When I lived in the Midwest, Fall was the time when my wife and I headed to the local orchard to pick apples. We would arrive at the orchard and head immediately to the apple trees. We would never, ever, head for the peach or cherry trees. Obviously, since apples come from apple trees, going to the other trees in search of apples would have been pointless. After all, trees produce fruit after their own kind.
A Different Kind of Fruit
I am explaining this painfully obvious natural occurrence because this same concept applies amazingly well in the spiritual life, a fact which is often overlooked. Biblically speaking, fruit represents something different. In the book of Genesis the forbidden fruit, often depicted as an apple, represents sin, the breaking of relationship with God. I believe that having fruit represent sin is far from incidental.
We can impact our view of sin if we look at it as fruit. It seems most of us do not think of sin in this way. Instead, sin in our lives is appears to be more of a maddening, elusive, frustrating, often debilitating set of actions that we hope to control, yet often can’t. I often talk to people who feel like failures because they can’t control or manage their sin.
After Its Own Kind
My confessor could absolve ninety-five percent of my sins every time I go to Confession without ever hearing me utter a word, Canon Law aside. This is because he knows me, and I always bring the same sins to Confession. He sees my face and he knows where I struggle in my life. Any priest will tell you the same thing. Their regular penitents almost always bring the same sins to confession.
For some, this is seen as proof positive that Confession is more superstition and therapy than it is Sacrament and grace. It can be frustrating to return repeatedly to the Sacrament without apparent progress or relief from sin. It would be, though, a completely errant conclusion to think that the Sacrament is ineffective. We’ve just not immersed ourselves deep enough into the mercy of God to eradicate the sin from our lives. So, why do I commit the same sin over and over and over again? In our analogy, it’s simple. Sin is a fruit. It is an outcome. It grows on a tree in our life that produces it. An apple tree never produces cherries, or pears, or peaches. Only apples.
Roots Dictate Fruit
If you want different fruit in your life, you’ll need different roots. That is because roots always dictate fruit. After identifying the tree that your sin grows on, you can discover the roots of your sin. If we go back to Genesis and the Garden of Eden, we can easily find the trees and roots of Adam and Eve’s sin. They were tempted to sin (with the help of the enemy) by a new plant that found root in their lives. The finer points of theology aside, it could be described as a ‘mistrust of the goodness of God’. The enemy convinced them to believe that God was withholding something from them (“eat of the tree and you will be like God”).
The plants and roots that lead to our own sin live in our interior space, in the deep places of our hearts where we believe things about ourselves, others, and God that are not consistent with the truth. Our faulty thoughts, beliefs, and emotions produce a fruit in our lives apart from God.
Following the Fruit to the Root
In the same way that an apple tells us that the tree it hangs on is an apple tree, our sin can tell us a great deal about its roots. For instance, pride will often exhibit itself in sins of self-reliance, self-promotion, or narcissistic self-centeredness. Such sin is commonly rooted in thoughts like “I have to take care of myself” or “I am not being protected or cared for”. The deeper roots, when examined carefully, might be expressed as “I am alone” or “Nobody will take care of me”.
These emotions, thoughts, and beliefs inevitably are projected onto our spiritual lives. They then become patterns of sin. We are unable to stop self-reliant behavior. The fear and anxiety of not being cared for translate into mistrust of God Himself.
If we are serious about uprooting sin, we have to destroy it at its roots. Going after sin at its roots activates and releases the enormous healing grace contained within the Sacrament of Confession. My sinful behavior (ethic) exposes the deeper sin within my heart (ethos), where my thoughts, beliefs, and emotions resist God.
Jesus spoke to the Pharisees on exactly this issue when He said to them, “I tell you, truly, a man who lusts after a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (emphasis added). Jesus knew that sin was not just a behavior, but a place of separation within our hearts. When we bring to God the deeply held beliefs, thoughts, and emotions that separate us from Him, and allow Him to minister to them, sin is pulled up by its very roots. Within the Sacrament of Confession, such an encounter with God can be life-transforming.