What should the Christian life look like? That is not an easy question to answer and every tradition has struggled with it. I can see this in my own church background. I grew up in a church where there were no expectations about lifestyle or behavior. There were no sermons about what the Bible taught about morality. Later on, I attended a church were there were strong expectations about how people lived. There were rules for everything from music to movies to the way you dressed. There were regular sermons calling people to live a holier life. This is the challenge. Should the Christian life be about having a detailed list of rules and regulations to be carefully followed? Or should the Christian life be an anything goes kind of attitude? Is it live the way you want as long as you have your ticket to heaven? Different people and different churches have gone from one to the other extreme. There are problems with both. There is no joy in legalism. And if there is no difference between what it means to be a Christian and being a non-Christian, why bother? What we need to do as a church is to learn to navigate between these two extremes. Paul’s teaching on the fruit of the Spirit is a helpful way for us to do this.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22–23 NIV) There is something about this passage that draws us. Perhaps because we look at this list and long to have these qualities. However, Paul did not just write a beautiful verse for us to put on a nice poster or bumper sticker. Paul wrote an entire letter and it is in the context of the entire letter that we need to understand this passage. Paul wrote to the Galatians not just to say ‘hello‘ but because there was a serious issue going on. The Galatians had become Christians because they had heard the Gospel of grace, they had received in faith the forgiveness that Jesus had purchased on the cross. That was good. But after Paul left, some other teachers came around. They taught that faith in Jesus was okay, but in addition they needed to take on the Jewish Law, symbolized by circumcision. Paul was livid. For Paul, adding anything to what God had already done was a war on grace. Paul mentions grace eight times in this letter alone to emphasize his understanding of the Gospel being about grace. Grace plus something else is no longer grace. It would be like me saying to my children that I love them just for who they are but that if they wanted to keep my love, they better make me a sandwich. That’s not grace. It is in this context that we must understand the fruit of the Spirit.
So what are the fruit of the Spirit? It begins with love. God is love. Jesus boiled down true religion to loving God and loving people. Love is the foundation of the Christian faith. Next comes joy. This may surprise people. Some people may think Christianity is all about feeling guilty about how sinful we are and collapsing in a pile of sorrow and regret. Both the Old and New Testament place a high value on joy. It is not joy because all things are easy and trouble-free but because we know who we are in relationship with. Peace is not what you think it is. Peace is not tranquility and serenity. Biblical peace is about wholeness. We have peace with God, not because of absence of conflict, because of the presence of a healthy and loving relationship. Our lives should be marked by peace, not in the sense of everything quiet but by having all that we need. It is the ability to sit down, fully aware there are problems and difficulties and yet still find a sense of peace. As the hymn writer says “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul.” Patience is an eagerly sought virtue. We want patience and we want it now! Why should we want patience? Because God has treated us with patience. When we have done bad things, we don’t duck lightning bolts. God is patient with us as we grow. We need to be patient with others as God is patient with us. At the same time, we need to be patient with ourselves. It takes time to become who God wants us to be. Don’t condemn yourself. Why does Paul include kindness, when he has already included love? Isn’t kindness second rate love? Not at all. Kindness is love in action. You can look at a person and feel something toward them. It is another thing to disrupt your own schedule and help a person in their time of need. That is kindness. Goodness is about the overall state of the person. There are certain people that we look at instinctively know that they are good. It is hard to pinpoint it to a specific word or action. It speaks more to the overall character of the person. Faithfulness is about our relationship with other people and with God. People should be able to trust us, not just to specific promises but see us as trustworthy person. We must also be faithful to God. Not just because faithlessness is against the rules but because we love God. Faithfulness to a spouse is based in love and so should our faithfulness to God. Gentleness is not the same thing as weakness. Gentleness is not about being gentle because you have no other options. Gentleness is a choice to treat a person the right way. Someone does something that was wrong and you have every right to blow up at them. Yet, you decide to treat them with gentleness. Self-control is given last, not because it is the least important but because it summarizes all that has gone before. Our nature is to do what we want, when we want. But we do not have to give in to every urge or impulse. Self-control is not about being shackled to rules but rather being free to be you, the you that deep down you really want to be. Do you notice something about each of these fruit? They all describe the character of Jesus. It is as if Paul was just saying be like Jesus but actually giving us more detail.
So we have a snapshot of what the Christian life is supposed to look like. There are only two problems. One is, I don’t know about you but I am definitely not all the way there. Second is we still do not know how to get there. Should we have a card each Sunday with this list and ask you to check off where you are at and we can discipline those with low scores? But then again, these things are called the fruit of the Spirit and are contrasted with the works of the flesh. If this is the fruit of the Spirit, maybe I can relax on the couch, put up my feet and passively wait for the Spirit to do his work. If I am not loving or kind or patient, well maybe the Spirit has not got there yet. It is true that we cannot make something grow simply by our will. I can put a seed in a jar, but all my positive thinking will not make it sprout and grow into a plant. But that does not mean that we are totally passive. The fruit may be that of the Spirit, but that does not mean that we are uninvolved. Paul calls on us to partner with the Spirit in order to provide the proper soil for this fruit to grow. “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” (Galatians 5:16 NIV) “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:25 NIV) “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:7–9 NIV) So what does this mean? How does one sow to the Spirit or provide fertile soil for the Spirit? The key is our attitude. What is our focus? If we are completely focused on our needs, wants and desires, we are not leaving much room for the Spirit to work. If we are stubborn and inflexible, we are making the ground pretty rocky. But if we can put our eyes on Christ, see his example, be moved by his obedience on the cross, we are moving in the right direction. The Spirit begins to work in us and if we resist, he will not force himself upon us. That does not mean we have to be perfect before God will do something in us. Nothing would ever happen. God knows our heart and whether we are longing to change and be transformed. Some people are so humble that the Spirit works in their life immediately and they soon become tremendously Christ-like. The rest of us need more time, we give in here and there, slowly trusting that God really loves us. It is not easy work but it is better than trying to develop these virtues in our own strength.
So what does that Christian life look like? It is not about the old life lived as we wish but with the addition of a free ticket to heaven. It is not a legalistic bunch of rules governing every aspect of life, robbing of us all joy and life. The Christian life is supposed to look like the fruit of the Spirit. These virtues are not a new law, nor are they a bunch of things that we passively wait for, if God so chooses to give them. Our role in this process is active as we seek to provide a fertile ground for the Spirit to do his work. We do this by providing a willing heart and an open mind. We humble ourselves before God, submitting to his will, not in terms of rule but of heart and relationship. The fruit of the Spirit is the measure by which we understand where we are at. It is not a measure to condemn us but to challenge us as to how we are walking in the Spirit. Being a Christian is living in grace, but it is a grace that transforms us into something wonderful.