A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
The front yard always served as a source of wonder and delight for my family, especially when our children were younger and full of wild, playful energy. We’re a sporty family, so we utilized every square inch of the little patch of grass in front of our house to accommodate our various games. When a portion of our grass universe was rendered inoperable for some reason, the inaccessibility represented a mini crisis for our family. Obstacles on the playing field, in any shape or size, required immediate removal.
On one such occasion, my good intentions to clear a corner of our front yard of an unsightly and potentially harmful tree stump became an object lesson in discernment – or the lack thereof. Our next door neighbor was having some work done on his house. The remodeling project required a significant number of skilled workers, many of whom would sit on the wall separating my property from my neighbor’s while the workers took a lunch break.
One seemingly friendly, able-bodied worker noticed the gnarly tree stump in the corner of my yard and offered his services to remove the rotting wood eating up the corner of our playing field. Being a relatively new Christian, I appreciated the helpful suggestion and viewed this offer as a potential source of divine intervention. What a nice gesture from a nice guy. I needed some help and the worker saw a way to make a generate a bit more income. Maybe he had a family of his own he needed to support.
With more than a little dose of “magical thinking,” I skipped the important steps of asking clarifying questions, checking references and seeking out multiple bids for the stump removal project. After an offer and a counter-offer, the nice worker and I agreed to a price for the man’s services. He’d start on the project first thing in the morning.
As soon as the sun went down, the gentlemen with whom I had struck a deal earlier in the day appeared at my front door requesting a cash payment for the materials he’d need to purchase early the next day. I gave him some cash and he left. The next morning rolled around and the worker didn’t show up. Once again, as day turned to night the worker came to my home asking for more money in order to get everything he needed to get going on the project. He promised he’d be there bright and early the next day. I paid the man again and he left.
Things started looking up on day three. The worker appeared with a handful of tools and a few strips of sod. The work was slow, and not of a particularly high quality, but I reasoned it really was quite hot outside. Things would surely get better. They didn’t.
After taking a break for lunch around mid-day, the worker disappeared from my yard and didn’t return until later in the evening. I had gradually awoken to the reality of my situation and admitted to myself, and to my wife and children who watched the whole scenario play out, that I was being ripped off. Upon his third request for cash, I set a firm boundary with the worker and told him not to return to my home. He took the remaining cash I offered and left for good.
Was the worker at fault for taking advantage of a situation where he saw an obvious opportunity to make some easy money through deceitful practices? Absolutely. But, I was also at fault. I had been naïve in my casual approach to the project and ignored the obvious signs of the presence of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” One brief exchange with my neighbor regarding the work ethic of the man I was considering hiring would have given me plenty of information to make an informed, wise decision. Even closer to home, one conversation with my wife would have stopped the whole debacle before it started.
In biblical terms, I overlooked the fruit in a person’s life and failed to recognize the obvious signs of devious behavior at work.
As Jesus was teaching his disciples about the Kingdom of God and the ways of the world, he warned his followers to be on their guard against “false prophets.” A true prophet is one who foretells of coming events and is proven true as the predictions actually happen. The false prophets were men who claimed to speak on God’s behalf and offered flowery, positive predictions of future events that never materialized. These were men who proclaimed, “Peace, peace” where there was no peace, men who flattered God with their words, but whose hearts were far from Him.
Jesus put it this way: “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 7:21-23).
The ancients directly correlated a person’s deeds, the fruits of their lives, with the content of their heart. The words coming out of a person’s mouth and the actions in their lives were seen as exponents of the heart. “Thus,” Jesus said,” by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:20).
Modernity offers a different perspective. In the modern world, we have become accustomed to separating what a person says and does from the content of their hearts. The result is a world in a constant state of flux and confusion when it comes to issues of morality, clarity and personal ethics. Over time, we have allowed ourselves to become reconciled with the idea that grapes can indeed by picked from thornbushes (Matthew 7:16) and a person with a documented history of abusive, destructive behavior can still be viewed amongst those with “a good heart” and misunderstood intentions.
The modern dilemma in failing, or actively refusing, to recognize a tree by its fruit has come about because our ethical sensibilities have been cut loose from biblical moorings. From a biblical perspective, our shared problem is our sin nature. Every human being who has ever lived has occupied a fallen, broken world where “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts.”
The recognition of this shared nature is actually positive and is the first step in the right direction for healing our common plight. Just as a good, competent physician will accurately diagnose a broken arm and treat it as such, a wise follower of Christ will recognize their sin nature as a malady beyond their own ability to heal. Sinners are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
So, do I harbor resentment against the man who took advantage of my kindness, and naivete, so many years ago? No, I do not. From a biblical vantage point, the man was clearly in the wrong for using deceit for his own advantage, but he is also a fellow human being whose heart has a capacity for good and evil – just like my own. In my heart, I forgave that man long ago and thus cut myself free from the entanglements associated with rooted bitterness and a lack of willingness to forgive others.
Christians who belong to the Anglian Communion enjoy access to a wonderful prayer called The Collect for Purity. The collect is comprised of two parts: a recognition and a petition. The collect opens with the recognition that to Almighty God “all hearts are open, all desires known, and from (God) no secrets are hid” (BCP 2019, p. 106). A tremendous freedom awaits those who acknowledge themselves as open books before God Almighty. If God knows everything, to convince myself I can somehow hide from God or conceal my sins, I prove myself foolish and my actions will become increasingly desperate. On the contrary, by acknowledging my true nature before God I place myself in a real and open relationship with the Living God.
The second part of The Collect of Purity is a petition for God to “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of (His) Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love (Him), and worthily magnify (His) holy Name, through Christ our Lord.” Here is the recognition that our hearts and minds are in need of a Divine Healer and our plea for God to cleanse our hearts so that we might live lives of grace and worship God aright.
As Anglicans, we pray The Collect of Purity every time we celebrate Holy Communion as the body of Christ. The recognition and petition in the collect are available to us every day of our lives. True freedom awaits those who places themselves before God in the spirit found in this wonderful prayer.
 Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago.