Which Came First, the Briar or the Fern?
“For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” –Philippians 2:13
Ah, yes, the age old question of sequencing. Which came first? We’ve long heard the arguments over the chicken and the egg, but this one…the briar or the fern…well, that requires serious contemplation. I realize there are several approaches to answering this question. First, there is the alphabetical approach which leaves no doubt that briar comes before fern. Next, there’s the creationist approach which places the fern before the briar since those thorny weeds didn’t come into existence until after the fall of man. Then, there is the spiritual approach which once again places the briar first. But, just what is the spiritual approach and why does the briar claim first place? Well, before answering that question, the initial one must first be addressed.
Which came first, the briar or the fern? While I find it to be a perfectly logical question that bears examination, I do realize that not everyone conjures up such deeply philosophical inquiries. (Which leads me to another question…do I have an overly high, and somewhat distorted… view of my thought process? And, if so, how am I to know?) The question arose while I was in the woods, surveying my vast kingdom which, through much toil and tenacity, I’d cleared last fall. As I walked through the places that, just months ago, had been massive groves of briars, I was delighted to see beds of ferns emerging all around. It was amazing to see the transformation and in my mind, the before and after images flashed in succession. And that’s when the question arose…which came first, the briar or the fern? Had the ferns been there all along and I just hadn’t noticed them because they were shrouded by briars, or, having cleared away the briars, were the ferns now able to inhabit a formerly impenetrable area? As I rolled this question over in my mind God added another thought to the mix: Isn’t there a Biblical truth here among the ferns and the thorns? Shouldn’t that be the answer you seek…oh deep philosophical thinker…? (Yes, God has a sense of humor…and impeccable timing.)
And so there it was. No longer an environmental question but now a spiritual one: Which came first, the briar or the fern? As I thought about this, I thought how beautiful ferns are and how readily they develop if they have the right environment. But then I also thought how fragile and dependent they are; if they don’t have the right soil along with the right amount of light and water, they will not survive. Briars, on the other hand, need no tender care and are anything but fragile. They show up in all terrain and thrive even under the worst of conditions. They choke out all that is around them and, once their thorny vines have laid hold of a neighboring plant, they actually climb upon their victim in order to reach their next prey. They are relentless and unwilling to “go gentle into that good night”. (Poem by Dylan Thomas.)
Having thought about the contrasts between ferns and briars, I then allowed them to represent that which grows in man’s heart. If I view my heart as a place where both ferns and briars may grow then, just as my wooded area needed a gardener, so too does my heart. While God is represented as a gardener in various places in Scripture, two examples are recorded in Isaiah 5:7 and John 1:1.
“The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines He delighted in.” – Isaiah 5:7a
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the gardener.” -John 1:1
So, recognizing God as my Gardener, and my heart as His garden, I now had only to identify the role of the fern and the briar, and that wasn’t too difficult. The ferns…beautiful, delicate, and dependent…were those things that God tended and nurtured. In my heart, they may unfold as fronds of compassion, love, and forgiveness and they only propagate under the right conditions. Much clearing away needs to be done before they will emerge and, even then, they must be handled carefully for though they may be quick to appear, they are also quick to disappear if their growing conditions change. Then there are the briars…prickly, stickly, and ickly. Their purpose is to live for self, at the cost of everything else around them. These are the sinful thorns of selfishness, pridefulness, and ungratefulness. They make the heart uninhabitable…impenetrable…desolate. Not until they have been cleared out will the growth of compassion, love, and forgiveness emerge. Just as in the woods, the briars had to go so that the ferns could come forth. So which came first? The briars. How do I know this? Because, as Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick,” (Jer. 17:9) and David, in agreement, made this request to the Lord, “Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.” (Ps. 51:10) In its natural state, the heart is prone to briars and that’s why we all need a gardener…The Gardener.
Without God, the sinful briars not only stay, they take over; without some serious under-brushing…followed by a dose or two of Round-Up…our hearts will never be prepared for the emergence of godly ferns. And, in keeping with the laws of nature, the cleared area will have to be retreated from time to time. Briars do not go down without a fight and they will rear their thorny heads again. But, as is also true in nature, with each cutting and spraying, fewer and fewer briars return because the area is now tended and maintained. Small briars are pulled up before they have the opportunity to choke or smother developing ferns. And as the uninhibited light now shines upon this new growth, the reproduction rate is prolific. (I really wanted to say it is spore-adic; get it? Ferns…spores? But the definition doesn’t work. God’s reproduction in our hearts is anything but sporadic; specific, yes…purposeful, definitely…haphazard, never. But, in keeping with my misdirected thought process, I felt led to share this thematically creative, though inappropriate, word.)
Now, as I stroll through my ferny kingdom, I’ll think more about the condition of my heart than about the condition of the woods. And, when I see the briars straining to retake their former plot, I’ll search my heart for reemerging sin that threatens to lay hold of new growth. Then, when God pulls out the pruning shears and the Round-Up, I’ll be thankful that He continues to complete that which He has begun in me: a cleared lot, a prepared plot, a productive spot.