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Withering Figs: A Figgy Perspective

by Stephen Hebert on Thursday - 30 July 2009

in Ministry

Occasionally, someone will ask me:

“Why do you call your blog ‘Withering Fig’?”

I usually have a few pat answers. I’ll spare you all of them. They are all BS. The reality is this: I thought “Withering Fig” sounded cool. I also thought that it was a bit mysterious and that it would make people think. Those are the real reasons.

Now, however, I’m thinking about this notion of figs and their withering, and I had a different thought. The story from the Synoptic gospels (e.g., Matthew 21:19ff.) shows Jesus cursing a fig tree — a passage that often feels out of place. This anger of Jesus, this cursing, is not something that we’re totally comfortable with. After all, Jesus is supposed to be that emasculated European beauty that lets people walk all over him, right?

This story has many different interpretations, and I’m sure many of them are correct to some degree. For example, I really like the direction that Greg Boyd takes on the topic. Boyd too notes this discomfort that we all seem to have with the passage. Why is Jesus doing this? Boyd, because he is a stellar exegete, pulls out some business about diseased fig trees and the corruption of nature.1

I do not claim to have some incredible interpretation. I’m just making the following observation:

The fig has no choice in this matter at all. The fig has met the irresistible force of God and can do nothing else but wither and be cursed. The fig must act in accordance with God’s will — it simply cannot do otherwise.

I was thinking this through, from the fig’s perspective, and I realized that sometimes doing God’s will is not an enjoyable thing; it’s not the thing that we would choose. Just as the fig did not enjoy withering, being cursed, dying, etc., we do not enjoy some of the more painful moments that God ordains.2

In case you don’t think that God tests us, turn to Genesis 22. There it is, right there in verse one: “God tested Abraham.” For those who think that God is some über-benevolent dude who is more than happy to comply and live-and-let-live, I think you’ve got another thing coming. This is the story where God asks Abraham to take his beloved son, Isaac, and sacrifice him as a burnt offering.3

I think it’s safe to say that this is one of Jesus’ more OT moments.

What we need to understand is that pain is not a bad thing. No, it is not comfortable, nor is it pleasurable. However, it serves a purpose that helps us to arrive at a more thorough understanding of God and makes us more capable of abiding in him. James 1:2–4 says it nicely:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (ESV)

I think most of us exist in a state of imaginary control — we believe with all our hearts and all our minds that we are in control of events and situations. In some cases, I’m sure this is true. We affect the outcome through our will. However, as the fig reminds us, God’s will is irresistible. If he wants something to happen, you can bet that it will! We’re not always going to understand it. We’re not always going to like it. We’re not always going to jump for joy and thank him for whatever it is that has happened. But, we must persevere. In perseverance faith will grow and perfect/complete us.


  1. It’s quite interesting, though it feels a bit obscure. Just because it’s obscure to me “don’t make it not true.”
  2. I am not saying that God ordains all of the evil or painful things in our lives. I think that much of this is due to the fallen state of the world. However, I want to point out that God occasionally does things directly which cause pain.
  3. I wrote a post on this story last week. See “The Psychology of Abraham (Genesis 22)” for some more thoughts on this episode.

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