What Does 'Fruit of the Spirit' Mean?
When Christians speak of the work of the "Holy Spirit", they are speaking about the operations of the Spirit of God in the material world we live in, and within us. But God the Holy Spirit isn't here just to hang out, or to do a miracle for sport, or bliss someone out for an hour or so. The Spirit is there to cause things to happen in peoples' lives that bring them more in tune with God's purposes on earth (and beyond). Words like 'result' or 'outgrowth' help us little to envision this. When the Spirit starts changing someone, it shows as a growth in character, a change in their way of life that is good for the people they live among. They start actually being the person of love God calls us to be. This change in character and way of life breeds 'fruit of the Spirit', like the fruit grown by a tree can feed people and wildlife. From ancient times to today, abundant fruit from an orchard is seen as cause for hope and celebration. Abundant spiritual fruit also breeds hope and is well worth celebrating.
Paul Describes The Fruit
The most famous Bible verse about the fruits of the Spirit is in Galatians 5:22, where the apostle Paul gives us a list of nine fruit. (Paul was into making lists.) The list is meant as a contrast to the list of the 'deeds of the flesh' found in 5:19-20. The spiritual fruit list is clearly not meant as an exhaustive description of the fruits, but was given to highlight the fruits that Paul wants the Galatian church to keep in mind. He lists the following nine fruits of the Spirit:
- love (agape);
- joy (chara);
- peace (eirene);
- patience (makrothumia);
- kindness (chrestotes);
- goodness (agathosune);
- faithfulness (pistis);
- gentleness (prautes);
- self-control (egkrateia).
(Check out the links for each word above, and throughout the page. The Galatians passage may also be read as listing the other eight as subsets of the first: love. Most Roman Catholic sources often count twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit, while many Protestants count seven, but the truth is there is no way to count the ways to describe what God does through you. Many Bible students insist that the singular of 'fruit' be used, and not the plural ('fruit' instead of 'fruits'). Yet, in English, the singular form of 'fruit' is sometimes used like a plural.)
When Paul follows the list of the fruit of the Spirit by saying "against such things there is no law", he was talking about the fact that the religious authorities and the Hebrew Torah (law) are generally positive toward a life with these characteristics. Even a staunch enemy of the church will likely find these qualities appealing. These are known to be positive characteristics by almost everyone, in most eras, in most lands. These fruit come from God because they are the way God is, so wherever God is at work, these fruit are what it's like. As you live in this fruit-ful way, you're being drawn closer to God and integrated more into God's purposes. And, as you grow closer to God, you will think, act, and live more fruit-fully.
More Passages Which Bear Fruit
Paul's Galatians list is made of stuff that is both something you are and something you do. It is the Spirit giving you the character of Christ; it is treating others and relating to creation as a whole in the manner of the Kingdom of God. There are other such lists in the Epistles, and they are also relevant to any talk about the fruit of the Spirit.
In 1 Corinthians 13, in the midst of Paul's description of the gifts of the Spirit, there is a section on love. While not directly about 'fruit', it is about what springs from love, and it is in much the same vein. Love is the underpinning of what the Spirit is doing, the 'why' of it. According to verses 4-8, love:
- suffers long;
- is kind;
- does not envy (ou zeloo);
- does not parade itself (ou perereupmai);
- does not get 'puffed up' (ou phusioutai);
- does not behave rudely (ouk askemonei);
- is not easily provoked;
- does not think evilly, nor rejoice in sin;
- rejoices in the truth;
- bears all things;
- believes all things;
- hopes all things;
- endures all things.
In Phillipians 4:8, Paul advises us to think on things that are:
- noble, or worthy of high esteem (semnos);
- lovely (prosphiles);
- of good report (euphemos);
- of any virtue, or excellence (arete);
- worthy of praise (epainos).
Several of the epistles (letters) use the imagery of clothing to describe what is to be seen in a follower of Christ. In Colossians 3:12-16, the church members are told to put on (wear) these things:
- tender mercies;
- humility or self-smallness (tapeinophrasune);
- a heart of compassion (oiktirmos);
Then, they are further instructed to:
- bear with one another;
- forgive one another;
- let the peace of God rule their hearts;
- be thankful (eucharistoi);
- have God's Word live in them abundantly;
- teach and admonish one another;
- sing with grace in their hearts.
All this is to be done in the name of Jesus, to further the purposes He came for.
What Makes Spiritual Fruit Important?
These fruit lists describe what a Christian grows into, over time. This is the way a person (or for that matter, a community) lives when the Spirit is being productive within. There was no word in there about being given the Midas touch for resolving all financial woes. There's not even the slightest signal in there about tongues being the evidence of the Spirit's presence. There are no verses about crusading for a just society, though there is something about being just. These lists are completely silent about miraculous deeds or the gifts of wisdom or knowledge or discernment as signs of the Spirit's rule within a person. The lists give no special credit to official power or office or responsibility. It sounds instead like a repeated refrain from Jesus (Matthew 7:16, 20) that one knows God's followers 'by their fruits'. Or, like the apostle Paul's urgings that the Roman church bear fruit for God, or James about being full of mercy and good fruit. Or John the Baptist, or even the proverb which says that "the fruit of righteousness is a tree of life" (an early example of 'fruit' to describe results). These matters of character are the stuff which gives life-ness to life. It is holiness taking root in you. It is something you are, not just something you do or think.
In Jeremiah (6:19), God speaks of the disaster which is about to come, and speaks of it as "the fruit of their plans" -- that which comes from evil scheming. So the evil within us can also come to fruition.
