In Defense of Fruit

I can't help but feel that some of our most essential (and most difficult work) is under constant attack.

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.
Galatians 5 (NRSV)

I used to make fun of the fruits of the Spirit. 

When I was about ten, I went to a Christian summer camp with my cousin. It was my one and only foray into the youth camp scene. For the most part I had a lot of fun, but one rainy day we spent several hours in a windowless room making “fruit bracelets.” Each color on the bracelet represented one of the fruits of the Spirit. As a general rule, if you’d like your topic derided by ten-year-old boys, turn it into a bracelet. When the rain stopped, my cousin and I engineered a rubber-band propelled mechanism for launching our bracelets into the camp’s lake.

Unfortunately, my derision didn’t cease with my adolescence. As a young man, endeavoring to master my theological education, I came to see the fruits as an overly simplistic tool Christians use to obscure the real meat of Christian theology. And so, at a point when I viewed myself as most enlightened, I ignored the list of effects the Spirit intended to have on my life. They were childish at best, and at worst, an institutional distraction from a deeper calling. 

Then I became a pastor. Pastors have a uniquely intimate view on the destruction of human relationships. We are called-in either to pay witness to smoldering relational remains or to put fragmented relationships back together. In this relational wasteland where we so often labor, the absence of the fruits of the Spirit is glaringly apparent. A relationship without love dissolves. A relationship with animosity rather than peace, induces permanent emotional wounds. A relationship filled with sorrow and despair rather than joy, collapses. And so, in my pastoring I have learned to see the profound reality of the fruits. Sure, they are simple words, lacking in esoteric theological speculation, but they are essential to human thriving, and doubly essential to reconciliation. Each fruit represents a simple marker for a healthy relationship’s trajectory. 

The great irony of my journey, of course, is that the fruits are not simple. Paul alludes to this, at least tangentially, when he writes that the fruits are produced through sowing to the Spirit (Gal. 6:8). Sowing seeds in and of itself is easy enough work, perhaps, but seeds must be seen through to the fruit. I have a sad history, particularly with tomatoes, in this regard. I’m happy to plant them but helping them along to producing a fruit I rather despise eludes me. When I plant red peppers, I have no such problem. I’ve been known to move their pots around on summer days to make sure they get the sun they need. Why? Because I so love a sweet, sun-warmed red pepper.   

And that’s the trick: we simply live as if we don’t really think the fruits are worth laboring toward. Our actions suggest we find them distasteful and useless. For example, how many of us could say that our conversations about guns in America have been saturated in the fruit of the Spirit? Or how often does political belligerence, which I take to be the antithesis of gentleness, spark a bazillion likes for a Christian on social media? How often does derision of political enemies boost the bank accounts of Christian organizations? How often do we default to the very antonyms of the fruit? 

One of my greatest worries as a pastor and as an American Christian, is that we, like my younger self, think the fruits are too simplistic for our complex lives.[1] It seems to me that so many Christian leaders and Christian associated media outlets talk as if this is such an important moment in history that the fruits have no place. It’s as if we’re being led to believe that the fruits are useful when the stakes are not high, but in critical moments we must lean on more tried and true methods—we’re to choose “truth” over love, indulgence over joy, defensiveness over peace, impetuousness over patience, antagonism over kindness, tribalism over generosity, loyalty over faithfulness, bluntness over gentleness, and declarations about every issue over self-control. My pastoral instinct tells me that choosing these antonyms to the fruits will only lead to more smoldering relationships. 

I think each of us owes it to our relationships and, frankly, to the society God has placed us in, to take a hard look at our view of the fruits. Let us ask hard questions about the leaders we grant influence over our lives. Do they openly or subtly denigrate the fruits? Do they encourage us to sow to the Spirit even in the most complex and difficult of issues? Let us also ask hard questions about our own context. Are we adding peace to our marriages? Are we planting self-control in our digital footprints? Are we sowing gentleness with our bosses and co-workers? Are we cultivating patience with those who antagonize us?[2]
Indeed, these are difficult and time-consuming questions. I know it is far more convenient to simply slingshot the whole concept into a lake. But can that lead to any destination other than destruction?

[1] Paul penned these thoughts about life in the Spirit when thinking about the situation in Galatia. From what we can gather in his letter things were tense there. A messy division had broken out between Gentile Christians and “Judaizers,” who wanted them to adhere to Jewish practices (i.e. circumcision). One might expect Paul to skip all the gentleness and love stuff and just tell the Galatians to beat the Judaizers over the head with logical arguments. And yet, when the stakes were so high, Paul pointed the Galatians these fruits, which he promised were born of the Spirit. That does not sound to me like overly simplistic Christian platitudes to be abandoned under complex circumstances.
[2] I really do mean, “we,” when I write all of this. I am more committed than ever to evaluating my own sowing. As I watch our world spin on ever-increasing madness, I hope I can at least say that what I’ve sown has come from Christ. It often feels like the only thing I can really do.


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