Branch Sins & Root Sins

In his little book on repentance, Jack Miller distinguishes between two kinds of sins: “branch sins” and “root sins.”

Branch-sins are those faults which others most quickly see in us. They are the sins which most obviously get in the way of relationships with others. They are branch-sins, however, not because they are little sins—but because they are more observable than roots, and because branches derive life and strength from hidden roots.
— Jack Miller, Repentance, Page 33-34

The easier part of repentance is identifying and turning from the out-there-for-everyone-to-see branch sins in our lives. The harder part is identifying and turning from the root sins that give life to the branch sins, but are less obvious to others and ourselves.

My mind immediately goes to James 4:1-2, where James basically asks, “Do you want to know why you are always angry and willing to duke it out all the time (branch sins)?” His answer points to the root sin of self-worship, bowing to ourselves and serving our wants: “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:1-2).

Tree roots are a pain to dig out. They’re stubborn and always more widespread than you anticipate. But there’s a twofold beauty in spending time focusing on root sins in the heart: 1. Killing the root sucks life out of the branches 2. Root removal creates fresh space for God to come in and fill with his grace and presence.

Can you think of any root sins God might be nudging you to investigate?

Discipline and Dependence

Is the Christian life about grace or effort? Is it about working hard and being disciplined, or about living in dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit?

I love the following illustration from Jerry Bridges:

Think of yourself as seated in a jet passenger plane flying 35,000 feet above the earth. Suppose (I know this can’t happen in real life) the pilot were to say through the speaker system, “Folks, we’re in real trouble. One of our wings is about to break off.” Which one of the wings would you rather lose, the left one or the right one? It’s a silly question, isn’t it? No plane can fly with just one wing… Both are absolutely necessary.

Bridges suggests you visualize looking down on the plane from above:

“You see the fuselage, where you are sitting, the two wings, and the tail assembly. As you look at the two wings you see the words dependence on the left wing and discipline on the right wing. This airplane illustrates one of the most important principles in the Christian life. Just as the airplane must have both wings to fly, so we must exercise both discipline and dependence in the pursuit of holiness.

Bridges concludes:

The point of the airplane illustration is that we must not try to carry out our responsibilities in our own strength and willpower. We must depend on the Holy Spirit to enable us. At the same time we must not assume that we have no responsibility simply because we are dependent. God enables us to work, but He does not do the work for us.
— Jerry Bridges

All of this reminds me of the apostle Paul’s own testimony in 1 Corinthians 15:10: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

The Christian life is not a choice between being active or passive, working or praying, etc. It is about living in dependent discipline.

How Can I Find More Joy and Peace in My Life?

I recently picked up Christopher Wright’s new book Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit: Growing in Christlikeness. If you’re anything like me, always needing a little extra help to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit in my life, I recommend getting your hands on this book.

At one point Wright says that “joy” and “peace” are like twins in Scripture because they frequently show up together and are related to each other. Here’s an example: “May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace as you trust in him…” (Romans 15:13).

Maybe joy and peace are twins in Scripture, but are they twins in our lives? If you’re asking me, it depends on when you ask. What does my bank account look like? Are there any relational conflicts in my life? What’s the state of my health and the health of those I love? Am I getting the things I want in my marriage and my job? Maybe joy and peace will be present together, but probably just one, or neither.

Wright points out that joy and peace show up when we’re trusting and depending on the God who has given us peace and gives us joy, rather than on ourselves and our ever-changing circumstances.

Christians will be noticed (and often asked questions) if they have the kind of joy that is not affected by the moods of cynical despair and negativity that can easily dominate groups of people thrown together by their work. But equally, their joy doesn’t come from getting swept up in the occasional crazy bouts of drinking and gluttony. Rather, they have a quality of inner joy that can be sensed even in times of pain, or loss, or suffering; an underlying joy that is not dependent on alcohol, sex, or money.

Similarly, Christians with peace, who are not racked by anxiety or driven by ruthless ambition, who are not devastated by failing to get promoted, or in despair because of the threat or reality of losing their job, but who rather have an inner peace that flows from trusting God—such people are bearing silent witness to the Lord Jesus Christ. They are being like Christ in trusting their heavenly Father in the midst of whatever life brings—even the tough things.
— Wright, page 59


I needed to be reminded of that this week. What we bank our lives on will determine how much peace and joy we experience. Trusting in other people, things (even good things!), and ourselves will drown us in anxiety (the opposite of peace) and sorrow (the opposite of joy) because they’ll always disappoint.

As we daily choose to trust and depend on God and his promises to us—things that never disappoint—these twins will become more and more present in our day-to-day lives. And let’s be honest: who doesn’t want to experience more of the inner joy and inner peace Christ gives us? I know I do.


