In Mark 12, there is a seemingly confusing story of Jesus cursing a fig tree for not bearing fruit. It is odd because Mark tells us that it was not the season for fruit. Why does Jesus curse this fig tree that has no fruit when it is not the season for fruit? In context, we see that Jesus is actually using the fig tree as an object lesson for what He is about to do in the Temple when He overturns the tables and proclaims that His Fathers house is supposed to be a house of prayer, but has been made into a “den of robbers.”
He confronts the religious leaders of His day for having the appearance of a relationship with God when all they actually have is empty religion. The interesting thing about the fig tree that Jesus cursed prior to entering the Temple is that it had leaves (a sign of fruit), but no fruit.
Often in the church, we can be guilty of using signs of fruitfulness (leaves) as a way to actually cover our empty religion, our fruitlessness, our empty lives, and even our sin. There are several tempting leaves we use to cover what is actually happening in our lives.
1. The leaf of activity
Activity is often used as a substitute for true substance in the church. Many people will assume you have a genuine relationship with God as long as you are busy doing things in the church. These can even be God things. The scary part is that many people will one day stand before God in shock because they fooled themselves into thinking their busyness for God was a substitute for a relationship with God.
Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Matthew 7:19-23
2. The leaf of lingo
One of the deceptive ways we cover our sin and emptiness within the church is by assimilating into the Christian subculture without actually having a genuine relationship with God. This is especially dangerous for people who have been around Christianity for a long period of time. It is possible to simply learn what church life is like and live within that context. We may find it completely common to use words that are foreign to most other Americans.
We use words like “brother,” (speaking to someone who is not a blood relative), “saved,” (in reference to afterlife), “repent,” “Hallelujah,” “praise the Lord,” “I echo that,” “I lift that up” (when we have nothing in our hands). These words and phrases, as well as a litany of others, are part of the Christian subculture that we assimilate into. The danger here is that people assume because they know the Christian subculture they know God.
3. The leaf of attendance
Many people assume that because someone attends Sunday services or another Christian gathering (Bible study, small group, service project etc.) that means the person in attendance is doing well spiritually. There were a lot of people in attendance at the Temple the day Jesus overturned the tables and He accused the religious leaders for making His Father’s house a “den of robbers.” That was not because they were doing business in the Temple (so yes you can sell books and DVD’s in the church lobby, to use this passage to say no is a bad application). A den of robbers is not where you go to steal. A den of robbers is where robbers go to feel safe. The phrase “den of robbers” comes from a passage in Jeremiah 7. People were using the temple as a cover, a safe haven from their wickedness. Check out the passage from Jeremiah and don’t use the leaf of attendance as a sign of fruit if there is no fruit.
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”– safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD. Jeremiah 7:3-11
4. The leaf of professional ministry
Maybe you are actually paid a salary to do ministry. This is a great blessing but comes with its own hazards. There is a sense in which you are being paid to “be spiritual” which comes with all of its own pressures.
Are you allowed to have a dry season spiritually? Is it acceptable to have unanswered questions about God, the Bible, or your own spiritual journey? Of course, you repent, but when do you actually sin? Can anyone else know? What about the dark nights of the soul? Doubts?
People in professional ministry go through all of these seasons just like everyone else, but there is a pressure to be there for others even when you feel your own spiritual life is not what others may perceive it to be. The temptation then is to “fake it until you make it.” It is a temptation for leaves with no fruit. You are the professional, so of course, you have all the answers.
Don’t fall into the trap of pretending things are better in your spiritual life than they are because you are being paid to be spiritual. Don’t settle for the appearance of fruit when Jesus wants to give you the real thing.
The fruit God is looking for in your life is a fruit only He produces and often He uses those unanswered questions and dark nights of the soul to bring you to. We see it described in Galatians 5:22-23
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
Have you been guilty of using any of these leaves to cover the fruitlessness in your life? Have you used other tactics to hide your sin even while appearing to have it all together to most of those who witness your life?