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?

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.

Freedom from Personal Spin Campaigns

A good reminder from Serge (formerly World Harvest Mission) about two different ways of living.

Freedom from Personal Spin Campaigns

A Life of Spin
There is a sizable institute called the Media Literacy Project dedicated to a single, increasingly-important purpose: helping people discern fact from fiction in news sources. Such a group does much needed work today, giving us fact-checking tools as we compare stories from FOX news, CNN, Twitter, and Buzzfeed among others.

It’s not just the news, but also the endless advertising. The latest products make big promises. How many times can the new smart phone really change everything? Drugs and treatments are advertised while minimizing serious consideration for side effects. Many today are tired of the slickly turned out spin. Is the church a refreshing alternative or just another place of pretense? In his short book Repentance, Serge founder Jack Miller wrote, “If we wish to be effective as Christian leaders, we must see that our own pharisaic pretense will eventually be discovered by the people we meet and rebuked by our own consciences.” Christ did not come, die, and rise to offer fresh spin on your life. He came for renewal.

The Authentic Way Out: Repentance
We are foolish if we think that modern men and women do not see when we are putting on a show. Think about it, how do you carry out your own personal brand campaign: In your church? In your family? In your workplace? In your prayer life? The Holy Spirit himself is deeply grieved, weeps holy tears over our religious fakery and instructs us in a better way – by the path of renewal through sincere repentance:

“God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. Therefore, submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” James 4:6,7

God is merciful in letting our self-promotion campaigns fail – He wants real relationship for us. In his letter, James is most direct with those who use God when it makes them look good:

“Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.… Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.” James 4:8,10

Where Do We Begin with Repentance?
In Repentance, Jack Miller urges us: “We must stop parading around as a shell of person, living as those that T.S. Eliot called “hollow men.” Ask the Holy Spirit to make you willing to be searched by God (Psalm 139:23-24). And in turn, you will realize you are truly known by him. Do not expect the process of searching to be always painless and pleasant. No, hardly. But you will begin to have the joy of a clear conscience and a deepening fellowship with Christ as you realize He is unafraid of what He exposes, willing to heal, awaiting your return to Him. As you learn to thirst after Christ and drink of Him, you will find the living waters of the Holy Spirit flowing through you (John 7:37-39). No longer will you be the shiny appearance of something good, but you will be really living—and from you waters will overflow into others’ lives.”

Know Your Friend

I came across these interesting comments on grace and repentance in a book of letters called Heart of a Servant Leader by Jack Miller. He wants to make the point that grace leads us to deeper repentance.

Miller describes two different theological emphases when it comes to sin and repentance. He says that often in the English Puritan tradition the emphasis looks like this:

  1. Know your enemy — understand sin, the flesh, the devil, etc.
  2. Know your personal limitations — understand your own particular fleshly characteristics and habits and temptations
  3. Know your Friend — understand the grace of God in Christ and the Holy Spirit

Here’s his problem with this approach: “I find myself overwhelmed when I pick up a 320-page book by Owen and find 308 pages devoted to points 1 and 2, and only 12 pages given to point 3, grace and the gospel.” (Okay, this might not be entirely fair to poor, dead Owen but it certainly is a tendency.)

Here is the emphasis Miller prefers:

  1. Know your Friend
  2. Know your enemy
  3. Know your personal limitations
  4. Keep point 1 up front, even when you are talking about points 2 and 3

Some people might worry that emphasizing grace will lead to becoming “soft” on the seriousness of sin and the requirements of the law. Here’s Miller’s response to this objection/fear:

I do not think that an emphasis on grace leads to a soft ministry on sin and the severe demands of the law. Actually, it seems to me that such grace teaching makes it possible for sinners like us to hear the hardest things said about our sin patterns, and that can lead into healthy sorrow which leads back to sanity, i.e., repentance.