BEWARE OF THE BUCKTHORN
By: Paul Anderson
I was warned, but I didn’t listen. Karen and I were walking along the trail. A biology professor greeted us, then said, “You need to deal with the buckthorn on your property.” He told us that the buckthorn plant would eventually destroy everything within its range.
On the way back from our walk, Jerry was lecturing, so we stopped to listen: “The buckthorn plant is not indigenous to Minnesota. It was brought over from Europe because it makes a handsome hedge. It has an attractive berry. But these berries drop into the ground. One branch can hold 250 berries, each of which could potentially sprout forth a new plant.”
I was struck with the spiritual analogy. I was dealing with a pastor out east who was ruining his ministry. I said to Karen, “I know someone who won’t make it unless he deals with the buckthorn in his life.”
I told Karen that I had already been warned about the buckthorn plant by a missionary friend two years before. When I heard it again from Jerry, I took it more seriously. In like manner, I have worked with young men attempting to deal with buckthorn after much compromise. Rooting out habit patterns can take years, whether the pattern is gossip, laziness, or sexual immorality.
Are you convinced that you need to attend to your personal property? Do you need help from a close friend to walk in the light and expose the darkness? Does a mediocre marriage make you prone to find satisfaction in other places? Perhaps you like I need to be convinced of the necessity of dealing with the buckthorn. Let me share some Scriptures that will serve as a warning:
“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple” (I Cor 3:16). No disclaimers, like, “God really doesn’t do that,” just the simple truth.
Paul called for a separation from the sinning brother who was willful and unrepentant, to the point of not eating with him. Rather than extending grace so that they are won by kindness, they are won by realizing the ultimate potential of their behavior, being cut off from God. Showing compassion without the truth has the appearance of grace, but it is really a tolerance that God hates (I Cor. 5:1-12). It is not love not to warn a person in serious danger who has no fear of the consequences of sin.
“Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers…will inherit the kingdom of God” (I Cor. 6:9,10). People can be deceived into thinking that they can sin without recourse. The Scriptures say otherwise. He uses the same phrase in another warning, “Do not be deceived; God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction” (Gal. 6:7,8). Sexual temptation brings a deception, that this is who I am and I must fulfill natural desires, and God is forgiving and will overlook the sin because of my need. No, He will not. That kind of thinking could cause you to miss out on the Big Party.
Paul tells us, “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (I Cor. 6:18-20). What a wonderful goal—honoring God, rather than fulfilling my personal needs. Is sexual immorality worse than other sins? Not necessarily, but it does more damage, not only violating the other person but violates one’s self at the same time.
Paul takes us back to Old Testament stories when the Israelites were disobedient. He says, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us…” (I Cor. 10:11). He says, “We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died” (v. 8). These are not simply ancient stories of an angry deity but warnings for the Christian community. In other words, we are not to say, “That kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore.”
When Paul speaks of the works of the flesh, the first one listed is sexual immorality, then impurity. He closes by saying, “I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:21). In the face of ongoing sin, Paul does not speak tenderly, like, “God forgives.” We have perhaps been told that we are secure, that grace is available to us. When Paul gives these strong warnings, he doesn’t add any words of grace, such as, “Of course, God forgives.” We need to look at this whole passage, not just the part about the good fruit, as if sin is not that serious. It’s no big deal because forgiveness is available. This makes God into a wimp, into a permissive father who has no control over His kids.
Similarly, when he tells the Colossians to put to death what belongs to their earthly nature, sexual immorality is listed first, then impurity, lust, evil desires and greed. And he says again what he has said in other places, “Because of these, the wrath of God is coming” (Col. 3:5,6). God is not happy. He doesn’t back off and say, “That’s all right. Sin makes Him mad. As a parent, I am not happy with disobedience. My kids have sometimes said, “Why are you angry?” as if I should not be angry with them. Well, God is angry, and He doesn’t feel guilty about it.
A similar warning comes to the Ephesian church after telling them that “among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people,” he adds the warning, “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient” (Eph. 5:3,5-7). Two important words are “among you.” If it is among us, it can overtake us, just like the buckthorn. We have no right to partner with immorality or compromise of any kind. We are to “have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness” (v. 11), lest we be destroyed by them. Paul urges us: “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (v. 15,16). If buckthorn is on our property, it is just a matter of time.
