Moral Earthquakes & Secret Faults: Root, shoot and fruit - Part 4

James 1

When desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. James 1:15-16

In the past quarter century, earthquakes have caused untold billions of dollars of damage. Insurance estimates from the 1989 California quake were originally in the $2- to $3-billion range, but by the time the massive reconstruction of roads, bridges, commercial properties and residences was completed, claims ranged upwards of $5 billion. The 1992 quake along the Belgian, Dutch and German borders was almost that costly. The 1995 quake along the Siberian coast down to Japan may turn out to be twice as expensive due to severe damage to Russia’s military and petro-chemical installations and Japan’s heavy industrial concentrations there.

Of course, the ultimate costs of an earthquake cannot be measured in dollars and cents. No price can be put on even a single human life lost in a natural disaster. And yet, widespread loss of life is the all-too-typical effect of quakes.

Sadly, the same is true of moral earthquakes. Death is the tragic consequence of a spiritual and ethical breakdown. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).

The apostle James illustrates this principle using an analogy from the world of biology rather than geology, but the pattern he describes is precisely the same. He says that temptation is like a weed that grows in your garden. It has three parts to it: a root, a shoot and a fruit.

The root of temptation—as we have seen—is a “selfish desire.” When our desire has conceived, it grows and matures until it “gives birth to sin.” At that point, the shoot appears—a sinful action or decision. Finally, if we let that shoot remain untouched, it inevitably produces fruit—a seed pod that will reproduce the cycle again and again into perpetuity. The fruit is the most dastardly of all the consequences of sin because “when it’s full-grown, it brings forth death.”

The Thanatos syndrome

The Didache is a compilation of practical apostolic moral teachings that appeared sometime at the end of the first century; it is one of the earliest documents we have from the life and teaching of the early church apart from the Scriptures. It opens, “There are two ways: the way of life and the way of death and the difference between these two ways is great.”

Sadly, because all men without exception are sinners, one of the most fundamental factors in understanding anthropology is the thanatos factor—a phrase from the Greek that literally means “the death factor.” Quite simply, it means that because of their sin, all men have morbidly embraced death (see Rom. 5:12).

At the Fall, mankind was suddenly destined for death (see Jer. 15:2). We were all at that moment bound into a covenant with death (see Isa. 28:15). “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Prov. 14:12; 16:25).

Whether we know it or not, we have all chosen death (see Jer. 8:3). It has become our shepherd (see Ps. 49:14). Our minds are fixed on it (see Rom. 8:6), our hearts pursue it (see Prov. 21:6) and our flesh is ruled by it (see Rom. 8:2). We dance to its cadences (see Prov. 2:18) and descend to its chambers (see Prov. 7:27). “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). In fact:

There is none righteous, no, not even one;

There is none who understands;

There is none who seeks after God.

They have all turned aside;

They have together become unprofitable;

There is none who does good, no, not one.

Their throat is an open tomb;

With their tongues they have practiced deceit;

The poison of asps is under their lips;

Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness;

Their feet are swift to shed blood;

Destruction and misery are in their ways;

And the way of peace they have not known;

There is no fear of God before their eyes. (Rom. 3:10–18)

And, "All those who hate [God] love death" (Prov. 8:36).

It is no wonder then that such things as murder, terrorism, abortion, euthanasia and even infanticide have always been a normal and natural part of human relations. Since the dawning of time, men have contrived ingenious diversions to satisfy their fallen passions. Killing has always been chief among them.

Virtually every culture in antiquity was stained with the blood of innocent children. Unwanted infants in ancient Rome were abandoned outside the city walls to die from exposure to the elements or from the attacks of wild foraging beasts. Greeks often gave their pregnant women harsh doses of herbal or medicinal abortifacients. Persians developed highly sophisticated surgical curette procedures. Chinese women tied heavy ropes around their waists so excruciatingly tight that they either aborted or passed into unconsciousness. Ancient Hindus and Arabs concocted chemical pessaries—abortifacients that were pushed or pumped directly into the womb through the birth canal. Primitive Canaanites threw their children onto great flaming pyres as a sacrifice to their god Molech. Polynesians subjected their pregnant women to onerous tortures—their abdomens beaten with large stones or hot coals heaped upon their bodies. Japanese women straddled boiling cauldrons of parricidal brews. Egyptians disposed of their unwanted children by disemboweling and dismembering them shortly after birth—their collagen was then ritually harvested for the manufacture of cosmetic creams. We often think of such things as modern innovations in the affairs of men and nations. Nothing could be further from the truth.

