“Cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:17b-19)
Thorns are thick on the ground this week. People close to me have been wounded, and the garden seems foreign and menacing. This dimming of the world’s beauty has taken me by surprise, and I am tempted to raise my fist in anger. I’d forgotten about the thorns. Oh, I’ve pricked my finger on a hybrid rose and pitied myself for a moment, but I’d forgotten about the real thorns, the wild thorns, the brutish kind they used for Jesus’s crown.
Dangerous barbs grow side by side with luscious fruit and lovely flowers in God’s kingdom. I used to think they wouldn’t grow here, shouldn’t grow here, and in those days I did raise my fist in anger. But now, in my head at least, I know that the world doesn’t magically change its character when the Gardener King adopts me. We live in the now-and-not-yet that theologians talk about, that space between realizing we are royalty and taking up all the privileges of royalty. And in that space the thorns continue to thrive.
So what advantage prayer? What advantage faith? If I was in control, I would arrange things for my children with partiality. But in God’s garden the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. So, too, the thorns. What difference, then, between our lives before belief and after? Two things, at least, two things I’ve been holding onto this week.
First, the thorns are no longer futile. They are good for something. That’s not what I want to hear when a thorn has been driven deep and the blood is flowing, but later, when my heart is still, it helps to know that there is purpose even in disaster, that in some mysterious, future way, the pain will reap a harvest of beauty – a glory that will be specific to us and our story (Rom. 8:18). We don’t have a choice about the thorns. Our only choice is whether our wounds have value or not. It helps me to believe they do.
Second, we don’t suffer the thorns alone. I want someone to go with me to the hospital when I’m in pain. God promises to go where even humans cannot go, to comfort, strengthen and watch over us in our need. We don’t have a choice about the thorns. Our only choice is to suffer them alone or never to be alone again.
No, the world doesn’t magically change into a verdant, fairy tale meadow. It is and stays a fallen place filled with entangling vines, muddy pits, biting insects and giant thorns. God’s kingdom comes first in our hearts (Luke 17:21). Our job is to create beauty in the midst of the mess, and that’s what God is doing, too. He has planned this fallen abode to weed out the thorns in us, to produce the most beauty in and through us (and sometimes despite us). Does He answer prayers and bring sudden good from certain disaster? I believe He does – but rarely. In general, His good grace walks us through the suffocating mire and the slashing briers so that we become more than we are and prove our faith to ourselves. But this week I remembered that it hurts like hell.