Thorns and Thistles

Broken dishes, broken parts / Streets are filled with broken hearts / Broken words never meant to be spoken / Everything is broken. / Seems like every time you stop and turn around / Someone else has just hit the ground. (Bob Dylan, Everything Is Broken)

Bob Dylan and I both grew up on the Iron Range of Minnesota. And we both left in search of something better than the drab drudgery of small town life in the upper Midwest. But it didn’t take long for me to learn what Bob Dylan had discovered years earlier: It doesn’t matter where you go. The brokenness of the world is already there.

Thorns and Thistles

“Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow 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.” (Genesis 3:17–19)

Anybody who has ever planted a garden knows that the curse is still in full effect today. But you don’t have to be a farmer or gardener to be pricked by the thorns and thistles of the curse. Every vocation has them. Whether you’re a doctor, lawyer, or parent; a pastor, teacher, or president—your labor and toil are frustrated with “thorns and thistles.” There are no exceptions.

But it seems like many of us act like we don’t believe this. Instead, we often embark on the foolish quest for the greener grass. We seem to believe that somewhere the soil will be just a little less cursed. Admit it. You’ve been through it, just as I have: The church down the road doesn’t look like it has the problems we have, does it? That woman at the office doesn’t have the blemishes my wife has. The new position I’m applying for has to be better than the job I’m in now. This politician . . . that restaurant . . . this new car . . . that new school . . . this new zip code . . . that new supermarket . . .

But every one of these quests for something better will inevitably end in disappointment. Because wherever you go, brokenness is there.

Inward Groans

For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. (Romans 8:22–23)

Within each of us lingers the idea that things just aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. And we’re right! Everything is broken. Thorns and thistles have invaded. And now believers especially groan for something better. But if we start seeking the redemption of creation somewhere in the here and now, we’ll begin a vain quest for Shangri-la that will only end in dissatisfaction and discontentment.

When we fail to grasp Bob Dylan’s maxim that “everything is broken,” discontentment reigns. When we fail to realize that the thorns and thistles of life are everywhere, we begin to believe we can avoid or minimize them by moving on to something new.

I know people who change jobs every year or so, spend a few months in the new “dream job,” then start whining and searching for a better one. I know others who have left their church because they were dissatisfied with the leadership or the worship. They felt things would be better somewhere else. I’ve seen others flutter like aimless butterflies from one educational philosophy to another—homeschool . . . no, private school . . . no, public . . . no, home . . . Yet in all these examples of pursuing the greener grass to graze, reality quickly sets in: No matter where we go, we will always discover that the thorns and thistles of life have already beaten us there.

We Were Meant to Live for So Much More

Maybe we’ve been livin’ with our eyes half open, / Maybe we’re bent and broken. . . . / We want more than this world’s got to offer. / We want more than the wars of our fathers. / And everything inside screams for second life. / We were meant to live for so much more. / Have we lost ourselves? (Switchfoot, Meant to Live)

Frustration with the thorns and thistles of this fallen world is normal. Believers especially know things aren’t supposed to be like this. We long for a time when the weeds will be pulled, the thorns crushed, and the thistles preened. We groan inwardly for our redemption, the resurrection of our bodies, and the renewal of this world (Romans 8).

How, then, should wise believers handle the thorns and thistles that aggravate every facet of our lives—from marriages to jobs to churches? Above all else, we must exercise contentment. Be aware that the thorns and thistles are everywhere, that you cannot escape them. Then deal with it. Put up with the imperfect job. Stay committed to the disappointing church. Make the most of a mediocre marriage. More fruits of the Spirit prepare us to tough it out than to flee (Galatians 5:22–23). Have you ever considered that God is more concerned about molding your character through tough situations than meeting your desire for comfort?

The world is teeming with thorns and thistles. While we try to keep our balance in this time between the fall and the redemption, mediocre to poor is sometimes all we can expect from this life. But don’t get cynical. Don’t become jaded. Through His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has overcome the world and when He returns to reign His blessings will drive out the curse and the thorns and thistles will be no more. Until then, we have just enough foretaste of the coming age to make us frustrated with the age we’re in.

So, let’s keep our hearts on the way things ought to be . . . and our hands on the way things really are.

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