When I was younger, I loved water balloon fights. Or water fights of any type. My brother and sister and I used to have a pretty good water fight every once in a while. We had these plastic squirt bottles meant for ketchup and mustard which sent out a pretty great stream of water—better than any of the water guns we had (this was in the pre-soaker days).
Fast forward to college and a warm, late November evening, with vacation right around the corner. Someone came up with the idea to ambush a group of guys on their way to their dorm from the library—with water balloons! Oh, yes! I was in my element!
We did a little scouting and found a good place off the trail where we could hide in the bushes, toss our balloons, and make a quick get-away. So we waited. And waited.
After maybe ten minutes, one of the girls in the group said, Yeah, guys? Isn’t this poison oak? She held up a twig from the bushes we were hiding in. Sure enough! It had poison oak’s tell-tale three leaflets with scalloped edges.
Yikes! But we thought it was a little too late. I mean, we’d been hunkered down in those bushes the entire time, so would a few more minutes matter?
On came the guys. We let fly our balloons and then scampered away. Except, this group of guys was of a mind to get revenge. They chased us down somewhere near the chapel with the nice little fish pond behind it, and, yep, in we went. With all the water and pond scum we had to deal with, the poison oak was forgotten.
Until the next day when the first sign of rash hit. Left untreated, it got worse. At last I made my way to the on-campus health facility to see the nurse. Lo and behold, one of the guys who had tossed us into the pond was also in the waiting room. And yes, he was covered with rash as well.
At the time I didn’t know how poison oak worked, but it was pretty clear that my exposure to the plant had transferred to him. In fact, he had a worse case of it, and to make matters worse, during the upcoming quarter break, he was scheduled to go on tour with the choir.
I don’t think I felt properly sympathetic at the time. I mean, I was dealing with my own misery, but at least I could do it at home, coated with calamine lotion and lying very still so as not to aggravate the itching.
I’ve since learned that poison oak, when damaged—the kind that occurred when a group of college girls tramped into the patch to hide—releases an oil to which many people are allergic. That oil can stay on clothing (pet hair, too, for those who might be curious). So when the guys with vengeance on their minds grabbed us to throw us into the pond, they picked up the oil off our clothes.
Poison oak is a nasty business. If you’ve never had it, count your blessing. There isn’t any cure. I mean, it’s an allergy. It could have been washed off if we’d acted promptly, but none of us really knew what we were dealing with. And of course, the unsuspecting guys had no clue. They simply contracted poison oak from our clothing.
Because there’s no cure, all you can do is minimize the effect. At the time, calamine lotion was pretty much the only thing the nurse could give us. But that treatment was temporary, smelled, and looked really bad. Though it reduced the itching, it was really only a cover up.
I don’t know what science understood about poison oak back then. Now we know there is a way to bring the rash under control. I mean, it’s an allergy. Allergies respond to antihistamine, but apparently not topical antihistamine. Only internal antihistamine.
But here’s the point of this story. Identifying the fact that we were lying in a bush of poison oak didn’t help us at all. For one thing, we didn’t leave. For another, we didn’t go immediately back to our dorms and wash. We didn’t handle our clothes with care, and we didn’t warn anyone else that we could potentially give them the rash by transferring poison oak oil to them.
So, sure, we knew we were in a patch of poison oak, but that knowledge did us no good since we didn’t take any action because of what we knew.
In the same way, we can understand that nobody’s perfect—that we have a sin problem—but unless we do something about our condition, we will put ourselves and others close to us at risk. Because sin has consequences—far worse ones than the rash poison oak gives.
“Doing something,” of course, doesn’t mean, figuring things out on your own. It doesn’t mean following a twelve-step program, though that might treat the symptoms and even ease the consequences for a time. But as addicts admit, the battle to stay sober or drug free is a lifetime battle.
The real problem, then, is not the poison oak, so hiring someone to try and take out all the bushes, isn’t going to solve the problem long term. The real problem is the allergy—that part of a person’s makeup we’re born with.
Here the analogy between sin and poison oak breaks down because the best we can do for the allergy to poison oak is to administer an internal antihistamine. For sin, though, we can actually have it removed from our lives. Scripture says because of Christ we can be freed from the slavery of sin, that it will no longer have mastery over us.
I’m telling you, that makes me want to shout for joy. Hallelujah! If you’ve ever been tormented by a nagging, persistent, irritating habit that is harmful to you and to the people around you, and you can’t figure out how to stop doing what you don’t want to do, then you understand the slavery of sin.
Jesus Christ sets us free.