As I write, week three of a poison ivy rash is still visible on my arm. It’s not a bad case, but it itches and looks unpleasant. “How,” you may be wondering “did she get poison ivy? Did she wander into some by accident? Or just discover that she is allergic to it?” The answer is no, and no. I know exactly when and how I got it, and have been terribly allergic to it for years. This is mild compared to some other outbreaks.
The flower border above the creek needed to be weeded. There’s a vine of poison ivy that grows there, wrapped around a walnut tree, and it likes to sneak over into the border. I knew this. And yet, I wore a shirt with short sleeves. After all, I didn’t actually see any ivy this time, so it was probably safe. Did I then wash my arms right away? No. I let 25 minutes go by instead of the recommended 10, and we were out of Technu scrub. Alas, the result was wholly predictable: within 24 hours, I had three separate outbreaks of poison ivy along my left arm.
The comparison with sin is a pretty easy one to draw, and not just because poison ivy is evil. Past experiences had shown that the flower border could be hazardous, but because I didn’t specifically see the telltale leaves, I fooled myself into thinking there was little danger, and that I’d be safe. Experience wasn’t enough. How many times do I go back to a bad situation, a bad habit, a bad relationship, thinking “It’ll be different this time?” Poison doesn’t change.
Laziness and impatience also played a role. It was a warm day, I couldn’t find a gardening shirt with long sleeves, and was too rushed to get the weeding done to waste additional time digging through the bureau drawer. This impatience and disorganization cost me. I may know the right things to do, but if I’m always too much of a hurry to have time to do them, how much does that knowledge actually help? Our culture generally values people who can multitask and have a full plate, but the older I get, the more it seems that it’s better to slow down and do a few things intelligently and well than to do many things carelessly or in a sloppy way.
Am I saying that we should always avoid tricky or dangerous situations? Perhaps when it comes to poison ivy, yes, but in real life that would mean never getting out of bed in the morning (hmmm). The truth is, to live in this world means that I will face darkness, trouble, and hard situations that might leave scars. The Christian response should not be to cower in fear behind my barricade, but to be alert, prepared, and equipped with the tools I need to face such situations. The Bible is full of exhortations to “Be sober minded and alert. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour”(I Peter 5:8), or “Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming,” (Matthew 24:2). Proverbs 22:3 encourages us not to be naïve about dangerous situations: “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the naïve go on, and suffer for it.” So “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground and after you have done everything, to stand” (Ephesians 6:13).
When faced with hard circumstances or a tempting situation, a concrete plan of action is best. In my case, it wasn’t enough to be vaguely aware of the dangers of poison ivy, and half heartedly preparing to face it. I should have worn long sleeves, gone in promptly to wash my arms, and double checked my supply of Technu scrub before I even went outside. In Matthew 25, all the young women took lamps, but only the wise brought extra oil. They thought about the event in all its aspects, and prepared themselves. It’s usually not enough to think, “This isn’t good, I need to do better in this area of my life.” I can think that way for days or years, and that’s all the further it will go. Instead, get specific! “I will read the Bible for 15 minutes each day.” “I’ll buy an alarm clock instead of using my smart phone, so
that it isn’t the first thing I look at each day.” “I will write down strategies for dealing with a difficult family member, and ask a friend to look them over and pray with me for wisdom.” “I’ll swallow my pride and ask someone to help keep me accountable, and to install anti-pornography filters on all my screens.” “I will commit to giving my wife an honest compliment every day for a week.”
In all this, Jesus is our hope and power. If we seek, we will find. As he told his disciples in John 16:33, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”