(Or, 4 Lessons God Taught Me though Poison Ivy)
I’m raising a red flag on scratching. Unless it’s a scratch-n-sniff sticker, keep those hands in your pockets (and not just one, Alanis).
But I should back up a bit.
“Mom, why did God create Poison Ivy?”
This morning on the way to school, the kids asked me why God created poison ivy. Not so good at thinking on my feet, and since we were in the car and I couldn’t Google the answer, I fell back on the tried and true (or tired and presumably true) response to these sorts of questions. “Well, kids… it’s a fallen world,” I said, using the prescribed mix of sadness and acceptance in my voice.
The kids said little in response, probably unsatisfied by the stock answer, and I think we changed the subject. I wasn’t sure if I liked my answer, either. I mean, it just leaves you with sort of a slump. And, left incomplete, it doesn’t paint God as the hero He is, which is something I always want to help highlight for my kids.
So as I drove home and made my morning coffee, I asked God more about it. And that’s how I found out that God can speak through anything. Even poison ivy. (Spoiler alert: I don’t mean in the burning bush sense, so if you’re picturing a talking plant vine, it wasn’t quite like that.)
But I should back up a bit.
Itchin’ for a scratch
For the past several nights, I’ve been awoken several times by the sensation that my hands were on fire. We had gone to a retreat over the weekend and I brought home a little souvenir – screamy red patches of skin that were now beginning to blister up, especially in the webbing of all my fingers. Yeowch.
I used to run wild through the woods and never got poison ivy. Then I grew up and had kids. Pregnancy changes you forever in more ways than one. (Of course, it could just be that the earth is getting angrier and more hostile as it careens closer toward its last days – I’m allergic to all sorts of things now that never used to bother me.)
If you’ve never had poison ivy, please learn from my mistake. Whatever you do… do. not. scratch the itch. You’ll really, really (really) want to. But I found out the hard way that scratching only makes it 10 times worse. I finally wised up during the day time and tried to resist, but at night, I would unknowingly scratch… until the pain finally woke me up.
Thankfully, God is always there when I can’t sleep. And here’s what He taught me in the wee hours of the morning, speaking (metaphorically) through my poison ivy:
Lesson 1 – Response: Giving into temptation won’t take the temptation away
Temptation is the itch you’ll want to scratch. (The fruit that looks good to eat, although you’ve been told not to touch it.) But giving into the itch will not make it better. In fact, it only makes it worse. If you really give in and scratch too deep, it can even cause infection.
Sometimes, when we’re facing temptation, we’re tempted (double whammy!) to think that just giving in is the answer. Just eat the bag of Cheetos and start fresh tomorrow. Just have one more drink. Just go to that website one last time.
When you first start to scratch that itch, you may feel a little relief… but it never ends that way, does it? Even if you don’t realize the consequence of giving into temptation physically, it takes a mental toll (self-condemnation, anyone?). And the temptation hasn’t gone away. All you’ve done is weakened your defenses instead of learning to fight, upped the ante, and increased your appetite for more next time.
Lesson 2 – Remember. Resist. Redirect.
When you feel like giving into temptation, instead:
1) Remember the truth. Take a second to pause and remember that giving in won’t make the itch go away, it will just make you want to scratch deeper. Surrender to God instead of the temptation.
2) Resist the temptation, and speak truth. “I’m not going to give into this because… even though Cheetos are seductively orange and delicious, not to mention the bonus cheesy residue that sticks to your fingers for an after-snack… eating an entire bag will not fill up the empty space I’m feeling inside… but may make me feel a little sick and sad when the bag is empty and I’m unable to zip my jeans… and… it won’t fix anything.” (This is how Jesus faced His wilderness temptation, although He spoke truth much more eloquently.)
3) Redirect – do something else instead. The Bible tells us that God will provide the way of escape. (1 Cor. 10:13) Take a shower, go for a walk, kiss a baby, call a friend, smell a scratch-n-sniff sticker, throw some glitter in the air, chase a squirrel… whatever it takes to shift your attention.
Lesson 3 – Remedy: Wear your armor. Stay awake.
The best defense is a good offense, right?
In desperation for ways to calm the itch, I started reading up on home remedies. (Hint: banana peels do nothing but leave you a weird kind of sticky, but then you’re more grossed out by being sticky than itchy… Squirrel!)
Through my research, I found that the best “treatment” is to protect yourself and act quickly if you know you’ve come in contact with the sinister vine. Basically, be proactive first and appropriately reactive if necessary.
Before praying in the garden, Jesus told His disciples: “Remain here and stay awake with me.” (Mat. 26:38) With my ivy itch, when I fell asleep, when I wasn’t on guard… I scratched. The same thing can happen if we’re just going through the motions (sleep-walking) through life. But if we walk with God – “stay awake” with Him – we’re better protected.
Being spiritually proactive means wearing our Ephesians 6 Armor (doesn’t do much good if we don’t put it on), being mindful of the influences we come in contact with in the world, and acting quickly if we know we might have gone a bit out-of-bounds. Wash that stuff off! In the spiritual sense, that might look like repenting (making a conscious decision to change your direction), prayer, or asking for forgiveness. (Rom. 12:2)
Lesson 4 – Revelation: What is God saying?
Is God is disciplining me with poison ivy? Perhaps. Perhaps not. We might bear some burdens of sin simply because we live in this world. The Bible shows us in the book of Job, through Jesus’ encounter with the man who was born blind (John 9), and throughout Scripture, that sometimes bad things do happen to good people even when they’ve done nothing to deserve it. We see in other places that He does indeed discipline those He loves… always with our best interest in mind. (Heb. 12)
Perhaps the most important consideration when bad things happen is how we respond. Do we ask God to search our heart and reveal what He wants to show us? Do we allow Him to teach us? Do we trust that He is who He says He is? That He will do what He says He will do? If so, then we can rest in our faith that He causes all things to work together for the good of those who love Him. (Rom. 8:28)
I love the saying, “If He brings you to it, He’ll bring you through it.”
God is in the detail
And that brings us full circle to my kids’ question: Why did God create poison ivy? I think my original “fallen world” answer still applies. God created ivy, then poison (sin) entered through the fall.
But God has shown me so much more than that. He’s shown me how He uses everything for good, even that which has been twisted by the enemy, by the fall. Even poison ivy. He shows His love and power through redemption. He teaches us deep truths through every day circumstances. He is transforming us into His image – from glory to glory. (2 Cor. 3:18)
God has redeemed my poison ivy by showing me love, providing comfort, and teaching me a lesson that will help me when a heavier cross to bear or a more dangerous temptation comes my way. And He gave me a more complete answer to share with my kids. One that will hopefully stick with them.
I pray that my story will ring in your ears too:
- The next time you’re tempted – Remember. Resist. Redirect.
- The next time you’re heading out – Stay “awake” with God. Wear your armor. Wash often.
- The next time the enemy condemns you, saying you deserve what’s happened to you – Surrender to God, who made the stars. Ask Him to reveal truth. Know He is the Redeemer. Accept His unconditional love.
Why did God create poison ivy? There’s so much more to everything than meets the eye. God knows what He’s doing, even when I don’t… even if I can’t fully understand it now. And though it’s still a bit of a mystery, that’s a much better answer to me. It leaves me feeling loved, protected… hopeful, even when circumstances seem bleak.
And with that, now that my attention is no longer being poured into writing, I’m going to go grab a scratch-n-sniff sticker in case I need something harmless to scratch. Any scent but chocolate will do. Fake chocolate smell is another unfortunate result of this fallen world.