When spring rolled around, color splashed on our front lawn. Snapdragons, impatience, and geraniums, all in their black plastic containers, were waiting to colonize our garden. My mother issued the invitation to join her in beautifying our lawn. But first, we had to pull the weeds. We kneeled down and dug into East Texas clay to pull up what threatened growth. Only then would our plants be safe. Only then would their beauty last. We are created to bloom in holiness and love. But to do so, we have to kneel down and pull the weeds.
Saint Peter puts it this way, “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” (1 Pt 2:1). To “put away” means disrobe or change clothes. He’s telling Christians to take off malice like a dirty garment and throw it to the ground. But what is malice? In verse 16, the same word is translated “evil.” We rarely think of ourselves as possessing evil. It’s usually something “out there,” like ISIS or serial killers, but as David Brooks notes, the moral realist is humble enough to acknowledge inner evil. In the words of philosopher Immanuel Kant, we’re all made from “crooked timber.”
If we are to straighten out, if we’re to bloom in holiness and love, we have to admit our evil. But it’s not enough to admit inner evil; we have to see the evil and come face to face with it, before we can pull it out. One weed we rarely consider is envy. Envy opposes love by hoping for others downfall, instead of desiring their best. Envy seeks personal advance over the joy of others. Instead of being happy for someone’s new home or car, we silently discredit them, telling ourselves that we deserve a bigger house or nicer car.
Envy isn’t restricted to materialism; it trespasses all territory. We envy good things. People who struggle to conceive may begin to despise other parents instead of taking joy in their children. Singles without a spouse may grate against the joy of married couples instead of taking pleasure in it. And married couples can envy the freedom of singles.
Envy gets tinier. It desires, not the house, but the ability to decorate the house. Not the car, but the features of the car. Not the children, but judges how poorly or how well the children behave, while secretly praising or condemning the self. Not the married or single but their companionship or freedom. Envy destroys community by creating invisible walls of distrust, hatred, and meanness.
Don’t Struggle with Sin
What are we to do? Pull the weeds! Peter says that we must get them out! All of them. All malice, all envy, and all slander. “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Pt. 2:11). He tightens the language. It’s not enough to put evil off; we must abstain from it. Abstain means to create distance by getting away. Modern Christians aren’t known for putting distance between themselves and sin. We use the language of “struggles,” so it’s popular to say, “I’m really struggling X” (drinking too much, lusting, or envying), but what that often means is “I’m putting this sin on, I’m close to it, and I really kind of like it. I know I shouldn’t, so I’m going to confess that I’m struggling with sin.” Peter says, “Run, your passions are waging war against your soul!”
Recently, a drug deal went down close to my kids’ school. A shot was fired. An armed criminal fled to the school campus. Two things happened: The school went into immediate lock down and a couple courageous men tackled the perpetrator. When evil comes knocking, we don’t “struggle” with evil. We fight or we flee! It’s not enough to admit evil, or even see evil; we have to flee evil. As John Owen famously said, “Be killing sin, lest it be killing you.” This is not an exaggeration. Think about how envy plays out. Envy leads to debt, divorce, divided relationships, and distance from Christ. For the love of God, pull the weeds.
Babies or Engines?
That’s the dirty work, but growing together also includes lovely work: absorbing what makes us grow. “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (2:2-3). In order to grow into our new selves, we have to long. The word is hyper-desire. In true religion, desires are not evil and God is not a killjoy. He insists on our joy by insisting our desires go in the right direction.
Babies long for milk and engines run on gas, but the modern dilemma is that we don’t know the baby from the engine. We don’t know what to run on. So we try a little of everything: career, friends, diets, exercise, breweries, books, films, music, but it all comes up short. In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Anna is a person with all the wealth, all the comforts, all the power she could ever dream. She’s even enjoyed an illicit affair but confesses: “I don’t know myself; I only know my appetites.”
Do we only know our appetites? What are we running on? Social connection, productivity, fun? A text, a tweet, a status—compelled by envy we scramble to stay up with a culture that is in overdrive. Where should our desires turn? We have to know who we are—a newborn infant, a new creation, born again to a living hope through the resurrection—only then can we direct our appetites to a place of satisfaction.
When Peter says we’re like babies, he’s not speaking down to us. He’s trying to show us that we live by craving milk. Pure spiritual milk grows us. Pure means a hundred proof. What’s in it? Spiritual milk. Now this word “spiritual” is a little tricky. It’s not the typical word for spiritual (used later). In fact, the word has more in common with reason. It’s the word logikos, from which we get logos or logic. So how do we grow? Well it depends how we read this word.
Some will say, the way we grow is to think better, to have the right beliefs, and to read our Bible. They take a more rational approach. Others say, no it’s more mystical than that, which may be why its translated spiritual. What we need to grow is an experience in prayer, worship, and blessing. And so we’ve got the Bible people and the Prayer people, the rational and the spiritual. The people who take theology classes and the people who join the prayer team. So who’s right?
Tasting What’s Good
Neither or both, kinda. It’s not the person who reads or the person who prays, but the person who tastes. Peter says, “Long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (2:2-3). The spiritual milk that causes us to grow requires tasting the goodness of the Lord. How can we taste the milk of God’s presence? Consider three things.
1. Tasting takes time
First, we have to take time. When I used to wash windows with my grandfather in the summers, we would take a break and have lunch together. Famished, I would inhale my food. Poppa would say to me, “Johnny, did you taste it?” He knew something I didn’t. He knew how to taste, how to linger, how to enjoy, not just God’s gifts but God’s presence. We can read the Bible and miss his presence; we can pray and not taste his goodness. Are we tasting or just reading or just praying? Tasting takes time and meditation. “On your law I meditate day and night” (Ps. 1:2). How do we do it? We take a piece of truth and mull it over, sit with it, chew on it, and converse with God about it. Ask him for understanding: what it means, how to experience it, how it applies (rejoice, repent, obey), and for desire and ability to respond. This takes time, but not a ton of it. We have to chew slowly and, when we do, we taste the goodness of the Lord.
2. Ask for Hunger
Second, we have to be hungry. If we’re not hungry, we have to figure out why. Hunger begins by taking the position of a baby—crying out (not assuming) for God to satisfy us. “Satisfy me in the morning with your lovingkindness, O Lord” (Ps. 90:14). Ask for hunger. We may need to confess misdirected appetites, which have dulled us to the goodness of God. On Monday, I woke up and checked my phone. I saw a message that sent my heart and mind reeling. I stood in the shower and worked it over and over. And when I sat down to commune with God, it was very hard to meditate, to taste him because I was hungry for something else, resolution. I’ve resolved to not make checking my phone my first act of devotion.
3. Find Silence
Third, we have to find a place of silence. German theologian Josef Pieper said, “Only the one who is silent can hear.” To taste God, we have to turn off all other appetites. Tune out the things that clamor for our attention: phones, screens, sleep, work, play. We have to find a place of silence—in a corner, outside, by the bed, early/late, on a walk, wherever we can be still and know he is God.
A hundred proof spiritual milk comes, not through Bible study (rational), not through prayer (mystical), but when they overlap and we taste the goodness of the Lord (personal). Are we cultivating a garden where people pull the weeds and taste what’s good? If we do, we’ll blossom in holiness and love. Let’s pull the weeds, taste what’s good, and bend towards the light.
Jonathan K. Dodson (MDiv; ThM) serves as a pastor of City Life Church in Austin, Texas. He is the author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Unbelievable Gospel, and Raised? He has discipled men and women abroad and at home for almost two decades, taking great delight in communicating the gospel and seeing Christ formed in others. Twitter: @Jonathan_Dodson