More on Logs and Specks

Last Sunday I preached on Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 about the log and the speck. Jesus says that we often try to point out the sins of others when we don’t see our own sins clearly.

Recently someone reminded me about what social psychologists call “Fundamental Attribution Error.” In many ways, this is a modern description of the same reality that Jesus talks about in Matthew 7. The simple version goes like this:

When I do something bad, I attribute it to my circumstances. When you do something bad, I attribute it to your character.

We do this all the time.

If I fail to get certain things done, it’s because I am overwhelmed and exhausted. If you fail to get certain things done, it’s because you are lazy and irresponsible. If I say something sharp, it’s because I had a tough day. If you say something sharp, it’s because you are bitter. If I cut someone off while driving, it’s because something distracted me. If you cut someone off while driving, it’s because you are reckless.

On and on it goes.

How do we break free from this pattern? We need God’s help to see ourselves more clearly. Thankfully, God has given us resources that will help us do that. He has given us “the means of grace” (the Word, sacraments, and prayer as ways he brings his grace into our lives). He has also given us each other, other people in the body of Christ who know us and can say things we need to hear with love, humility, and gentleness. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6).

Finally, be suspicious of your own goodness. We all tend to overestimate the strength of our character. It could be, as Jesus said in Matthew 7, that you see the speck in someone else’s eye but you are missing the logjam in your own.

Being Interrupted by God

God has graciously transplanted each of us into the one body of Christ. We’re a family now. Like it works in any family, we have responsibilities to one another. Dietrich Bonhoeffer identifies one of them as active helpfulness:

This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters. There is a multitude of these things wherever people live together. Nobody is too good for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.

Here’s the difficulty, though: active helpfulness is taxing on our time and resources. That’s hard for even the most sanctified among us! But check out the way Bonhoeffer links this challenging call with how God wants to shape our lives around the cross and work out his purposes in us:

We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks… When we do that we pass the visible sign of the Cross raised athwart in our path to show us that, not our way, but God’s way must be done. It is a strange fact that Christians and even ministers frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them…

They do not want a life that is crossed and balked. But it is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God.

Allowing ourselves to be expended for one another has a benefit that works in two directions: it blesses those in need and works Christ-like humility in those who help.

What is Jesus Doing?

Most of us are better at thinking about what Jesus has done than about what Jesus is doing. We know the cross brings forgiveness, but we forget that the ascended Christ continues to rule and reign over us so that we can live with courage and hope in the present.

One person calls this “the gospel gap.” We know that back then Jesus atoned for our sins. We also know that Jesus will bring a day of shalom and then we will be free of sin and struggle. The gap comes when we forget the gospel doesn’t only matter then, it also matters in the now between the two thens!

Here is a nice quote that can help us fill in the gospel gap:

While it is popular to ask, “What would Jesus do?” the better question was always “What is Jesus doing?” The first question assumes that the Savior is on the sidelines and that the burden of life and work is on our shoulders. But in that case the Savior is not really saving but is setting impossibly high standards that we attempt to imitate by doing what we assume he would do if he were in our situation. On the other hand, the question “What is Jesus doing?” is built on the conviction that he is alive, reigning, and at work in our lives. In other words, he is in our situation, and that changes everything thing about our mission. Rather than believing that the work of Christ is completed and that now it is our turn to try to imitate his life and work, we take on the identity of being witnesses who watch and testify to his continued work of salvation that is unfolding before our eyes.
— Craig Barnes

Blind Spots

Have you ever started to change lanes only to discover — at the blaring of a horn — that someone was in your blind spot?

Blind spots are scary. While a car has two blind spots, one on each side, fallen people have many more. It is humbling to recognize that we can love the Lord yet fail to see many things about ourselves that are probably clear to others around us.

What is our biggest blind spot? Sins like anger, covetousness, and lust affect us all, but tend to be like semi-trucks driving right beside us that aren’t hard to spot. Jack Miller suggests that our biggest blind spot is something that most of us probably don’t even think about: self-dependence.

Miller writes:

God’s work begins when ours comes to its end. Sometimes His presence is not felt with power through our methods however useful they may be, especially when we are confident we have the right approach and insights. God has a way of wanting to be God and refusing to get too involved where we have our own wisdom and strength. Then when we run out of wisdom and strength, He is suddenly present…

I think He wants our confidence to be exclusively in Him, and when we lose our self-confidence then He moves in to show what He can do. Perhaps self-dependence — and forgetting the strength to be found in Christ-dependence — is always our biggest blind spot.

I know that when I am ministering out of my own strength and wisdom, I am relying on the wrong person to do ministry: myself. I need to turn from self-dependence to Christ-dependence.

