showy”.  And how does one “dress” in good deeds?  It is obvious that Timothy was pointing not specifically at their dress, but at their attitude.  Isn’t it possible that these women had lost sight of what was really important?  That they were trying to demonstrate their status within the church by their appearance?  And then, doesn’t Timothy’s caution to dress in good deeds in humility make perfect sense as a response?  The rule given, that of hair and gold, then speaks not to a true code of dress but a way to prohibit the behavior he’s trying to get to the heart of.  It’s like if I were to be a youth pastor again, and all of the kids in my group were comparing cell phones instead of participating in the meditations.  As a good youth pastor I would say “leave your phone at the door”, not because God hates cell phones but because the phones would have become an impediment to holiness.

And thus rules do not always have intrinsic value as a rule, instead they have value in achieving holiness.  And when we consider the reasoning behind rules, we should consider the end goal with as much weight as we consider the rules.  I would introduce homosexuality at this point, but instead I’ll go the hetero way.  My mom likes to tell a story about a church that started logging complaints in the sixties because all the young women stopped wearing bras.  The parishioners kept asking the clergy to order women to wear bras or kick them out of the church, and eventually there was a promise that the problem would be addressed plainly.  How was it addressed?  By a prayer from the pulpit that the men in the church would learn to control their lust.

I use that as an example because we all have responsibilities to work on those things that we know are sins- and often that means stopping picking at other peoples splinters to deal with our own specks.  When we focus too much on the rules, we fall into legalism.  So let’s focus on what really matters.

Let’s focus on our own holiness.