The early church continued this concern about how those with the Spirit develop a character like Christ's. Some of them spend much of their writing time on describing what this character is. Polycarp, for instance, in his letter to the church in Philippi, wrote that the church's leaders are to have "a wide compassion for humanity", which does not put off doing kindnesses. (Think here of Jewish mitzvot ; it's about going beyond merely doing good, into being someone who is characterized by doing good, to honor God and for the sake of others.) He, like the apostle Paul, also writes about what is not a part of this character: gossip, the undermining of others, easily believing ill of others, loose sexual behavior, empty speech, quick temper, and most especially the eagerness for money.
The early Protestant pietists shared this concern. They knew from Scripture that if the Spirit is at home in someone, that person will start living out the fruit of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit works to change Christians so they have the depth of character, the goodness of deed, and the faith the Bible talks about. It's not automatic or sudden. Like everything else in this broken world and its broken people, it arises only in part, not completely, in this life. We are always 'under construction', just like any good web site is. The Spirit never leaves "well enough" alone, but is always working for something better.
Many later pietists and Holiness believers, unfortunately, forgot how deeply marred we are by sin, and saw failure to live in these 'fruit' as proof that the Spirit was not at work. This resulted in a new legalism based not in a soul grown by the Spirit's work to bear good fruit, but in following strict rules of behavior.
You don't need to turn to the Law to give rise to character in yourselves and your children. You need to turn to the Spirit, and trust that the Spirit will be working overtime to change you, till Kingdom come, refashioning you so you become like Christ.
The early church understood this. They didn't go around saying they had the Holy Spirit and thus needed no human teachers. They instead took each other aside and corrected each other. Those who understood the Christian way best (especially the apostles) taught it to the others. They accepted their responsibility for spiritual growth in their fellow believers. Even the apostles were not above correction. They understood that by mutual education and correction, and the use of discernment, in the power of the Holy Spirit, they could grow as Christians. The evidence of growth was the fruit. The "fullness of the Spirit" is when the gifts are applied fruit-fully.
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Fruit for Reconciliation and Unity
Unity is a fruit of the Spirit, found in the "one anothers" of Colossians. But it is not always immediately so. Jesus' work set father against son and mother against daughter, and the Spirit takes after Jesus' ministry. In Acts 15, even though the Jerusalem Council was being guided by the Spirit, division arose. They wrestled with the matter, with an attitude of 'show us, Spirit!'. Even afterward, both Paul and James were dealing with the ideas and consequences that spun off from what was decided then. While this is going on, we may differ, even vigorously. But the disagreement itself can be part of the process the Spirit uses to get the matter sorted out.
Often what results is a surprising unity, in which we have spiritually grown and stepped toward the future in a vision for mission. Sometimes the disunity may represent differing paths which may have to co-exist in tension, at least for a while, to inform and correct each other. Either result can be fully in keeping with the Spirit's work. Where there is such tension, the Spirit brings reconciliation.
The organism of believers known as the Christian Church is able to hold, and to benefit from, the human race's many cultures, outlooks, theologies, histories and styles. Yet the Church can only be truly catholic ('of the whole') when it embraces and sustains the whole truth. It means not just being broad in most ways, it also means being clear about what to reject.
Conformity and uniformity tend to be deadening, but at specific times may be crucial to the task at hand. Try, for instance, fighting to defend one's country against invaders. If everyone had a different type of gun, the supply of munitions would be impossible and the nation would fall. Or, can you picture how repairs would be done if each individual car's parts were all unique to that particular car? The core identity of the Christian faith is what identifies church from non-church, it is what allows us to operate together, even for a moment, even on any one matter, as if we were one body. In a way, we are one body, or so says the Bible.
The fruits of the Holy Spirit are like most things from God, in that they are both a personal way of life and a corporate way of life. The fruit don't have a 'communal' or 'individual' side; one is the other. It is in this way of life that Christ will be seen by others.
Success and Fruitfulness
There has never been a time before where there was as much attention, time, and writing given to the idea of success. Many Christian writers link, if not marry, the idea of success to the fruit of the Holy Spirit. The two are not strangers, to be sure. Where the gifts of the Spirit bear the fruit of the Spirit, jaw-dropping success often occurs. But they are nonetheless two distinct things. "Success", as it is used by most of us, is an achievement done by way of control, strength, and/or excellence. In turn, "control" to us means "domination" or "having one's way"; "strength" means "brute force" used for "making it happen"; "excellence" means as close to "flawless execution" as possible.
The Spirit's fruitfulness is shown by doing especially well at what the Spirit wants done at a given moment. Thus, success is redefined in terms of the Spirit's purposes, which are in turn defined by the needs of the Kingdom of God. The usual vision of "success" cannot fit that picture, cannot exhibit the Spirit's fruit. For example, "strength" as brute force is neither kind nor gentle; anger rather than self-control often drives it. "Domination" is impatient with resistance from what it dominates; it can thoroughly thrill while it is being exercised, but it cannot produce joy. To get to the success of the Holy Spirit, one goes through the fruit, by being kind, self-controlled, and gentle. To seek peace and be peaceable. Its excellence is not of perfection according to a tightly-engineered plan; it instead gives space for flaws (and thus flawed human beings) and differences, and excels most through its effect of building up other people in love, encouraging them to be at their best. This is the Spirit's version of strength. This is how the Spirit grows joy in us. This is how the Spirit succeeds. And, if you are in the Spirit, using the Spirit's gifts to grow the Spirit's fruit, it is how you would succeed too.