Churches and believers talk a lot about the fruits of the Spirit, but why does it matter so much and how exactly does anyone go about getting these virtues?
My grandparents had an orchard where apple, pear and peach trees grew. Within their orchard was one of the most amazing apple trees, at least in my humble opinion.
This very special tree grew golden apples, bright green apples and warm caramel-y red apples. I remember circling this tree one fall, my eight-year-old mind earnestly trying to figure out how this tree effortlessly achieved something none of the other trees in the orchard could manage. My grandfather came up from the pasture and leaned against his shovel, watching me for a while.
He waited very patiently until I gave up and asked him, “Grandpa, how does this tree have different apples on it? Did three trees grow together?”
“No. It’s one tree.” Leaning the shovel against the fence, he came over beside me and pointed to a lumpy scar beneath one of the tree’s largest branches. “See this here? When this tree was a little sapling, they grafted a Granny Smith apple branch onto it. Over here—” he pointed out another scar, “—is a Golden Delicious branch. They cut it off its tree, sliced off one of this tree’s branches, and then strapped the new branch real tight right where the old one was.”
“How did they know to do that?”
He gave me a sideways look. “Some people are too clever for their own good.”
“Could we put a peach branch on this tree?” I asked, very excited. He just snorted at me and stumped back to the fence to get his shovel.
Trees are vastly different organisms from people, and yet they illustrate more openly truths about us that are harder to witness within ourselves.
Most believers have heard the verse about the fruits of the Spirit floating around church and tucked into inspirational books or quotes. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:22-24, ESV).
The laundry-list of virtues is intimidating, especially to those new to Christianity or those most advanced in their faith. Does demonstrating all of those virtues at all times seem impossible? If it does, it’s because it is. Those newest or most mature in the faith know this vividly at a gut level. Only those who are high on their own powers of rigorous law-abiding and self-righteousness think otherwise, even for a second.
Did you notice the ‘but’ at the beginning of that bit of scripture? It’s actually a continuation of a pre-existing train of thought Paul was chasing down in this letter.
Here’s what comes before our much beloved verses about the Spirit’s fruit: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).
Well, that’s one way to kindle the fires of motivation, especially that last verse. No one enjoys being left out of a good party or a relaxing vacation, but this ‘leaving out’ also has a grim flipside. Also, it’s a lot harder to recuse ourselves from this entire list. Maybe I’m innocent of partaking in any orgies, but I can’t say I’ve never had a fit of anger or taking part in strife between two other people. With that in mind, I must admit that the works of the flesh are very much still evident in my life, and that should make me deeply disconcerted. Paul clearly stated that people who do these things will not inherit God’s kingdom. All the more reason to really, really want those spiritual fruits.
The biggest problem with the fruits of the Spirit isn’t necessarily how impossible they seem to acquire or how much we desire them. It’s how we go about getting them.
The most straightforward method seems to be pruning all of the rotten fruit. Sexual immorality? Snip. Jealousy? Snip, snip. Rivalry? Snip, snip, snip. Idolatry? We sniff out any potential idols. No social media, shopping or visiting friends with nice houses anymore! Drunkenness? Go completely dry. Don’t even let people drink around you.
The worst part is this approach isn’t inherently wrong. We shouldn’t leave these reeking fruits dangling and ripening on our tree. If envy is a sin that pops up regularly in our lives, we should check that, look less at magazines or social profiles that seem to make it rear its ugly head. Paul talked pointedly in other parts of the Bible about disciplining ourselves like athletes preparing for a race. That means cutting out certain foods, consuming more water and certain kinds of food, not lounging on the couch as much as we might wish. Discipline requires cutting certain things out.
What most of us find, however, is that the gross fruits keep growing. Maybe they go away for a season or two, and we think we’re in the clear. “Whew! I’m so grateful that I’ve finally put those lustful thoughts behind me. I can look at women (or men) out in public without a shadow of desire or shame now.” It feels great. At least, it does until a dirty mental image creeps up from behind while we’re sitting on a plane, our temper suddenly slips the leash with our spouse over grocery shopping, or we verbally backhand that one weaselly coworker in a big meeting.
Where did that come from? I thought I was over this… We start furiously pruning again. This time we’ll cut back ruthlessly enough that the bad fruit won’t come back. After a while, though, it begins to feel hopeless. How much hacking and slicing will be enough? More than we have strength in our arms for, it would seem.
My parents once planted an ornamental plum in our yard. The benefit of ornamental trees is that they bloom and are pretty, but they don’t produce fruit, or if they do, it’s very small and is usually eaten by birds. This means that you don’t have a tree that sheds buckets of fruit you may not want anyway all over your yard. It was a great tree for many years, very pretty in the spring and making nearly no mess.
At least until some little fraction of its carefully manicured DNA got out of line. One year, the ornamental plum decided to grow a bumper crop of fruit. All of the plums never got larger than a quarter, and they were so bitter that eating one made your gums want to peel right off your teeth. The birds wouldn’t eat them, and an early. winter storm knocked probably fifty crates worth of half-rotten plums into my parent’s courtyard, and the dark skins of the fruit permanently stained the concrete walkway. My father wanted to cut the tree down right then and there. My mother stopped him just barely because it was a lovely shade tree. Every four or five years, though, that tree will abruptly spawn a whole batch of really horrible plums.
The problem with spiritual fruit is that we’ll never get good produce to come from bad trees. In fact, we’ll need an entirely new tree to get anything good.
Our impulse to cut bad fruit is almost correct, but it doesn’t go far enough. That fruit will always grow back until we whip out a chainsaw and take off the branch where its growing. Why do we get so impatient with our children? Rather than simply chastise ourselves each time we lose our temper, look deeper. Is it because we’ve bought the lie that productivity must look a certain way? Is it because we’ve allowed ourselves to get overextended with other responsibilities and are now exhausted? Does our child’s personality subtly remind us of someone else we resent, and we need to forgive that person in order to not take out our dislike for them on our child? What branch is this fruit growing from?
We eat that fruit, though, and we need something to eat or else we’ll starve. The only way we’ll start survive hacking off branches from our tree and killing its fruit is if we have another tree to provide us with food.
When the Bible talks about the ‘old man’ versus the ‘new man’, we might as well read ‘the old, bad tree’ versus ‘the new, good tree.’ We’re only ever going to get sour, woody, bad fruit off that old tree of our personality and preferences. The sweet, juicy fruit that allows us to be healthy friendships, successfully endure hardship and be filled with an inexpressible joy is coming off that new tree that Christ planted when we were saved. The Holy Spirit makes the good tree grow, and that delicious fruit will come from his work, not ours.
We still have responsibility to work in this garden and hack away those bad fruits. Nobody wants those. When we get discouraged, we must remember that we don’t have a way to completely uproot the old, twisted tree in this life. It only gets cut down and burned by God after death. At long, long last, we’ll be left with only the lovely tree the Spirit has cultivated in our souls.
Until the day comes, let us continue to saw away at corrupt branches. Let us also pray for the Spirit to continue his glorious work in us because we’re longing for that delicious fruit he grows.