22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
My kids, Ellie and Clark, and I were reading the Bible together a few years ago and Galatians 5:22-23 were our focus verses. They were actually picked by my daughter who was tasked for her volleyball team with choosing a passage, reading it, giving her take on it, and then asking any questions that she had about it. Her take on the passage was interesting and unfortunately very common. At the core was the idea that these “fruit of the Spirit” are things to strive for and work towards in the Christian life. These are the things God wants us to do to be “better Christians”. This is the same take I have heard on this verse at least half a dozen times, and it sounds pretty good.
Unfortunately, I think it directly betrays the meaning of the passage and the overall context. Specifically at issue here is the nature of fruit. The idea of fruit is used throughout the New Testament almost always as an illustrative idea and not as literal fruit (apples, oranges, etc.). The theological idea of fruit is that of a natural result. An apple tree produces apples. An orange tree produces oranges. An apple tree will not produce an orange. No matter how hard an apple tree might try to produce an orange it will always be a losing battle. Yet, an orange tree has no problem producing an orange. In fact, everything from the roots to the branches are made to do just that.
Paul uses of the word “fruit” here to complete an idea that started earlier in the passage. Galatians 5:16–17 “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please” (or wish). The Christian has something unique that the rest of the world does not. We can choose to complete our daily activity, “walk”, by our own resources, a.k.a. “the flesh”, or by recognizing our lack of ability to produce Christ-like characteristics and trusting the Holy Spirit to work through us in our daily activity.
The fruit of these two trees are predictable. When we choose to go through any activity of our day by our own resources, our flesh tree will only ever produce flesh fruit, some of which are listed in verses 19-21. We might be able to cover up our flesh with a smile, justification, or comparative morality (“my flesh is not as bad as so-and-so’s flesh”), but it will always truly be fruit that is sickly and rotten at the core. No matter how much we might desire the opposite kind of fruit we can never, nor will we ever, produce it by our own efforts.
On the other hand, when we choose to offer ourselves to God (Romans 6:12-13) and allow Him to work through us, our Spirit tree will only ever produce Spirit fruit. Without trying or striving to produce it, we will begin to see self-sacrificing love when we usually are looking out for our own interests, incomprehensible peace in the midst of life’s most severe storms, limitless patience when we are at our wit’s end, unspeakable kindness to the undeserving, true goodness in a world playing at the edges of and even diving right into every form of evil, faithfulness when others are noncommittal and fair-weather, gentleness around those who push and fight for their own interests, and self-control in a culture living by their impulses and desires whose greatest pursuit is less restraint. These beautiful qualities are not something to be learned or worked for. These are fruit that will naturally come out of a tree whose life giving strength comes not from its own limited efforts but from the Spirit’s life-giving power.
May we choose today to stop trying to produce the wonderful fruit of the Spirit and start trusting in the source of all good fruit.