None of the great minds of the ancient world—from Plato and Aristotle to Seneca and Quintilian, from Pythagoras and Aristophanes to Livy and Cicero, from Herodotus and Thucidides to Plutarch and Euripides—disparaged such brutalities in any way. In fact, most of them actually recommended it. They callously discussed various methods and procedures of eliminating the unwanted or undesired portions of the populace. They casually debated their sundry legal ramifications. They tossed lives like dice.

Actually, abortion and infanticide were so much a part of ancient human societies that they provided the primary literary liet motif in popular traditions, stories, myths, fables and legends.

The founding of Rome was, for instance, presumed to be the happy result of the abandonment of children. According to the story, a vestal virgin who had been raped bore twin sons, Romulus and Remus. The harsh Etruscan monarch Amulius ordered them exposed on the Tiber River. Left in a basket which floated ashore, they were found by a she-wolf and suckled by her. Later, a shepherd discovered them and took them home to his wife and the kindly couple brought them up as their own. Romulus and Remus would later establish the city of Rome on the seven hills near the place of their rescue.

Oedipus was presumed to be an abandoned child who was also found by a shepherd and later rose to greatness. Ion, the eponymous monarch in ancient Greece, miraculously lived through an abortion, according to tradition. Cyrus, the founder of the Persian empire, was supposedly a fortunate survivor of infanticide. According to Homer’s legend, Paris, whose amorous indiscretions started the Trojan War, was also a victim of abandonment. Telephus, the king of Mysia in Greece and Habius, ruler of the Cunetes in Spain, had both been exposed as children according to various folk tales. Jupiter, chief god of the Olympian pantheon, himself had been abandoned as a child. He in turn exposed his twin sons, Zethus and Amphion. Similarly, other myths related that Poseidon, Aesculapius, Hephaistos, Attis and Cybele had all been abandoned to die.

Because the men and women of antiquity had been mired by the minions of sin and death, it was as natural as the change of seasons for them to indulge in various forms of killing. They believed it was just and good and right, but they were wrong. Dreadfully wrong.

Life is God’s gift. It is His gracious endowment upon the created order. The earth is literally teeming with life (see Gen. 1:20; Lev. 11:10; 22:5; Deut. 14:9) and the crowning glory of this sacred teeming is man himself (see Gen. 1:26–30; Ps. 8:1–9). To violate the sanctity of this magnificent endowment is to fly in the face of all that is holy, just and true (see Jer. 8:1–17; Rom. 8:6).

To violate the sanctity of life is to invite judgment, retribution and anathema (see Deut. 30:19–20). It is to solicit devastation, imprecation and destruction (see Jer. 21:8–10).

Sadly, since death-dealing is so much a part of the character of fallen man, none of us can actually change our predilections or inclinations ourselves. We are hopelessly ensnared.

But the Lord God, who is the giver of life (see Acts 17:25), the fountain of life (see Ps. 36:9), the defender of life (see Ps. 27:1), the prince of life (see Acts 3:15) and the restorer of life (see Ruth 4:15), did not leave men to languish hopelessly in the clutches of sin and death. He not only sent us the message of life (see Acts 5:20) and the words of life (see John 6:68); He sent us the light of life as well (see John 8:12). He sent us His only begotten Son—the life of the world (see John 6:51)—to break the bonds of death (see 1 Cor. 15:54–56), to “taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). Jesus actually “abolished death” for our sakes (2 Tim. 1:10) and offered us new life (see John 5:21). “For God so loved the world, that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, KJV).

In Christ, God has afforded us the opportunity to choose between the two ways the Didache posited: to choose between fruitful and teeming life on the one hand and barren and impoverished death on the other (see Deut. 30:19).

Apart from Christ it is not possible to escape the snares of sin and death (see Col. 2:13). On the other hand: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17).

Though all those who hate Christ “love death” (Prov. 8:36); all those who receive Christ are made the “aroma of life” (2 Cor. 2:16).

The primary conflict in temporal history always has been and always will be the struggle for life and truth against the natural inclinations of all men everywhere. Thanks be to God, there is a way of escape from these bonds of destruction. In Christ, there is hope. In Him there is life—both temporal and eternal. In Him there is liberty and justice. In Him there is an antidote to the thanatos factor. In Him, and in Him alone, there is an answer to the ages long dilemma of the dominion of death.

