Just about every Christian has memorized the closing verses of Galatians and Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. This is the character of the man or woman who has been justified by grace through faith.
Yet as we review the list, and especially as we review it slowly and prayerfully, we may find ourselves growing weary and discouraged by how little of that fruit we see. We are still angry at times, still struggling with self-control, still not nearly as gentle as Jesus Christ was and is.
Paul’s metaphor of the “fruit” of the Spirit can help us, though. Here are five things that are true of fruit trees and, therefore, true of the fruit of the Spirit.
1. Growth is Gradual. We are an impatient people accustomed to instant gratification. But fruit grows slowly. A fruit tree grows gradually and over many years of careful and deliberate cultivation. If you purchase a sapling apple tree today, a sapling which is already more than a year old and well established, and if you plant it in the right climate zone and in fertile soil, and if there are other trees nearby that can help pollinate it, and if you care for it exactly as you should, it will probably be close to 5 years before you see the first apple dangling from the end of a branch and many years beyond that before it is at its top production, bearing the most and best fruit. Trees are tended carefully, pruned deliberately, and loved patiently until they bear the best fruit. Our growth in character is also far more gradual than we may like but the patience that is to mark our lives first marks God himself; he is patient with us as we grow toward maturity.
2. Growth is Inevitable. A healthy fruit tree that has been lovingly tended will bear fruit. It is inevitable. It is equally inevitable that the Christian indwelled by the Holy Spirit will and must bear fruit. No matter what the Christian’s life is like when he is first saved, that fruit will grow and display itself. The inevitability of fruit challenges every person who professes faith to examine his life to ask whether the Spirit’s fruit is present there. While we are saved by faith and not fruit, the fact remains that faith necessarily produces fruit. The growth is inevitable where there is life.
3. Growth is Internal. Fruit trees grow and produce fruit when they are deeply rooted in good soil and when the tree is internally strong. Fruit cannot grow on dead branches attached to a dead trunk and dead roots. It is not the fruit that makes the tree alive but the living tree that produces the fruit. In the same way the outworking of the fruit of the Spirit depends upon internal life. It is not giftedness—even what may be spiritual gifts—that proves that the Christian is alive, but fruit. The fruit of the Spirit is proof of a deep, internal health and grows out of that deep, internal health.
4. Growth is Symmetrical. A healthy fruit tree does not grow fruit on only one of its branches, but on all of them. There is a symmetry to a healthy, thriving fruit tree so that the whole tree bows low under the weight of all the fruit. The Christian’s growth is similar. Whenever we look at the fruit of the Spirit we need to acknowledge that the word fruit is singular, not plural. The fruit is the entire list, not the individual character traits. This tells us that this fruit also grows together with a kind of symmetry. These traits are so inevitably linked that we cannot have one without the others. It is impossible to truly love without being patient and kind. It is impossible to exhibit self-control toward another person without a God-given joy.
5. Growth is Invisible. You can stand beside a fruit tree all day and all night and you will never actually see the fruit grow. No one has ever seen an apple visibly grow larger. Apples do grow, of course, but not in a way that can be measured in real-time. In the same way, the Christian’s growth is best measured after time and difficult circumstances have passed. It is after times of great sorrow or difficulty that you can say, “I used to respond to a situation like this with anger and lashing out; but yesterday I responded with joy and self-control.” The growth has been invisible, but real.
The wise farmer tends his orchard with patience and love, expecting that when his trees have been cared for properly, they will indeed bear fruit. The Holy Spirit tends us with that same patience and love, knowing that we too will bear fruit that will attest to his presence and bring glory to the Father.
Note: I found the first four headings in Tim Keller’s Galatians For You.