The Painful Truth About Spiritual Growth

Luke 3:9

September 30, 2021 | Ray Pritchard

These are the words of John the Baptist:

The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire (Luke 3:9).

Note this one phrase: “The ax is laid at the root of the tree.”

In this message I intend to do three things: First, I want to explain this verse. Second, I want to tell you a story. Third, I want to make a practical application. That’s the whole message: a verse, a story, and an application.

The Verse

Luke 3:9 is a word of warning to religious people. It is not good news. John wants the Pharisees to know that when God picks up the ax, he starts at the root. The ax is “already” at the root of the tree.

Gardeners understand this.

Gardeners understand this verse.

We get Jesus’ version in John 15 when he says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” If a tree doesn’t bear fruit, it is useless. The farmer cuts it down because it bears no fruit.

What do you call a farmer who doesn’t care about fruit? You call him broke, and soon you call him bankrupt. Everything a farmer does—plowing and planting and watering and pulling up weeds—happens because he is looking for a fruitful harvest.

Earlier John called for the religious leaders to bring forth the “fruit of repentance.” The “fruit” in this instance would be confession of sin, sorrow for wrongdoing, and a sincere attempt to live righteously before the Lord. Repentance is more than just saying a prayer or crying a few tears. Repentance leads to a brand-new life.

But what if someone doesn’t want to change?

That’s when the ax is laid at the root of the tree. John doesn’t say, “The ax is laid on the branches.” Anyone who has ever tried to chop down a tree understands the difference. It’s easier (and quicker) to hack away at the limbs and the leaves. You can do that in a few minutes. But chopping away the roots takes more effort and sweat and time.

You’ve got to get down to the roots!

Chopping at the roots is sudden and violent. It is meant to bring the whole tree down. That’s the key point. Chopping at the limbs is a temporary solution because limbs eventually grow back. The leaves return next season.

If you want to get rid of a useless tree, you must lay the ax at the root of the tree.

The Bible frequently uses this image in both positive and negative ways:

Consider this solemn warning from Moses: “Be sure there is no root among you bearing poisonous and bitter fruit” (Deuteronomy 29:18).

Jeremiah 17:8 uses the image in a positive manner. Speaking of those who trust in the Lord, Jeremiah says, “They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water.”

When Paul prays for the church at Ephesus, he includes this lovely image: “Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong (Ephesians 3:17).

1 Timothy 6:10 offers this familiar reminder: “For the love of money Is a root of all kinds of evil.”

Hebrews 12:15 picks up the warning Moses gave and applies it to all Christians: “Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.”

The root determines the fruit.

Bad root means bad fruit.
Good root means good fruit.

Bad Root = Bad Fruit

If you’ve got a bad root, you’ve got to dig it out.

Gardeners know you have to get down to the root. That’s true of all kinds of gardening. Consider the dandelions that appear each spring in our yards. When they first show up, you see the tiny yellow flowers on the stems. Soon those flowers turn into fuzz balls that spread little dandelion seeds in all directions.

Professional gardeners tell us dandelions are among the most difficult of all the common weeds because they spread so quickly.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned the hard way. You can cut off the little flowers, but the dandelions come right back if you don’t pull up the roots. If you cut the stem in the morning, it may grow back by the afternoon.

Let me illustrate this another way. Suppose you have a sore tooth that keeps aching no matter what you do. After trying various home remedies, you finally go to the dentist. After taking x-rays, he says you need a “root canal.” That means the dentist has to drill down to remove the root itself. If he puts a cap on your tooth without removing the root, your pain will continue and probably get worse.

That’s the principle behind this verse. John the Baptist knew his hearers needed straight talk. He was a radical man who got down to the root issues of life.

I pastored a church in Oak Park, Illinois, a beautiful suburb on the west side of Chicago. There was a large Chinese Elm tree growing next to our parking lot. The tree was already a century old when I came to the church in 1989. It was the sort of shade tree that made you want to have a picnic. One day some folks from the Village of Oak Park came by and said it had to be cut down. That shocked me because this stately tree seemed to be perfectly healthy.

