Lemon tree resizedSeries: Spirit-filled, By Rosie Moore

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal 5:22-23).

It’s easy to look at this list of Christian graces, known as the fruit of the Spirit, and feel despair. If this is the yardstick of virtue, who can claim to be good? If I’m completely honest, my fruit is often fragile, apathetic, conditional and fickle. At times, it’s absent.

But, like the ten commandments, the fruit of the Spirit only convinces me of what John Newton, the slave trader, said about himself, “I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Saviour”.

Our deep depravity and Jesus’s great goodness meet on the cross, for only Jesus has embodied these fruit perfectly, at all times.

Fortunately, there’s the little preposition, of. It reminds us that the fruit listed in this passage is not our own fruit, but the fruit of Christ’s living and active Spirit, working in and through God’s redeemed people. It’s not virtue pinned on the outside, but virtue produced and ripened from the inside-out.

The sad tale of a barren tree

This week I noticed that our lemon tree in the garden is completely bare. It used to produce lovely bunches of bright yellow lemons throughout the year. Of course I was disappointed, but I’ve only myself to blame for its barrenness. After a few seasons, my zeal to irrigate, fertilize, spray and prune have waned. My tree is sadly neglected.

Slowly, the nearby trees have grown wild, robbing my little lemon tree of sunlight and nutrients. So, the simple fact of the matter is this–there are no lemons for tea, because I stopped tending the lemon tree! It illustrates the Biblical proverb, “Do not be deceived; God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Gal 6:7).

Now, it won’t help to buy a bag of lemons and pin them to the tree, because soon they will rot and fall off. You see, the problem with my tree is not superficial, it’s systemic. Left to nature, my tree cannot produce good fruit, as the conditions in which it grows are dry, dark and nutrient-deficient.

My little lemon tree reminded me that, left to ourselves, it’s impossible for any human being to live by the Spirit and produce the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:16). It’s why we need a supernatural intervention to cure our sin problem and rescue us in this present evil age (Gal 1:4). We need to be actively led and controlled by the Spirit of Christ, who re-orders our desires.

The sad tale of a twisted nature

Left to our natural desires and instincts, the works of the flesh will rule us. As God warned Cain, sin is crouching at the door of each of our hearts, eager to control us. But we must subdue it and be its master (Gen 4:7).

Against this reality of our sinful nature, Paul warns the Galatian Christians, and us, to wake up and smell the lemons, so to speak! Unless we are steadily being filled with the Holy Spirit; unless we actively and repeatedly crucify the sinful nature with its passions and desires, we too, will naturally default to the works of the flesh. Paul lists some of them for us:

“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. (Gal 5:19-21).

The Spirit’s fruit versus the works of the flesh

As I read through Galatians 5 and 6, I wondered to myself:

Isn’t it more natural to bite and devour each other, than to love our neighbour as ourselves? (Gal 5:14-15) Isn’t jealousy, hatred, hostility and rage our native human language? (Gal 5:20)

Isn’t it more instinctive to slander someone, than to watch our own tongue and restore people gently (Gal 6:1)? Aren’t rivalries and factions the hallmarks of our fractured society?

Isn’t it easier to signal our own virtue on social media, to think we are something when we’re nothing, than to love our own spouse, or carry each other’s burdens (Gal 6:2-3)?

Isn’t it easier to compare ourselves to others; to feed our own pride and ego; to make a good impression, rather than to actually do good (Gal 6:4,9,10,12)?

Of course, doing virtue is harder than hearing or speaking about virtue (James 1:22). Likewise, discord and envy come much more naturally to us than being led by the Spirit into love, joy and peace (Gal 5:20-21).

But, Paul says that to sow to the flesh, is to reap corruption—a potent Greek word for decay, death and rotting corpses (Gal 6:8). It is the fruit of our lives that proves whether we are of God’s kingdom or not. Our fruit has eternal consequences, I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5:21).

