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Chinese Chestnuts: A Reflection on Sin

by Pierce Hibbs • June 27, 2014 •

When my wife and I moved into our house in the early spring, the two trees in the back yard were charming, their trunks splitting and winding like strands of hair, their leaves just beginning to bud. From what we could see, they added allure to the property, which was complemented by the rest of the quiet town. I had taken a few field environmental classes as a high school student, but I couldn’t identify what kind of trees they were.

Then came the chestnuts—not the auburn, gem-like spheres you see in glass bowls on the cover of Better Homes and Gardens, but the green, needle-covered threats that hang stealthily above your head when you’re mowing the lawn. I didn’t give them too much thought while the majority of them clung to the branches, but when they started to fall, they needed to be gathered, and the gathering was painful. Even through leather gloves, you could feel the sharp pricks of the shell if you handled it more firmly than you would an egg. But that wasn’t, I came to find, the worst of it.

The protective shell is also an aid to fertilization. The needle points of the shell cling to the grass like thistles to a wool sweater, securing the tree’s progeny a début close to the soil. The process is quite effective, as several hours of sweeping and raking can attest. But the most frustrating point during the task of clearing the yard of chestnuts was near the end. Having brushed the grass clean of resistant shells, I would look on my work, take a breath, and think, “Good.” The world would seem set right again, but before I would reach the back porch, I would hear a light thud—sometimes two or three. The finished work would be no longer finished.

This remained purely an irritation until I began reflecting on the phenomenon theologically. I was so grated by the continuous need to clear away something that was not easily removed—a stain on the ideal suburban landscape I envisioned. I hated that something so painful and incorrigible took so much work and so much time to remedy but was, it seemed to me, impervious to my efforts (at least until late October).

And then the other week, as I looked at a few remnant shells in the backyard and reflected on the former futility of my work, I thought of sin. The analogous relationship between Chinese chestnuts and sin is, I think, quite remarkable. I might have missed this were it not for the writing of John Owen, who displays unparalleled acumen when it comes to our temptation and corruption. With his help, I was able to scratch the surface of just how painful our sin must be to God, and just how unfathomable the Gospel is.

First, when it comes to Chinese chestnuts and sin, both are manifestations of what is internally already existent. I do not see any Chinese chestnuts on the trees in my back yard right now . . . but they are there in seed form—they will come again because they are part of the nature of the tree. The tree externalizes what is internally present. Likewise with our sinful nature. “Temptations and occasions put nothing into a man, but only draw out what was in him before.”[1] Even now, we are full of seeds—sins waiting to come to fruition when the season is right and the weather congenial. For example, all someone has to do is ask how my work is going, and then I feel an irrepressible desire to tell them what I’m currently writing—not because that is what is really important, but because I want them to think more of me. I even try to downplay it and act as if it’s not significant, but that only betrays what is really there: pride. It lurks beneath even my attempts at being humble. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote that the Devil’s “darling sin is pride that apes humility.” I know from experience how painfully true those words are. The pride within always finds a way out—even through feigned humility—because it is part of my sinful nature, a nature that is becoming anemic each day, I hope, but present nonetheless.

Second, just as in the early autumn stray chestnuts seem to drop once I have cleaned all of them away, so our daily sin refuses neat and final disposal. Perhaps it is our sinful nature itself that refuses such disposal, for our sin seems to be a kind of treasure (Luke 6:45). And, in Owen’s words, the tarnished treasure of sin “will never be exhausted; it is not wasted by men’s spending on it; yea, the more lavish men are of this stock, the more they draw out of this treasure, the more it grows and abounds. As men do not spend their grace, but increase it, by its exercise, no more do they their indwelling sin.”[2] Of course, we must be careful here, since Christ’s atoning sacrifice has conquered our sin once and for all. The war over sin is won, but Satan refuses to yield the skirmishes that play out in our progressing sanctification. The moment you feel you have won a spiritual battle, you hear the thud of another chestnut.[3]

Third, the shell of a Chinese chestnut seems designed to cling to the grass, and sin seems to be perfectly suited to get tangled in the field of the heart; its prickled hide wedges itself in the taller grass (the areas of our lives we feel do not need tending) and settles in patiently for the warmer weather. I would get blisters on my hands from trying to sweep the chestnut shells out of the grass, and oftentimes the sweeping would only embed them deeper. Regrettably, I do not think I could claim to have “spiritual blisters” from my attempts to sweep clean the field of my heart. I often let it go untended until another person points out the weeds, or, worse, is tripped up by them.

The only remedy for this is perseverance and watchfulness. The chestnuts will come back as long as the trees are living. Sin will arise as long as we live on this side of paradise, so we should “never reckon that our work in contending against sin, in crucifying, mortifying, and subduing of it, is at an end.”[4] But perseverance is aided by watchfulness. Seeds take root silently. If we are not constantly vigilant, we can be sure that they will take root and grow stronger. Even when we seem to be shepherded well by Christ and guided by the Spirit into maturity with our words and actions, we keep an eye on the periphery, never believing that our indwelling sin has left us momentarily. Owen writes, poetically, “Does the sun shine fair in the morning?—reckon not therefore on a fair day; the clouds may arise and fall. Though the morning gives a fair appearance of serenity and peace, turbulent affections may arise and cloud the soul with sin and darkness.”[5] Our only rest from such vigilance is the person of Christ, who has already defeated the enemy and has promised to deal with his minions as we trust in the work of the Holy Spirit within us. 

Now, all of these observations led me back to the amazing grace of God. I am irritated by two Chinese chestnut trees, but we ourselves are Chinese chestnut trees of a kind—dropping painful words and actions all over the ground beneath us, and God is the one who gathers them and disposes of them with the life of His own Son. God governs a world covered over with Chinese chestnut trees. His patience is inexhaustible, his own hands daily pricked innumerable times by those whom he tends. We were cursed to gain our livelihood by the sweat of our brow, uprooting thorns and thistles to find room for crops (Gen 3:19). But Christ’s sweat in Gethsemane gains more than our livelihood; it reverses the curse, and makes room for us in God’s own house (John 14:2). More than this, we have His Spirit to continually work in us, revealing and destroying the seeds of evil and conforming us to the image of Christ—quite an act of grace for a congregation of unwieldy Chinese chestnut trees.

The Triune God of Scripture—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—is responsible for gathering up and disposing of the sins of His people. He clears the field of the human heart, tending it through the Word of His Son and the work of His Spirit. How fitting, then, for Mary to mistake the resurrected Christ for a gardener (John 20:15)! Indeed, Mary, He is the gardener, now with nail marks in His hands verifying the holy spadework of His Father.

This will not necessarily make the gathering of chestnuts any easier for me come autumn, but at least I can meditate on the Trinity each time my fingers are pricked.

[1] John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation, ed. Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 250.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “When we may think that we have thoroughly won the field, there is still some reserve remaining that we saw not, that we knew not of.” Ibid., 255.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 256.


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