Have you ever dealt with a tangled mess? It’s frustratingly difficult, isn’t it? Whether it’s a tiny necklace strand, a bin full of all your electronic chords, your toddler’s hair after a restless night of sleep, or even the metaphorical entanglement of complicated relationships, trying to undo the knots we inadvertently create can drive us crazy. I can attest to having lost my patience a multitude of times when dealing with my own interwoven webs of mangled chaos.
When my husband and I excitedly signed the papers to buy our new home on eight gorgeous acres full of trees in the middle of our new city, we really had no idea the amount of work and disorganized madness into which we were throwing ourselves with joyful abandon. Our first week here, we probably should have spent our efforts on the renovation of the upstairs portion of our home, the place where all the bedrooms are situated. Oh, we did plenty of demolition up there, because that’s always the fun part, right? However, it wasn’t long before we were lured outside to tackle the overgrowth several years a huge amount of unkept land can quickly amass. Of particular interest to David and me were our trees. So many of them were covered by vines, which were preventing the trees from thriving. I love trees, so to their rescue I went, chopping down and yanking on vines, sometimes swinging on them trying to wrestle them apart from branches way taller than my 5’5″ frame could reach. Me, Jane, was safely on the ground, while Dave, Tarzan, was climbing up the trees like a monkey to heights that caused the safety of my husband to be the topic of the majority of my first prayers in our new place.
It was fun at first, until we reached the sections of vines whose stems were as big around as my arms with what seemed like 50 million tentacles of roots all clinging with a vice-like grip into the trunks of the trees. I didn’t know vines could grow that large, and they did not want to let go. The job required a tremendous amount of time and patience, and we still aren’t finished rescuing trees!
There is something about being out in nature and taking care of creation, which tends to point me to the Creator and teach me something about my faith. The grippy, tangly vines in my yard remind me how easy it is for me to become tripped up by my own interwoven webs of mistakes, especially when I get out of the habit of regularly going to the Gardener for a good pruning. Hebrews 12:1 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” There is beautiful meaning behind the words of this verse that take simple ink on a page and make it come alive.
1. Throw off Everything that Hinders – This throwing off means we must lay down, surrender, and put away, like taking off a garment, everything that keeps us from being able to run the race of faith we are commanded to run. A hindrance is a weight or burden that gets in the way of our ability to move freely. This means shedding ourselves of anything which prevents us from maintaining healthy emotions and connections. We must chuck the negative labels we can be tempted to allow the world and our own insecurities to slap on us. Think lies we believe, fears and doubts, worries, and the opinions of others. You must have the proper attire to run a race well. Spiritually speaking, our clothing represents the attitudes we wear that affect our emotional health and relationships with others. If you want to thrive in the long distance race called life, you’ve got to fight like hell against any negativity that seeks to weigh you down and prevent you from experiencing the freedom to be who God created you to be.
The other day, my son, Caleb, age four, projectile vomited all over me. I could not get the contaminated clothing off of me fast enough as I dove into the shower as soon as I possibly could. My apologies for the gross imagery; however, this perfectly describes how we ought to deal with any anger, envy, bitterness, and unforgiving spirit that creeps into our hearts. To do this, we must consistently surrender the inner-workings of who we are to God, and allow Him to tenderly remove the disease these negative attitudes create, and we must instead seek His help in putting on the pure garments of love, compassion, kindness, grace, humility, and, yes, even patience (Colossians 3:12). Just like what we choose to wear communicates a certain message to the world about who we are, so our demeanor acts as spiritual attire projecting what we really believe. Jesus said that the world would know we are truly following Him by observing our love for one another (John 13:35). He said we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, yet how can any of us do that, if we don’t even know how to love who God has created us uniquely to be?
2. Sin that so Easily Entangles – It’s a bit trickier to simply throw off sin. Technically, many of the hindrances we face are rooted in sin; however, the difference between hindrances and sin in this verse, is that hindrances act more like obstacles to our ability to move forward in our faith journey. They must be scaled and overcome. The sin to which the author in Hebrews is referring is skillfully woven in and out and through us, surrounding us. Think about a chord that is artfully and impossibly wrapped in and around the body, basically like the tangled craziness that are the vines I described above strangling the life out of the many trees on our property. It takes work and patience to unbind ourselves from such a mess, and, as with any vine, sin, in order to truly kill it, we have to start at the root. If you don’t destroy sin at its root, it will always grow back. Most often the roots that trip me up are those of pride and selfishness. Pride is the source of my bitterness and lack of forgiveness. Selfishness is the source of my anger, envy, and lack of patience. When pride and selfishness are at the helm of my heart, I wind up growing a false identity of insecurity over what others think of me and what the world says about me, one that forgets to root itself in who Christ says I am first and foremost. The root you feed determines the fruit you’ll see. “A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit,” (Matthew 7:18).
3. Run the Race with Perseverance – Our race has been appointed by Christ. It is our destiny to run it, and an entire stadium, a gathering of the saints, has gone before us to show us the way. We are called to run this race with haste and urgency, to be spent completely and exert all of our effort, overcoming every obstacle. We can’t be lazy or complacent. Instead, we must run with purpose. We must realize we are running a marathon, not a sprint, and while that might sound cliche, it is a great metaphor of our walk, or in this case, run with Christ. To persevere and finish our race well means we must remain steadfast, constant, never wavering from what we know God has called us to do. The stakes are far too high! There are people trying to run in the dark, when we have the light. There are people who need our encouragement and help to know the way and to keep going. We can’t give up when the race becomes difficult or be scared when the course leads us down a seemingly impossible path, because what is impossible for us is possible with God (Mark 10:27). Running the race with perseverance represents someone who never swerves from his or her deliberate purpose and loyalty to the faith even when passing through the greatest of trials and sufferings.
It’s funny how lessons in faith often mirror certain aspects of life. When my family moved to our land of trees and began tackling gnarly vines, I would’ve never guessed how much my adventures in vine wrangling would teach me about the struggles we would face in church planting. Growing a healthy tree takes a long time and a lot of hard work. It requires special care, especially before you begin to see fruit. You have to pull the weeds of insecurity and destroy the roots of fear that threaten to wind their way around you, choking the life out of you. You have to prune the dead branches caused by past and present wounds. You have to feed it good food from the Word in order to grow strong roots grounded in truth. Most of all, you have to remain faithful to do what God has called you to do and trust Him for the growth only He can accomplish.
I’ve also found that following Jesus down the path He’s called me to travel is a lot like training for and running a marathon. I’ve run two marathons, so I know this from personal experience. First, finding good training partners isn’t easy. Most people think you are crazy and will never fully understand why you would choose to purposefully do something so outside the norm. There will be moments when the road is lonely. Not everyone is meant to be equipped to join you on your journey. People will doubt you in seasons of no results, only to swoop in and cheer loudly in an effort to join you in the successes. No matter what, you have to work hard not to carry that baggage with you, because you can’t be free to be you and run your race well if you’re worried about the opinions of others. Second, it requires determination to push through moments when it becomes difficult to continue your training, and you’re going to have to remember your why if you’re going to finish the race. You have to continually go to your Coach, the Gardener, and allow Him to make adjustments to your training, and like pruning, it hurts, but it’s worth it. Pruning always produces fuller, more beautiful plants with healthier fruit, and training hard through every season and trial, pushing forward when you feel you have nothing left to give, will result in a race better run with no regrets.
So wrestle away those annoying vines of pride, anger, selfishness, whatever is holding you back, even if it makes your fingers bleed. Clothe yourself with grace, humility, and love even when you don’t feel like others deserve it. Love who God made you to be even when you feel like you don’t deserve it. Let go of fear no matter how scary the path. Clear out mistakes from the past, and don’t let anyone or anything hold you back from finishing your race. Also, don’t let anyone cut you down to size, keeping you from becoming the most beautiful tree on the block, where others come to find rest and shade, because they know you are safe; your fruit is good. Be full of life and light. Let God create the growth as you go, and allow Him to perform a beautiful untangling in your heart. The end result will be magnificent!