In Fresno during the spring weeds grow effortlessly. And if we have had a lot of rain, they emerge from the ground with a quick vengence. In outlying areas where the homes have large properties, residents are required to remove or kill the weeds around their homes before summer to prevent dangers from grass fires.
Yesterday at our house, my wife mowed our lawn, by which I mean, our weeds. The last few years have seen a drought in central California and most of the grass has already died. But the weeds are virile and healthy due to ample rain. She has already mowed them several times in the past month. But they keep coming back. When you mow weeds like this, what you get is a few days of cosmetic appeal. For a while, the yard looks like manicured grass. Green and lucious. But give it some time and the ugly weeds will be back revealing the truth. And through some diabolical mechanism, the action of the lawnmower actually helps to spread the seeds faster than nature would have done it.
This reminds me of the different ways we approach immoral behavior. Often in the church we want to use external rules, shame, or peer pressure as the primary, and sometimes exclusive method of dealing with bad conduct. We mow the weeds. We end up with is people appearing moral for a while. I say “appearing” because very often legalistic church culture just drives the behavior underground. People are still as sinful as ever, they just can’t be honest about it or get real help.
But there is another way. When we address sin with the gospel, we can acknowledge both it’s ugliness and its “treatableness." With the gospel we see that sin is not a problem simply for those people, it is a problem for all of us. When we seek to help a brother or sister with the gospel, we come with humility as fellow sinners. When we approach sin with the grace of God, we can offer a serious diagnosis and a strong treatment. Grace gives us power to change. And it gives us hope for the struggle that takes place in our hearts. It also gives us a different motive for change. When we are motivated by grace, we pursue change out of a higher love rather than a fear of being caught or punished. We are constrained by the love of Christ.
When we use the gospel as our primary approach for dealing with sin it looks different it because it isn’t only concerned with appearances. It aims for the heart. It goes beyond the expressions and social effects of sin to ask about the thoughts and intents of the heart. And it offers something that the heart longs for. It is concerned with roots. It sees the stalk, flowers, leaves, and fruit of undesirable actions as effects of deeper causes. The roots are the real problem. All our sinful actions spring from things like pride, unbelief, idolatry, lust, etc. The size of the weeds is significant as an indicator of a problem. Short weeds look better, and might fool someone taking a passing glance, but they are still a serious problem. In fact, short weeds can be worse than tall ones because they are easier to ignore. When character problems are hidden they are typically more dangerous because they avoid notice. When we are armed with the gospel, the revelation of the problem can be regarded as a mercy.
The church is in a precarious position. It shouldn’t seek to drive sin underground through hypocrisy and shame (legalism). But neither should it celebrate or tolerate it through indifference (license). But it should welcome the honest reality of our struggle with sin. It should treat sin with a grace and power that is greater than sin. And it shouldn’t focus merely on externals. It must aim for the heart, the root of all behavior. In many ways this is far more radical. Doing this will slowly effect the outward actions. But it often takes longer. Much like planting new seeds takes time to see growth, the slow process of pulling weeds instead of mowing them produces long term health and beauty in the soul.