The Model for Christian Manhood, pt 2: A Frustrated Labor

Wendy Alsup
Friday, August 13th 2021

Once or twice every growing season, the field around my farmhouse becomes a scene of delight to my boys and terror to me. I never have warning, just the roar of a plane engine over my house that signals that the crop duster has arrived.

Because my farmhouse sits in the middle of the field, the crop-duster enters the field from one end and heads straight for the red barn at the back of my house. He rises dramatically just as he reaches the barn, flies low over my house just above the tree line, and then dips right back into the field for a brief second before he climbs to miss the power lines along the road. When the crop-duster comes right for my house and then dramatically rises above it, I imagine an enemy plane heading straight for an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean or a German bomber flying low over London during the nighttime raids of World War II. It makes sense that the crop duster reminds me of wartime sounds and scenarios. The crop-duster signifies its own kind of war, the war on weeds. For all the beauty and glory of a farm, for all the beauty and glory of man’s created purpose, the Fall resulted in constant forces thwarting the man in the very work God created him to do.

The LORD God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden to work it and watch over it.

Gen. 2:15

God made ‘adam from the ground to steward the ground. But at the Fall, God turned to the man and said stunning words, “The ground is cursed because of you.” The problem of the Fall hit the man at the essence from which he was made and the heart of the good work God had called him to do. God created him to sweep, but now his broom was broken.

The weeds that strangle crops on our farm aren’t simply symbolic of the problems of life in a fallen world. They are essential to the curse. The crop-duster on our farm signifies the fight, the war for the resources of the ground, the fight for harvest. It is the war that has continuously existed since the Fall of Man. Understanding the literal fight on the ground for harvest is helpful to understanding the widespread problems of the Fall of Man—how the ground works against every ‘adam in the very work God has created them to do. We must understand the nature of this insidious problem to understand evangelicalism’s own propensity to war over cultivation. The curse of the ground is why warrior masculinity invaded evangelicalism to the loss of God’s Edenic vision for tending and cultivation.

Resistant Weeds

On our farm, pigweed is the worst weed we currently contend with. Just when you think you’ve found a weedkiller that will remove its threat to the harvest, the pigweed grows resistant to it. Chemical companies have produced a string of different “miracle cures” to kill pigweed. Treflan and Roundup were two major ones used in the past on our farm. Human technology can do amazing things. It can manipulate DNA to develop chemicals to kill the weeds while simultaneously developing corn that resists it.

Yet, despite being my dad’s weedkillers of choice for many seasons of farming before he retired, Treflan and Roundup are long gone on this farm. The pigweed grew resistant to it.

Human technology can not defeat the curse.

Outsmarted by the weeds, chemists have had to go back to work again and again. Like the race to build more sophisticated weaponry during World War 2, the pressure stays on the farmer as the weeds one-up him again and again. The farmer can not lose this war, though. Losing against the weeds long term leads to bankrupt farms. Like the potato famine in Ireland in the 1800’s, ruined harvests can affect millions.

“You will eat from it by means of painful labor.”

This one sentence God spoke to Adam explains much of human misery. The earth was created to be worked, and we were created to work it. We were created to plant seeds, cultivate their growth, and reap their harvest. We have been created to steward resources and grow fruit in the land we’ve been given, be it our homes, our office buildings, our classrooms, our churches, or our physical land. But now, as we plant our seeds and cultivate their growth across the land we have been given, we labor with sweat and pain to fight back the thorns that choke the ground. And we are frustrated.

The ground is broken, but it is still the primary physical resource for every work we do. So we sweep with our broken broom injuring ourselves and others in the process. The literal battle against weeds on a farm spreads out to affect many. Chemicals used against the weeds cause cancer. The cost of the battle against the weeds raises prices. Technological advances in machinery used against the weeds take jobs away from those who used to pull weeds manually. The economy of the area changes, and those who used to have jobs no longer do. They move away to get jobs, or they stay in a depressed economy, existing but not living.

The literal struggle with weeds gives insight to our internal struggles as well. We are all battling weeds in our lives with chemicals to which the weeds have already grown resistant. We are all, left to our own, sweeping our houses, our ministries, with broken brooms. And when we inevitably become frustrated, we either destroy or walk away. Either way, the entropy only speeds up. Things in our lives only break down faster.

Those too lazy to plow in the right season will have no food at the harvest.

