Of Thistles and Thorns, and Beauty

Teasel, Coal Creek, LaFayette Colorado

Teasel is an invasive species, invading wetlands and prairies in central and eastern Colorado. It’s sharp thorns and 4-6 foot height make navigating teasel patches quite uncomfortable. Yet, in the late fall and early winter it has an endearing and attractive quality. It glows gold in the setting sun. The patterns of the upright — dare I say proud — plants are stunning: symmetric, graceful, bold and inviting. But you would not want to walk among them!  This one demonstrates both the painfully sharp thorns and the delicatelly calligraphic beauty of the dried petals. 

Is this beautiful or ugly? Is this a manifestation of his creative majesty or a sign of God’s curse? How are we to reconcile the incredible detail of the meticulously designed seed pods with the bloodletting incisions on bare arms?

And to Adam he said, 

“. . . 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;”

Genesis 3:17-18

But wait a minute, previously God had created every living thing and called it “good,” because in Genesis 1:11-12 we read:

“And God said,

“Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.”

God created all plants and called them “good.” In response to Adam’s sin, however, he changed some plants to bear thorns and make work hard and painful. Adam’s sin was so egregious that the very nature of nature was changed as a punishment for all of us to bear. 

The apostle Paul takes up this theme of sin through Adam and life everlasting through Christ Jesus in the book to the Romans (chapter 5), demonstrating that Adam’s sin has spread to all mankind, literally, “accounted to us”. In like manner, the entire world is under the curse of thistles and thorns, creating painful labor to get our bread, to even eat. He further explains that the entire creation “groans” under this unnatural condition of sin and the curse.

 “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves . . . groan inwardly”

Romans 8:21-22

Creation itself groans under this “thistle and thorn” existence. It does not take a philosopher or theologian to teach us this in-our-face reality. Creation is groaning. It’s coming apart at the seams! It’s caught up in corruption and decay. It’s the survival of the fittest, “red in tooth and claw”, and gunfire in schools. Just click on Apple News on your iPhone, scan the titles, and ask yourself, “Is creation groaning?” It is. 

So then, what of beauty? What of good?  What of the God who created all of this?

There are two little, and massive words, hidden in plain sight in the Romans passage about all this groaning:

 “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, 

in hope 

that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.

Romans 8:18-22

IN HOPE: Here is the beauty we are searching for amidst all the groaning and painful labor and blood letting incisions on bare arms,. God has done this “in hope”. This is not our kind of wishful thinking type of hope. This is reality based, will of God, certain to happen, faith in the Almighty God type of hope. He has created thistles and thorns that there might be an expectation of a release from this groaning, like a mother’s expectation of a newborn child during the pains of childbirth. God takes credit for this groaning and there is a purpose for it — like all that God accomplishes. 

His purpose is the revealing of the sons of God. This is described above as the “freedom of the glory of the children of God.” This freedom, this revealing of the children and sons is the freedom from sin and condemnation through faith in Jesus Christ: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”. (Romans 8:1). And it is freedom from the accusations of Satan, the fear of death that he uses to accuse us. We have this freedom in the incarnation, perfect life, and perfect sacrifice of Jesus on the cross ( “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” Hebrews 2:14-15). This freedom is reconciliation with our loving Father.

God intends us to find the beauty of Jesus in the cursed world we now endure. He shows us His beauty in His son Jesus. Jesus became one of us — he partook of flesh and blood. It is no accident of nature or unintended metaphor that Jesus wore a crown of thorns. He bled real blood from the sharp thorns placed there in mockery by the Roman soldiers. These thorns grew as a result of the curse. He died a real death, as a fully human God/man, as a result of the curse. In God’s eternal plan He died in this way to show the lovingkindness of God the Father to those who would be His children, the brothers and sisters of Jesus himself. Jesus is the image of God, the exact representation of God, and demonstrates God’s love to us in the midst of the groaning creation, and groaning creatures. He took on our sins (literally, “nailed to the cross” See Col. 2:13-14 “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”) and met the justice of God in doing so. We are therefore reconciled to God, we have peace with God.

There is beauty in thorns. It is the beauty of Christ. By overcoming Adam’s sin and God’s curse, Jesus is revealing the children of God. There is an eternally glorious beauty in the revealing of the sons of God, because it shows off the beauty of the love of God. He sent his son. He sent his son into our thistle and thorn world. He sent his son to us. He sent his son as one of us. This is beauty.

In writing this I am indebted to the sermon collection by John Piper, now published in book form, “Spectacular Sins and Their Global Purpose in The Glory of Christ”. Available through DesiringGod.org.

All Scripture passages from the English Standard Version.

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