So over the past weekend, my wife and I met up with some of her friends to go apple picking at a local orchard. If I’m going to be honest, when I go to apple orchards or local farms, I am not excited for the fruit picking so much as I am excited to buy all the cool jams, seasonings, and other products they sell that you can’t find in a grocery store. Maybe this means I have a consumer problem, I’m not sure!
As we were picking the apples, I couldn’t help but notice the thick smell of rotten, vinegary apples that saturated the tree fields. This is because many of the apples had fallen off the tree and for some time had been rotting in the soil. The smell and sight of these nasty apples immediately reminded me of one of my favorite sermon illustrations from Pastor Paul Tripp. I’ve heard him use his illustration of a pulpy apple tree many times before. It is no coincidence then that when I came home and continued reading Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, he used the illustration again! This was clearly a direct sign from God that I needed to blog about it (sarcasm).
Pastor Tripp’s illustration is concerned with addressing the matters of the heart. Tripp is a pastor who is very active and concerned with Biblical counseling. I’ve heard him speak in person at The Gospel Coalition conference, read numerous articles and book excerpts, and heard a handful of sermons. What I love about Tripp’s approach is that he understands how all of our approaches to eradicating and fighting sin in our lives must be concerned with matters of the heart. Too often, he says, our approach to looking at sin in our lives involves just step-by-step plans to prevent behaviors, but the desires of our heart never change.
Let’s take a look at his illustration:
Let’s say I have an apple tree in my backyard. Each year its apples are dry, wrinkled, brown and pulpy. After several seasons my wife says, “It doesn’t make any sense to have this huge tree and never be able to eat any apples. Can’t you do something?” One day my wife looks out the window to see me in the yard, carrying branch cutters, an industrial grade staple gun, a ladder, and two bushels of apples.
I climb the ladder, cut off all the pulpy apples, and staple shiny, red apples onto every branch of the tree. From a distance our tree looks like it is full of a beautiful harvest. But if you were my wife, what would you be thinking of me at this moment?
If a tree produces bad apples year after year, there is something drastically wrong with its system, down to its very roots. I won’t solve the problem by stapling new apples onto the branches. They also will rot because they are not attached to a life-giving system. And next spring, I will have the same problem again. I will not see a new crop of healthy apples because my solution has not gone to the heart of the problem. If the tree’s roots remain unchanged, it will never produce good apples.
The point is that, in personal ministry, much of what we do to produce growth and change in ourselves and others is little more than “fruit stapling.” It attempts to exchange apples for apples without examining the heart, the root behind the behavior. This is the very thing for which Christ criticized the Pharisees. – Instruments in the Redeemers Hands, 63
This illustration is just too good! I am in complete agreement with Tripp, that much of what the Church offers is merely a system of exchanging apples for apples without getting to the heart of the problem. The Bible again and again speaks plainly to this, but I’m not sure why we so often miss it. I love the example God gives us in Jeremiah 2. When God sends Jeremiah to speak to Israel about their numerous sins and lack of faithfulness towards him, what is the message he gives to Jeremiah?
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns that can hold no water. – Jer. 2:13
God did not give Jeremiah a list of numerous sins that the Israelites could topically address with any law-keeping system. God was, and has always been, concerned with matters of the heart. And in this case, as it always is, his people were covetous idolaters with a heart problem.
Much could be said to the subject of addressing heart change, but for now I will leave the reader with four questions. When seeking to fight sin in your life, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you want to fight your sin simply because you know (intellectually) it is bad? Or is your desire to fight sin growing out of a genuine hatred for your sin and a genuine love for Christ?
- How does the gospel inform how you’re addressing your sin problem? The gospel is applicable to any and all sins.
- Would the world be able to offer the same advice you’re giving yourself? The Christian has a unique advantage in fighting sinful behavior the world does not have: Christ and the Holy Spirit, through the power of the gospel. Don’t waste your time on a 10-step plan to remedying anger that involves “counting to ten” and “going on long walks to alleviate stress.” These steps may be useful, but they don’t address your heart problem.
- Finally, are you merely putting a plan in place that will prevent behavior, or are you applying the gospel to your heart so that your very desires change?