Missing the mark

The Greeks had three very different ways of defining and describing the word we normally translate as “sin.” Physically, it was used of an archer who draws a bow and shoots at a target. Though he lets the arrow fly, he is woefully short. The arrow misses the target: it misses the mark.

The word was used not only in the physical realm, but in the mental realm as well. It portrayed a student who takes a test and then comes to a tough question. Though he gives it all he has, he misses it altogether. He doesn’t know the answer and the best he can muster is a wild guess.

Finally, the word is used in the spiritual realm to describe a man who knows and understands a high standard of spiritual attainment, but he is unable to personally experience it. He falls short of it.

Thus, in every dimension, to sin literally means to “miss the mark.” No matter how hard we try, no matter how proficient we become, there will always be a shortfall. We simply cannot hit the target; we can’t answer the test; we can’t live up to the standard; and “sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.” There is simply no way around it.

Death—not just physical death, but the death of dreams, the death of relationships, the death of ambition, the death of reputation, the death of everything that’s good—is the result of sin.

People indulge in various sins because, ultimately, they think it will make them happy. People sin because of the pleasure that it brings, but the pleasure is furtive and passing—it lasts only a moment. It is a mist, a vapor, an insubstantial illusion that quickly passes into the permanence of pain, suffering and death.

Weeding the garden

So, how do we go about dealing with temptation and sin? How can we actually get rid of temptation? The answer is: the same way we get rid of weeds in the vegetable plot in the back yard.

Some gardeners cut off the fruit, thinking that once the reproductive ability of the weed has been diminished, the rest will go away eventually. Though that appears to be an effective strategy for a day or two, over time it fails to control the growth or the spread of the weed at all. Similarly, when we try to deal with sin tendencies by addressing only the most visible aspects of the problem, it is not likely that much headway will be made. No matter how many resolutions we make, no matter how many times we turn over a new leaf, or pledge to write a new chapter in our lives, before we know it we’re right back in our same old routine, slipping back into our comfortable patterns. Because we’re dealing with fruits—with externals rather than getting to the root of the problem—sin stubbornly persists.

Some gardeners, on the other hand, take out the lawn mower and mow down the weeds, cutting them off right at the ground. This strategy aims to get both the fruit and the shoot. Although this tactic can make the garden look wonderful for a while, once again we’ve merely dealt with externals.

Ultimately, the only way to deal with temptation is to dig up the root. To eradicate perpetual, habitual sin in our lives, we must deal with our innate selfish desires. The only way to do that is to let God uproot our entire confidence in the flesh. In short, God must change our desires and give us a new nature.

That is why the ultimate hope of America is not in legislation. It is in each of us individually finding Jesus Christ as our personal Savior. The hope for America is not a revival of “family values,” as wonderful as those may be. It is not a full restoration of constitutional law. It is not a renewed respect for women, children, the needy and the oppressed. It is not the upgrading of the educational system, the health care delivery system, or the global trading system of the World Trade Association. It is Jesus Christ.

When we come to trust Christ as our personal Savior, He gives us a brand new set of desires. Things we used to enjoy, we no longer like to do; things we thought we’d never like to do, we find our greatest joy in doing. In short, He changes our want-tos.

So, where are you today? Are you still mired in the snares of death and destruction? Are your desires still controlling your life and work, your faith and practice, your vision and calling?

Most of us desire to exercise control over our lives. We want to do whatever it is that we are going to do entirely ourselves. We want autonomy. We want liberty. We want absolute freedom. Thus, we demand our rights and press for still greater levels of individual control. The problem is, we cannot control our own sin nature. Rather, our sin nature controls us. We are under its dominion—and its dominion is the awful domain of death. In fact, as the great reformer Martin Luther put it, we are strapped with a “bondage of the will.”

Thus, if there is to be any hope that the root problems of our lives, the compulsive desires of our hearts and the poverty of our souls are to be in any substantive way answered, it will have to be Christ doing the answering. We can’t do it ourselves.

Moral soundings

  • How have you attempted to deal with temptation in the past?
  • Have you focused primarily on the fruit, the shoot, or the root of the problem?
  • Have you been so blinded by the passing pleasures of your sin that you've missed its real import?
  • Have you ever witnessed the progression of the thanatos syndrome in the lives of others?
  • Have you ever yielded the compelling desires of your heart entirely to Christ?
ON A PERSONAL NOTE:

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