Appearances can be deceiving

But appearances can be deceiving.

Beetles carrying Dutch Elm Disease had invaded the village. Any elm tree with the telltale signs of infestation must be cut down. When I looked at the top of the tree, I could see yellow, wilted leaves beginning to spread.

The tree had to go.

Upon a day, the arborists from the village came and did the deed. It had to be cut down because of the Dutch Elm disease. You couldn’t save it by cutting off the infected branches.

When the workers cut it down, 80 gallons of water gushed out from its root system, which stretched all the way under the parking lot out to the street.

The problem with laying the ax at the root is that it’s not easy or quick. You must keep digging. The work isn’t done until the root has been cut off.

If we apply that principle to the spiritual life, we end up with this truth. Spiritual growth is sometimes very painful because you have to get down to the root issues.

The Story

That leads me to mention a young man I met in that church in Oak Park. To set the scene, you need to know that city churches are quite different from suburban churches and very different from rural churches.

City churches are different because cities are different.

Not long after we moved to Oak Park, my predecessor said to me, “Ray, this is a transient church.” I didn’t know what he meant, but I was soon to learn. Young people flock to big cities. They come for a job, they come to go to school, they come to be with their friends, they come because a big city is exciting. Our central location meant that we drew young adults from across Chicagoland. Some were attending a university or one of the law schools or medical schools. Quite a few were entering the job market for the first time.

We had hundreds of people come and go every year. That’s something I hadn’t experienced before. Some years we might turn over 300-400 people coming and going.

No one stays forever

At one point, we figured out that the average young person stayed in the church 18 months. That meant we had to become a “one-stop-shop” like those corner gas stations that double as grocery stores.

No one stayed in the church forever. People would show up, stay a while, and then leave.

Early in my ministry, a young man started attending. I didn’t know him, didn’t know where he came from, and didn’t know how he found us. He came from a Christian home and said he knew the Lord.

He had a story to tell.

Somewhere along the way he made a wrong turn into sexual sin. As a result, he contracted a disease that might one day take his life. We knew that much because he was open about his past.

He hung around for a year, made some friends, got involved, and then he disappeared. As I have said, that was fairly typical.

During that year I only had one conversation of any length with him. I asked him what he had learned from his journey. I only remember one thing he said, “Pastor Ray, you’ve got to lay the ax at the root of the tree.”

I didn’t know what he meant, So I asked him to explain.

“That hurts too much for most people”

The young man shared what he had learned through hard experience. When dealing with entrenched sin, you can’t chop at the leaves or try to hack off the branches. You’ve got to get down to the root.

“That hurts too much for most people,” he added. “Believe me, I know.”

I vaguely realized he was quoting the Bible when he told me that, but I didn’t know the reference. His comment stayed buried in my memory for 30 years until I began to study John the Baptist.

Then it came back to me.

The Application

Why don’t we get better? Why do we struggle with the same sins year in and year out? Why do we come to church faithfully and remain unchanged?

We come in bitter, and we go out bitter.
We come in complaining, and we go out complaining.
We come in arrogant, and we go out arrogant.
We come in defeated, and we go out defeated.

How is that possible?
Why don’t we get better?

Some people never seem to change even though they come to church, give their money, sing the songs, and pray the prayers. They say Amen to the preacher, they support the missionaries, and they attend a small group.

And they never seem to change.
How is that possible?

Change is hard!

Here is something they never told me in seminary. Change is hard. It’s painful.

It’s not easy.

More than 30 years ago, I visited a Christian counselor. After that visit, he sent me some papers to review. As I rifled through them,         one page caught my eye. It was a take-off on the words of Jesus: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). The counselor had printed these words in large letters on the page:


Did you ever have a light bulb moment? That happens when the truth hits you by surprise. It was like a light bulb going off over my head.

In one blinding flash, I saw the truth about myself and everyone else in the church.

Truth is not our problem.
We’ve got truth coming out of our eyeballs.

We’ve got gospel preachers and Bible-teaching churches.

We’ve got an internet full of good teachers. We’ve got CDs and DVDs and YouTube. We’ve got Christian radio and TV.

We even have Bible conferences where you can hear good Bible teaching year-round.

No, our problem is not lack of truth.
We know the truth.

But it never seems to change us. Why is that?

Somehow we come to church and go home unchanged. How does that happen? I come back to what was written on that paper:

The truth will set you free, but it will hurt you first.

Do you remember watching Star Trek when the Starship Enterprise was being attacked by the bad guys?

The heart yells, “Deflector shields!”

Captain Kirk would say, “Put up the deflector shields.”
They would go up at the last second.

The incoming rounds would bounce off the deflector shields harmlessly.

Something like that happens to us.

Our brain says, “Incoming truth.”
The heart yells, “Deflector shields.”

And just like that, the truth bounces harmlessly away.

That’s why . . .

We’re still angry.
We’re still stubborn.
We’re still bitter.
We’re still greedy.
We’re still arrogant.
We’re still filled with lust.
We’re still self-willed.
We’re still unkind.

We refuse to let the truth hurt us!

The truly free people are not those who do whatever they want. Truly free people have dared to let the truth hurt them, and in the process of being hurt, they have been set free.

The truth will hurt you first

Here, then, is the painful truth about spiritual growth.

“The truth will set you free, but it will hurt you first.”

The ax must be laid at the root of the tree!

You can’t chop the leaves or hack away at the branches.
You’ve got to get down to the root.

It’s not easy.
For most of us, the process is very painful.

So here’s the question:

Are you willing to let the truth hurt you?

Whenever you decide to say yes, the words of Jesus will come true for you, and the truth will at last set you free.

The first step is always the hardest. You must confess your true condition. That’s hard to do because it means admitting your life is messed up. No one wants to say that. We’d rather have people think we’ve got it all together.

When David confessed his sin to the Lord, he said that God desires “truth in the inward parts” (Psalm 51:6). That means God wants truth from the inside out.

Would you like to be set free?
Would you like to be forgiven?
Would you like to see the power of the Holy Spirit released in your life?
Would you like to see God do something miraculous in the relationships that matter most to you?

It can happen, but you’ll have to let the truth hurt you first.
The ax must be laid at the root of the tree.

Here, then, is the gospel invitation. Come to Jesus with your burdens and your fears. Come to him with an open heart. The One who first said, “The truth will set you free,” is also the One who said, “I am the truth.” Come to Jesus, and he will set you free.

We need to come to Jesus every single day

Will he hurt you first? No, his yoke is easy and his burden is light. The pain you feel is the pain of cutting to the root of your sin.

We all need to come to Jesus, and we need to come every single day.

Here’s a simple prayer. Let me encourage you to read it out loud. Something powerful happens when you hear yourself saying these words:

“Lord Jesus, I invite you
          to rearrange my life.

Let the ax be laid at the root of the tree!
          Do whatever it takes
          so that I might be set free.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

I encourage you to pray this simple prayer every day for the next seven days. Then buckle up. The light will come on. The ax will be laid at the root of the tree. It won’t be easy or instantaneous.

But if you are willing to let the truth hurt you, you will be set free.

Thank you, Lord Jesus,
          that we don’t have to be perfect
          to come to you.

They called you the Friend of Sinners.
Thank God it is true. 

You are the friend, and we are the sinners.
Thank you for taking us in.

May we dare to say,
          “Change me, Lord.” 

Help those who feel uneasy
          to yield to the gentle wooing of the Spirit.

Speak to each of us and show us the truth
          so that we might be set free.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?