Fruit of the Spirit
by Marion Van Driel
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22,23)
A new year always seems a good time to unpack well-worn and well-known truths with new eyes. These verses from Galatians are ripe (pun intended) for such good work. In the following months, we will look at the characteristics of the Spirit’s fruit in our lives, using primarily the work of Christopher J. H. Wright, Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit.
The list within this letter to the Galatians contains virtues that would, and could, change the world! I often tend to categorize these verses with those describing the virtuous woman of Proverbs. These qualities seem a lofty goal, never attainable. Perhaps that’s how you relate to them as well. This series may give us opportunity to change our perceptions.
One fruit, multiple attributes
Before we delve into the issue of attainability, there is a small technicality that we ought to address. The text refers to ‘fruit of the Spirit’ – singular. We often think of love, joy, peace, etc., as separate fruits; yet from the Spirit comes one luscious fruit – with many characteristics. Every apple has varying degrees of juiciness, ripeness, colour, crispness, sweetness, texture, size, shape and scent, giving an overall impression to the one who observes, examines and tastes it. Spirit fruit that is developing within each of us, exhibits varying degrees of its characteristics – goodness, kindness, self-control – from one Christian to another. Perhaps this is not such a small technicality after all. This fruit possesses its own unique set of properties; they come together in one bundle. No one who has God’s Spirit can claim an absence of one or more of the properties, anymore than an apple can claim to have no degree of ripeness or crispness.
So if all of these virtues are mine through the Spirit, I might assume that I have only to accept them with gratitude. Or could it be that I have some part in the formation and maturation of the fruit?
Have you ever heard someone bemoan their lack of patience, faithfulness or self-control with, “I can’t help it, that’s just who I am”? Of course we all have been created with our own character, which has been shaped through both DNA and experience. If we are honest, we all struggle with, or ignore, those parts of our nature that seem too hard to change. The intersection of God’s gifts of grace and our responsibility is one that bears serious reflection. The fruit is a result of the Spirit’s presence within; one cannot be ‘in Christ’ without this fruit. And yet these characteristics must be cultivated. An orchard farmer fertilizes, cultivates and prunes trees in order to garner the best possible outcome.
Wright gives context to Paul’s verses about the fruit of the Spirit, explaining that God’s grace had now been extended – through Jesus – beyond the Jewish nation, to all nations. But the Jewish believers were insistent that the Gentiles, in addition to accepting faith in Christ, also obey rules the Jews had set around circumcision, food and drink. Paul explained that they were no longer ‘under the law’ (5:18). Having heard that message, would the recipients not abandon all ‘rules’ to take full advantage of the saving grace offered them? No, says Wright, “…the distorted insistence on the law is not to swing to the opposite extreme and think that since you are not ‘under the law’ then you can just do as you please and indulge in every desire you have. Legalism at one extreme (keep all the rules) and license at the other (reject any rules) are both completely wrong answers to the question of how Christians should live.”
Before he lists the characteristics of the Spirit’s fruit in our lives, Paul identifies behaviours that give proof of the Spirit’s absence. But Wright explains that these are not two lists counterbalancing each other. ‘Don’t do this, but do this instead’. That would simply be another list of rules. This listing of the Spirit’s fruit is not a list of ‘do’s’. It has nothing to do with rules. It’s the product of a Spirit-filled life as Wright points out, “…simply because it is a living tree being and doing what a tree is and does when it is alive.”
These fruity attributes shape our character. Whereas people often look at our successes and failures, God is interested in our character. He provides all we need to become increasingly more like Jesus. Both fruit and character take time – they need to be tended and nourished. In fact, character takes a lifetime to build. It does not focus on our performance, success or failure. It focuses instead on the kind of person we are in the process of becoming – throughout an adventurous, life-long journey. Although some characteristics are now more pronounced than others, eventually as we yield increasingly to the Spirit’s work within, each attribute will, in time, enhance the beautifully mature specimen with which the gardener is pleased.
And so, I invite you to join me on this journey of unpacking the fruit of the Spirit. Next month we will look at the first characteristic of the Spirit’s fruit, love.