Proverbs 20:4
Understanding the Problem

My time at Mars Hill Church in Seattle convinced me that if we don’t understand correctly the problem of the Fall, we will never understand how the good news of Jesus answers it. For years, men and women were discipled there that the problem of the Fall of Man was primarily about the conflict it brought into the relationship of men and women. The woman would desire against her husband (a problematic reading of Genesis 3:16 that does not do justice to the text), and he would rule over her. Precious little teaching was focused on the next three verses of Genesis 3, God’s description of man’s broken relationship with the ground he was created to steward. How can we understand the good news of Jesus, of all He came to redeem us from, if we have only a superficial understanding of the problem of the Fall? Listen to the words God used to describe the effects of the Fall on the work God made Adam to do—tending the land.

You will eat from it by means of painful labor all the days of your life.

It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.

You will eat bread by the sweat of your brow until you return to the ground, since you were taken from it. For you are dust, and you will return to dust.

You will still eat from the land, but it will come with painful labor. You will still eat from the land, but you’ll have to deal with thorns and thistles to get to any harvest. You will still eat from the land, but it will require sweaty toil.

You will still eat from the land, but you will be frustrated at every turn.

Since the implosion of Mars Hill, one of the problems that has come to light was the lead pastor’s anger. He had found himself frustrated in the very work he was sure God had called him to do. What is perhaps most troubling about the fall out is the way he dealt with his frustrations. He blame shifted, even blaming his own wife, as he tells it in his Real Marriage. God called him to till the ground and plant a church in Seattle (at least according to his testimony in the book), he was frustrated in that work, and he blamed his wife for it. He was angry and harmed people left and right as a result, salting the very fields he had been called by God to plant. It is the quintessential example of the Fall of Man playing out in American evangelical pastoral ministry.

In the reformed tradition, we talk a lot about our pervasive internal depravity. But do we understand the external forces that frustrate us as well? Do we understand our own propensity in response to internal and external frustrations to salt the very fields we were called to plant? Most of all, do we understand God’s answer in the gospel?

God didn’t send Adam and Eve out into the world after the Fall with an exhortation to “let go and let God.” They had to work. They still had to sweep despite their broken broom. But the lesson of the weeds and broken brooms is that we cannot pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. When I look at our fields (full of peanuts this year), I know that while the crop-duster kept down the worst of the pigweed, it was the rains over which we had no control that resulted in the deep green plants growing their crop underground.

I know I have to work, and I know it requires sweat and pain. I also know, beyond a shadow of any doubt, that I am only treading water against the curse apart from the work of Another, the Seed that the weeds cannot choke.

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; it shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.

Gen. 3:15
The Seed

The question for us all as we consider the farming motif in Scripture is which side of the Fall of Man determines our outlook on our fields? Which side of the death and resurrection of Jesus informs how we evaluate our frustrations in the work God has given us? Parts of evangelicalism have salted the fields for too long. They have warred, destroying crops as a result. They have lived like the Seed was impotent to accomplish any of the amazing things God said it would. Did Jesus or did He not give Satan a knockout blow to the head? Did He or did He not defeat Satan, sin, and death? While the weeds internally and externally still mar the landscape, we need to believe what God has said, that the tares in the field will not thwart God’s harvest. The outcome is sure.

The second ‘Adam gives perspective to us all for the frustrations the first ‘adam brought into the world, frustrations we still experience in kingdom ministry. Jesus never salted a field. When Peter drew a weapon on Jesus’s opponent, Jesus undid the harm. His only demonstrable anger was against those creating barriers for the poor to enter God’s house of worship (and Scripture later instructs us that the anger of man will never accomplish what God’s anger does.) Jesus was the Seed that persevered against every frustration in ministry, that persevered against every weed. May we too stay engaged in frustrating ministry with frustrating people believing in the Seed that has already dealt Satan a knockout blow to the head. Though frustrations abound in the moment as the wheat and the tares grow together in the field, the harvest is sure. This is why we keep our hand to the plow, not the shotgun, sowing seeds, not salt, with hope.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, be patient until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth and is patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, because the Lord’s coming is near. Brothers and sisters, do not complain about one another, so that you will not be judged. Look, the judge stands at the door! Brothers and sisters, take the prophets who spoke in the Lord’s name as an example of suffering and patience. See, we count as blessed those who have endured. You have heard of Job’s endurance and have seen the outcome that the Lord brought about—the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

James 5:7-11

Read Wendy’s first article in this series here.

Wendy Alsup is a mom, author, and math teacher who lives in the lowcountry of South Carolina on her grandparents’ farm. She is the author of Practical Theology for Women: How Knowing God Makes a Difference in our Daily Lives and Companions in Suffering: Comfort for Times of Loss and Loneliness.

Friday, August 13th 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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