Do you want to know God’s will? That is a common prayer of Christians. Here it is: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality.” Then he again brings a warning: “The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you” (I Thess. 4:3,6). I do not want God to say to me, “Why didn’t you warn your children? Your congregation? It was clear in the Scriptures.”
This is the consistent witness and warning throughout the New Testament, and not only with Paul, the single man. The writer of Hebrews says, “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). He doesn’t add any disclaimers, like, “Of course, that doesn’t apply to those who have received Jesus.” He just gives strong warnings that would be hard to misunderstand. A chapter later he writes that “marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.”
Pastors, we must warn people—because the Bible does. We live in an age of tolerance. My sadness as a pastor of a good church was that most of the peopleI married had slept together before marriage. When Tim Urban, a young adult in our ministry, spoke at our meeting, he said rather incidentally (he wasn’t speaking about sexual purity), that he told non-Christian friends at work that he had chosen not to have sex until he was married. He shocked his friends, but I thought, “How wise, not only to make that kind of commitment but to communicate it in a humble way to others.”
Young people, that is God’s will for you. I challenge you–make a commitment to live a pure life. It is far more exciting than the devil’s lie of freedom in promiscuity. God’s standard for you is to be a virgin when you marry. Is there forgiveness for those who cross the line? Yes, if there is repentance. But if they are looking for permission, the answer is no. In that case, there is judgment, not forgiveness.
Grace does not give permission to sin. The writer of Hebrews is contrasting the Old Covenant with the far superior New Covenant. He says, after speaking about judgment under the law, ”How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’” (29-31). Living this side of the cross in no way gives loopholes for selfish, sinful behavior. Because we believe in the blood of Christ, it closes the door to behavior that would defy the cross.
Two chapters later he returns to the same theme. He says, “See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth (Moses), how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? (Heb.12:25). The New Covenant would in fact be weaker if it meant that now God is a pushover, that we can do what we want because we live under grace rather than the law. This section closes with sobriety like the last passage: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire’” (v. 28,29). I have heard people contemplating a divorce for the wrong reasons saying, “We have grace.” No you don’t. Grace never gives leeway for self-centered indulgence. When one girl heard about the violent activity in the Old Testament, she concluded, “That’s before God became a Christian.” In reality, the standard is higher in the new. God does not lower the standard to accommodate our sinful desires. And His goal for us is not only to forgive us—it is to transform us.
Jesus always took the law to a higher level than a lower level. A lustful look was tantamount to adultery. Then he added, “If you right eye offends you, don’t worry because you will be forgiven.” No! He says to gouge it out and throw it away. This is Jesus, full of grace and truth. It says that “it is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:29). Consistent with the rest of the Scripture, He issues a warning that sinful behavior can keep us from heaven and send us to hell. Would you say that He was being gracious to give us this sober warning? Wouldn’t people who are careless in their life style and land in hell be justified to at least ask church leaders why they only forgave them but didn’t warn them as Jesus and the Apostles did? The commandments were given to warn us, to restrain us. The psalmist said, “By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (Ps. 19:11).
Maybe these questions could help you identify potential danger areas:
• What is the greatest threat to your destiny in Christ? Most of us have at least some buckthorn seeds in the ground with the potential to grow up to be tall bushes. If Satan wanted to reduce your life to unthreatening maintenance or destroy it completely, what would he use?
• What would need to change for you to deal effectively with buckthorn in your life?
• Are you keeping any secrets from people? (If so, they are keeping you). Do you have any small buckthorn plants that, if allowed to persist, could destroy your marriage or ministry?
Plateaus do not exist in the Christian life. You are either for Christ or against Him. Some feel that while they are not going forward, they are at least not backsliding. Yes, you are. There is not neutral ground, no demilitarized zone. I don’t want to be in a place of danger; I want to be dangerous.
The buckthorn plant doesn’t destroy the environment suddenly. It happens over a period of time. The same applies to our life in Christ. Few fall deliberately. Their heart is invaded—one seed at a time.
So how do you deal with buckthorn? Here is how we did it?
We identified the buckthorn. Even after having the plant shown to me by the missionary friend and by Jerry, I still asked my neighbor to make sure. Don’t pull out the wrong plants. We pulled out a few that we didn’t need to, and that made for extra work. Ask the Lord, “Where is the compromise in my life? Where could I fall? A friend at seminary asked me this question, “If Satan wanted to take you out, what would he use?” I answered, “Pride.” Then I asked him the question, and he answered, “Sex.” And he was right. That caused him to leave the ministry and break up his family. Identify your buckthorn—and deal with it!
We had a team. I am glad that I didn’t have to do the buckthorn job alone. I hired a group of guys to help me. Sometimes we resent those who tell us about the buckthorn on our property. They should be our best friends. Do you have people you are honest with who can help you root out your buckthorn? We are encouraging the young adults in our ministry to form into small groups for encouragement and accountability, so they can help each other.
We persisted. We did not finish the job in an hour—or a day—or a week. But we won over several weeks. But it is not totally gone, so we must stay alert. You can win five rounds and still lose the fight. There were battles along the way.
We used the right tools. Some plants were too big to pull out by hand. And cutting them down would not destroy them. They would continue to sprout and drop their berries. I was given a tool to make the job easier. A four-foot lever with a crank and a wedge on the end gave the leverage needed to uproot the plants. God promises to give us what we need to pull out the buckthorn. Paul writes that “when you are tempted, he will also provide a “way out” (I Cor. 10:13).
We followed the rain. The best time to deal with the buckthorn was after the rain has softened the ground. I went out after a night rain and was able to pull some out by hand. This is not a message on morality, on trying to live a better life, on attempting to clean up your life. It comes back to the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. We are holy because we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, not because we have more will power than other people. We trust in God’s Spirit to enable us to live as He wants us to live.
Clearing out the buckthorn is a picture of repentance. But repentance does not come naturally to us. Here are some substitutes for the real thing:
1. Crying occasionally about all the buckthorn, even praying about it. Repentance and emotion are not the same thing. Be careful of substituting a feeling for real change. “Great sermon, pastor. You really took us to the cleaners today.” But he feels much better by Sunday afternoon football. What God wants is change. Judas was remorseful but not repentant.
2. Generalizing about the buckthorn, saying, “You are so right. We need to deal with buckthorn. I have felt this way for a long time. Thank you for bringing it up again. Yes, indeed. I couldn’t agree with you more. Our society is too tolerant of sexual immorality.” Words and repentance are not the same thing.
3. Rooting out other plants and thinking that we are dealing effectively with our problems. People who have a serious problem with gossip get religious when the pastor talks about immorality and says, “Yes, I need to deal with that in my life,” never allowing God’s Word to convict them of a destructive tongue—and they are working on the wrong plant.
4. Dealing with other peoples’ property. Repentance must be personal and ruthless. The flesh resists nothing like repentance. Before I started dealing with our problem, I was at a friend’s house. I went to the backyard and noticed some buckthorn plants. I suggested that he might want to get rid of it. I was an evangelist before I even began the process in my own yard. Some of us can be more persistent about others than we are of ourselves. Let me say clearly that you are responsible for your body.
5. Cutting back but not destroying. We can pretend that we have dealt with our buckthorn because we went forward at a conference and vowed to change. Good beginning, but there must be follow-through to annihilate the plant. We had to cut the plant down until only a stump remained. Then we stripped off the bark and applied a chemical to finish the job. Sexual sin needs to be rooted out, sometimes with deliverance ministry.
6. Just saying that we can’t do it and saying that God must is insufficient. We must do our part. I was tempted to say that, because it was too big a project. Do you feel like throwing in the towel? Our local newspaper reported that our county made that decision some years ago. They just decided to let it grow rampant because it was too big a matter to control.
If you are convinced that repentance is needed, consider some of these steps:
1. Don’t fantasize. What we dream about has power to become reality. Do you have pictures of old boyfriends or girlfriends? Throw them away. Have boundaries. If you start dating someone, speak together about your boundaries, and don’t cross them. Pastors who drive to a conference with the secretaries are not taking the necessary precaution against sexual sin. Don’t resent people who are more free to sin than you are.
2. Parents: don’t feed your children to the wolves. Know where they are, who they are with, and what they are doing. And don’t assume the best. Don’t let them pair up and spend time together isolated from others. You are asking for trouble—and they will give it to you.
