Some roots also have thorns

Dr. David Greenlee is OM’s International Research Associate. In a recent devotional article, he talks about roots of thorny weeds. He graciously grants permission for us to share these thoughts with others.

The roots of thorny problems
by Dr. David Greenlee

Roots and thorns have been on my mind a lot lately. We rented a garden plot near our apartment where my wife, a descendent of many generations of Swiss farmers, is demonstrating her green thumb. Even with that heritage, and long hours of clearing weeds before we planted anything, in several places thorny dandelion-like plants are springing up in an effort to resume their dominance of the land. What happened? Evidently the last gardeners didn’t deal with the root of these weeds – they just chopped things up and left the remains buried. Unfortunately for us, though, even a tiny length of this plant’s root can somehow revive itself and push up a nasty, thorny plant.

In one parable (Matthew 13:24-30) Jesus described a field vandalized by an enemy: a fruitful field had secretly also been sown with weed seeds. The results of the attack were only seen later and, because they looked so much like fruitful plants, could only be dealt with at the harvest. Just before that (Matthew 13:1-23), Jesus told a related story that describes the seed sown by a farmer and how well it grew in different kinds of soil. Much could be written about that parable (and has been). Some other time, for example, we might look at the seed sown on rocky soil, and explore the problem of shallow roots (Mark 4:16) in settings where young believers face serious opposition.

My current thoughts, though, center on the life-squeezing thorns (Matthew 13:7, 22). Jesus gives no explanation of their source (as distinct from the “weeds” in the other parable.) They are just there, part of the world and the environment in which seed is sown and people live-like the thorns challenging the vegetables in our garden! I have generally assumed that these thorns are like the “love of this world” that caused Demas to turn away (2 Timothy 4:10, 1 John 2:15-17). With the resources available to him as a member of Paul’s team (Philemon 24, Colossians 4:14), could he not have done something earlier to root out those thorns?

Two very different examples come to mind which are largely beyond the control of the new believer. Think of the economic system in which too many people live, both the poor of the Global South and marginalized immigrants in Europe: if a man or woman finds no time to read the Bible or find fellowship with other believers, one response is to encourage him or her to greater personal discipline. But, what can we do for precious believers, who initially sincerely desire to grow in faith, yet have been pressured into an oppressive ‘parallel labour market’ job that leaves them utterly exhausted and eventually saps their spiritual life? In some cases, the system leaves no other option.

In another setting I have observed, the thorn roots waiting to spring up were buried in the local church. European teens recently told me that their commitment to follow Jesus faded not due to pressure from non-Christians at school but because of the apathy of lukewarm ‘Christian’ teens and a general lack of support at the church they attended.

These two examples merit complex analysis. Briefly, though, I recognize that individual responsibility and an appropriate response in practical disciple-making are vital. However, as I have been in touch with people facing such problems, I wonder what more I and we the Church should do to not merely cut off the tops of the thorns but deal with the roots of the problems that keep springing up to choke these young believers.

I am not proposing details for action (and, in any case, I offer these as examples only; you can think of other thorny problems requiring different solutions.) But I wonder if, like the thorns in our garden, with hard work (and God’s help) we might find at least some success in rooting out the underlying problems that war against fruitful growth.

In our garden I try to follow my wife’s expert instruction to help fruitful plants find space to grow. In the same way, if the Lord of the Harvest gives us the tools and tells us where to dig, instead of just cutting off their tops, shouldn’t the Church be trying to root out thorns that threaten the fruitful growth of those who are coming to faith? ?
David Greenlee
Comments by Bette Cox:

As I thought about Dr. Greenlee’s remarks above, I recalled my adventures pulling skinny, treacherous vines out of overgrown azalea bushes some years ago. Those half-wood, half-steel seeming tendrils had sharp, narrow thorns every inch or so. Thick work gloves were necessary indeed. After tracing one particularly entrenched vine all the way to the ground, cutting and removing segments as I went, I had to begin digging.

That’s when I discovered – some roots have thorns! I dug, pulled, removed, dug, pulled, removed until finally I just gave up. The roots went in all directions, and occasionally when I tightened my grip on a tough section, one of those fish hook-like thorns penetrated my gloves. I got enough of that vicious vine out of the azaleas to satisfy me, but I could almost hear that thing mocking my efforts. “I’ll be back…!”

That’s the way it is with some bad habits, some tendencies of ours to do what we know is wrong or simply not wise. Isn’t it? Takes more than the normal effort to root out some of that stuff. But if we don’t, it’ll be back…

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