Is it possible that some of the frustrating circumstances and trials in our lives are like the horn exposing self-dependence in our blind spot? Or are there places where, despite our confidence that we have everything under control, we need to come to the end of our own work so that God’s work can begin?

Jesus calls us away from self-dependence to live in dependence on him. He promises, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

The above quote comes from Heart of a Servant Leader: Letters from Jack Miller, pp. 201-202.

Doing Life With Each Other

Grandma said you didn’t live with a man like Grandpa; you live around him.  And that was pretty much the way things were between them.  Grandpa didn’t feel at home in the house, and when he wasn’t at work he spent most of his time at the barn.  When he was in the house they lived around each other (quote taken from Wendell Berry, Nathan Coulter, pg 35)

I’ve never really stopped to consider the difference between living with and around someone.  People live with each other when they inhabit the same world and share in life’s ups and downs together.  People live around each other when they occupy the same space but inhabit different worlds.  It’s like the difference between good friends and family sharing a nice holiday meal and twenty business people sitting side-by-side on a public transit bus as they travel silently to their individual destinations.

I found this to be a good reminder of the kind of life Jesus envisions for his people.  We’re not merely a bunch of individuals independently heading in the same general direction.  We’re a divinely created family unit that shares in the same life with God.  In fact, the deep Spiritual bond Jesus establishes between himself and us also binds us to one another.  Together we compose “one body” (Rom 12:4-5; 1 Cor 12:27; Col 3:25) united to the same head, Jesus Christ (Eph 4:15-16). 

Paul points not to himself but ultimately to Jesus’ own heart when he says, “I want you to know how great a struggle I have…that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love” (Col 2:2).  By his Spirit, Jesus is at work knitting our hearts together so we can live life together.  This deep Spiritual (and mysterious) bond we share with each other in Jesus means we get to do life with rather than around each other.

What a great reminder to let our individual lives converge with the lives of other believers God has placed in our midst.  Since we inhabit the same life in Jesus, we get to walk alongside each other through thick-and-thin.  We get to be involved in each other’s lives.  We get to encourage one another.  We get to bear one another’s burdens.

As we pursue life with others we’ll quickly recognize that it is eminently more encouraging and life-giving than living the Christian life by ourselves merely around other Christians.



Ascending or Beginning?

This is a post from the old site but it’s a thought I keep coming back to.

How do you view the Christian life?

The medievals viewed the life of faith as semper ascendere or “always ascending.” The life of faith was one long ascent from virtue to virtue until you reach glory. Sure, there might be little setbacks in which you sin and fall out of the state of grace but those are quickly remedied and the ascent continues.

I know someone who attended traffic school where each session began with the class reciting, “In every way and every day we get a little better, hey!” That wasn’t a medieval saying but it could have been. For the medievals, the life of faith was one of constant progress in holiness.

Martin Luther came along and said there was a semper or “always” to the life of faith. But it was semper incipere or “always beginning.” The Christian life is always coming back to the starting point and beginning again. Luther described the church and the soul as a “rising dawn” because it always assumes the posture of rising again at daybreak. One writer describes Luther’s view this way:

For the true [faithful] to live in faith is for them to live as if they are ever at the beginning of their Christian existence, constantly appropriating this faith and fighting the evil within them through this faith… It is as if one is always entering the church anew, entering anew upon the life of faith.

This is a very different posture than the medievals had. It is a consequence of the fact that, for Luther, the believer is always both a justified person and a sinner (simul justus et peccator). Therefore, what characterizes the faithful is not that they are always getting better but that they are always repenting. They turn from sin and ask again, not simply for an increase of grace, but for the gospel itself through which faith comes and is nourished.

So here is some good news if you don’t feel like you are always ascending. Whether you have been a believer for 40 years or 40 minutes, you can begin again.

Christless Change

There is a difference between gospel-centered change and self-reformation. David Powlison describes it this way in his book Seeing with New Eyes:

No one can truly change who does not know and rely on gifts from the hand of the Lord. Since Christ is both Giver and Gift, attempts to change without grace are barren of the very purpose, power, and Person that change is about. Self-manufactured change does not dislodge almighty me from the center of my tiny self-manufactured universe. Still in the futility of my mind and the hardness of my heart, I only act a bit different.

Successful living without grace describes mere self-reformation: get your act together, save your marriage, get off your duff and get a job. Failure in living describes failed self-efforts: when you can’t get a grip, you despair. Christless, grace-less attempts at change conclude either with the praise of your own glory or with your shame.

I love the language of dislodging “almighty me” from the center of the universe. Whether you succeed or fail in your attempts at self-reformation, you are still focused on yourself. The one thing that is necessary for true and lasting change hasn’t happened: “He must increase and I must decrease.” (John 3:30)