Apparently one is not supposed to plant a Magnolia tree close to the house. As first-time home buyers my wife and I were not aware of this tip. We liked looking out our bedroom window and seeing the beautiful flowering magnolias. That is until our basement wall started to crack.
This past week—when I was supposed to be on vacation—I spent my evenings killing and uprooting a Magnolia tree. I decided to do this in a three stage process. Stage one is chopping down the tree and leaving a 3 foot stump*. Stage two is to dig a hole around the tree until I expose and then kill those dastardly roots. Stage three is to rent several horses, badgers, cattle, Sherpa's, and anything else I can find to pull the tree out of the hole.
While planning my lumberjacking festivities I started thinking a little about how this magnolia tree relates to sanctification. Specifically gospel-driven sanctification.
“So, I’ve got this porn problem”
A young man is in my office confessing his struggle with pornography. I know that the fundamental answer to his problem is the gospel. I also know that there are a few root issues that are likely causing his struggles with pornography. As we dig deeper we are likely to discover that his identity is found in sexual conquest and not in Christ. Those things must be dealt with.
All that is true, but do you want to know what my first advice to this young man will be (especially if he is a believer)? I will tell him…
“Dude, you need to stop looking at porn. Right now. This instant”.
Sometimes you’ve got to kill the visible tree (porn addiction) before you can start digging out the roots (idolatry). I fear that sometimes, with all of our talk of gospel-motivated obedience, we miss something crucial; namely, actual obedience. I like the way Kevin DeYoung put it:
Without [the biblical emphasis of effort], we’ll be confused, wondering why sanctification isn’t automatically flowing from a heartfelt commitment to a gospel-drenched justification. We’ll be waiting around for enough faith to really ‘get the gospel’ when God wants us to get up and get to work (Phil 2:12-13). Because when it comes to growth in godliness, trusting does not put an end to trying. (Deyoung, The Hole in Our Holiness)
You aren’t denying the gospel by grabbing the axe of effort and chopping down the tree of lust. At this point you might not even be dealing with root issues or motivations, all you know is that porn is bringing guilt and pain and you want it to stop. Don’t overcomplicate sanctification, grab the axe and start chopping.
What if I just leave the stump?
The problem with this passive—though gospel-sounding—approach to sanctification is that it spends all of its time and effort on uncovering roots and never chops. You’ve got to kill sin when you see it.
The other end of the pendulum, the Pharisee, is just as deadly. The pharisaical approach to sanctification chops down the visible without dealing with the root system. I’m not an expert on trees but I believe it is correct that if I don’t also sever the roots they will continue to grow (maybe even eventually sprouting another tree out of my stump).
You cannot just chop down the tree, leave a stump, and assume that the job is done. You’ve got to dig and get to the root of the issue. Otherwise you might outwardly tackle your pornography problem but your misplaced identity will lead you to bow to some other god.
Here is my point. If you and I are sinning we need to grab an axe and deal with it. The gospel is what causes us to grab an axe and get to work. And the gospel also causes us to grab a shovel and start digging out roots. But we must never confuse the gospel’s axe work with gospel’s root work. They aren’t the same but they are both necessary to our sanctification.
*I should also mention that I did this with an axe and not a chainsaw. I tell you this just so you picture me as a true hardcore lumberjack…beard and all.
**In case you wonder why I would put a picture of an awkward guy awkwardly cutting down a big tree, it is intentional. Our attempts at grabbing an axe and hacking away at sin is often awkward and ugly. But it’s holy work.