3. Have a realistic view of marriage. I have heard some say, “I need to be happy.” That is neither your right nor your need. What you need to do is die to yourself. That might mean serving your spouse even when you are not happy, and even if you are not fulfilled. The people I have spoken with who have affairs have spoken about the need for fulfillment, for personal happiness. The Bible says, “Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Rom. 13:14). People who say, “I need to be happy,” are saying, “I need to fulfill my sinful nature.” Paul says, “The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber…” (v. 11). Those who have affairs begin to gratify themselves in small ways. They begin to ignore the promptings of the Spirit. Karen and I are amazed at how much work marriage takes. It calls for us to die to ourselves. Marriage is a killer of the sinful nature if we truly serve our mates without thinking of our need to be happy.
4. A word to the singles: Paul says that you have an advantage over married people. Think of Jesus, Paul, and Mother Teresa. They were single by choice. You may be single by default. You can still use it to your great advantage. It enables you to serve God (see I Cor. 7). Single people are not an inferior group. According to Paul, they are a superior group.
5. Make holiness, not happiness, your goal. The angels in heaven are not crying, “Love, love, love.” They are crying, “Holy, holy, holy.” That is the essential character of God, that which brings non-stop praise from millions of angels. It is worthy of our attention. Don’t shoot for mediocrity. And don’t feel that you need to be happy; you need to be dead.
6. Keep truth balanced with grace. If you have crossed the line, there is grace, but then choose not the cross the line again. If you are seeking permission rather than forgiveness, there is no grace. Don’t assume grace without walking in truth. If your eye offends you, cut it out. Jesus is speaking stark truth to those flirting with sin, maybe considering an affair. The potential for losing more than a spouse is real. If you are contemplating an affair—die to yourself. Why should you ruin the lives of others? You are selfish, thinking of yourself. There are innocent casualties in sin. Achan’s sin caused 36 to die, plus his entire family. Amnon destroyed Tamar’s life, and then he lost his own. Learn to fear God under grace. The psalmist wrote, “There is forgiveness with thee, that you may be feared.” Forgiveness is not the door to license; it is the door to freedom. If truth is hedged, grace is reduced to sentimentality.
“Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.” So we have freedom to sin, right? Paul says no, but many today say yes. Grace enables us to overcome sin. Grace leads to victory, not to permissiveness. “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” (Romans 6:1). The response among many Christians with regard to sexual boundaries is a clear, “Yes.” But Paul says, By no means! Absolutely not. God forbid. We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? He gives no room whatsoever for this outlook that couples freedom to sin with grace. You’ll not find it in the Bible. Listen to this: “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (v. 14). Grace overcomes sin. We are freed from sin, not free to sin. Those who have a lax understanding of grace and sin will never reach their destiny in Christ.
Some may be saying now, “Where is the grace?” I will tell you. It is in repentance, not in seeking permission. Jude writes strongly about “godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jude 4).
We may assume that because God is extravagantly forgiving He does not take sin seriously. The opposite is true. Look at the cross. Listen to the words of Jesus about sin. If you take sin lightly, it is safe to say that you are walking under the judgment of God, not under His mercy.
7. Leaders: you must be held to a higher standard. When I was a young adult working with a small youth group in Orange County, a woman from England came to our church with a prophetic gift. She said to me at the end of the meeting, “Others may; you can’t.” I didn’t know what she meant at first, but I came to understand it. If God was going to use me, I would need to pay a price, to say a thousand no’s. If you are called to lead, learn to say no—because in doing so you are saying yes to God, to all that He wants to give you, to His anointing, to His presence!
8. You may need deliverance. Derek Prince found that three things particularly opened people up to demonic assault—engagement with the occult, rebellion, and sexual immorality. Our society has opened wide the door to demonic deception and invasion. Some may need more than prayer—they will need deliverance.
Once I started rooting out the buckthorn on our property, I saw how we could landscape our wooded area. I can say now that we have a beautiful walkway in place of destructive buckthorns, and the chips of the buckthorn plants formed the path that we walk on. A dump became a garden. When we deal with our buckthorn, God will use even our past to His glorious advantage. Some of you need to clear out the buckthorn so you can wake up to your destiny. You need clarity about why you are here. Sometimes that is only clear when we have taken the steps to deal with what holds us back. Deal with your past and your destiny will be more visible. You are not a dump. You are a garden. You need to rebuild the protective wall around the garden, tear down high places and establish the holy place of the Lord. Take the steps and you will discover grace.