We need supernatural help to change our natural desires. Pinning a lemon on our tree won’t do.

John Stott expresses it well:

“To live in harmony with God and others, and in firm control of ourselves, this is a supernatural work of God’s grace. It is the ‘fruit’ of the Spirit… The real proof of a deep work of the Spirit of God in any human being is neither subjective, emotional experiences, nor spectacular signs, but moral, Christlike qualities. For we see in him a token of God’s grace and a temple of the Holy Spirit.”

Pinning lemons versus systemic cure

The events of recent weeks, and indeed world history, provide living proof that humanity is desperately sick and in need of a Saviour outside of ourselves. The Bible tells us that the real destroyer, the real scourge, the real barrenness in our world is rooted deep in the human heart (Jer 17:9).

Perhaps the hidden blessing of 2020 is that many may finally see that we are not good after all. For sin is the systemic gangrene of human nature that only Jesus can cure.

Left to nature, we are utterly incapable of loving our neighbour, and our feeble outward displays of virtue don’t fool the God who knows our hearts (1 Sam 16:7). Our only hope is the One who loved his neighbour perfectly, even to death on a cross.

As Abdu Murray says, “We cannot re-educate ourselves into a better world.” The only pathway to holiness begins with self-despair and repentance (Matt 9:13).

So holiness, an expression of Christ’s Spirit, begins with the death of ourselves, so that it is no longer I that lives, but Christ who lives and reigns in me (Gal 2:20).

Sowing and reaping

As the body of Christ, let’s remember that we are not our own, we are the Lord’s! And, as the Lord’s people and his ambassadors, we are responsible to create the right conditions to bear good fruit in our lives. We do this when we sow godly thoughts and godly habits (Gal 6:7-8).

If we take care of the seeds we sow, the Holy Spirit will take care of the fruit.

We sow by the company we keep; the use of our time; our interactions on the internet; the movies we watch; our private devotions and prayer; our preoccupations; everything that absorbs and dominates our minds. We sow, either to the Spirit or to the flesh, day after day. This determines the fruit we will produce, over a lifetime. Either the wholesome fruit of the Spirit, or the decaying works of the flesh. But tokens of virtue, like pinning lemons on a tree, do not fool God. They are religious rituals that cannot save us (Matt 9:13).

Abstract nouns and concrete verbs

These nine fruits of the Spirit may be abstract nouns, but their meaning is far from abstract or culturally determined. Whereas our world’s new definition of ‘love’ and ‘kindness’ is unconditional and unceasing affirmation of people, this is not the Bible’s definition of loving our neighbour.

On almost every page, the Bible adds flesh and bone to these nine marks of a Spirit-filled Christian. It’s why we must read the Bible for ourselves. God has shown us in his Word, and through Christ’s life and teachings, what these fruits look like in a real human being, living in real tribulations, under real enemy fire.

God has shown us, in weighty passages like Romans 12:9-18, how to love in actions, rather than abstractions. In verbs, rather than nouns. Paul begins with “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good…He ends with, Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

There’s plenty of detail to digest in between those pithy instructions of Paul, and we would all do well to meditate on this passage and allow God’s Spirit to teach us what the Lord requires of us at a time like this. We need Him to show us what it means to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Prayer

Lord, we ask for your Holy Spirit to show us what you mean when you say, I desire mercy and not sacrificeFor I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners. Please save us from empty gestures that only feed our pride and ego. Help us to act justly, to show mercy and to be dependable in all our dealings. Lord, may our love be heartfelt and genuine, not just for the approval of others. May we sow good thoughts and habits, so we may develop minds that are controlled by your Spirit, not by our nature. May the fruits of life and peace ripen and mature in our lives. Let our lives demonstrate the saving power of Christ in us, as we show his love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control to our neighbour and our fractured society. Amen.

Further reading:

Abdu Murray, Saving Truth– Finding meaning and clarity in a post-truth world.

John Stott, Baptism and Fullness

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