(RNS) — “When did the fruit of the Spirit become optional for Christians?”
A friend asked me this as we sat at a laminated table eating big salads in a little take-out restaurant facing a riverway. It was a recent gorgeous September afternoon, that rare kind of day that is neither too hot nor too cold, but just right.
A virtuous day, one might say, drawing on Aristotle’s definition of virtue as the moderation between extremes.
Virtue, however, isn’t just an abstraction of ancient Greek philosophers. Virtue is the fruit of the Spirit-filled Christian.
This concept of virtue is reflected in Paul’s letter to the Galatians where he contrasts the acts of flesh with the fruit of the Spirit. First, he warns the Christians not to walk in the flesh. He writes in Galatians’ fifth chapter: The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.
That’s quite a list!
It’s hard to go a day without seeing Christians publicly pointing out the prevalence of certain kinds of sexual immorality and debauchery, whether in the classroom, school bathrooms or the halls of Congress and state capitols. But when was the last time you saw a viral story about hatred, selfish ambition or jealousy in the church?
I suspect Paul would like to have a word.
He does, actually:
“I warn you,” he continues, “as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
This passage should stop every serious Christian cold. Paul’s “this” covers an awful lot of sins.
However, Paul then goes on to paint a dramatically different picture, full of light and life, that contrasts dramatically with the previous one:
But the fruit of the Spirit, he writes, “is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”
I’ve thought a lot about the fruit of the Spirit lately.
Actually, it’s been foremost in my mind since 2015 when I made my pinned post on Twitter (now X) a summary of this passage. I did so because that is when I began to be subjected to vicious attacks from far-right bloggers claiming to be Christians. Before that, I honestly never knew that people who claimed to be Christians would treat one another that way. I think many of us have experienced similar shocks.
I have also thought about the fruit of the Spirit a lot since then because it hasn’t always been easy to avoid walking in the flesh in response, not only to such attacks, but also to so much that has been happening over the past few years to the church, to the culture, to our nation and to our social discourse. It’s disorienting. It’s disappointing. It’s infuriating. It’s hard.
I’ve thought about the fruit of the Spirit more recently because I had the joy of digging more deeply into the book of Galatians this year by reading Eugene Peterson’s classic commentary on it, “Traveling Light,” and writing a foreword to a new edition of the book.
Peterson’s commentary points to how this entire letter by Paul is centered on freedom in Christ. The ultimate fruit of union in Christ is freedom, Paul writes elsewhere in a letter to the Corinthians. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” The fruit metaphor that Paul uses is so powerful and apt, Peterson explains, because the process of bearing fruit (natural or spiritual, literal or metaphorical) is long, complex and organic. It’s a process that requires care, attention and intention. And the supernatural fruit of the Spirit requires the work of God and his grace. He makes it possible. But we choose to allow it or not.
Thus, my friend’s very simple but pointed question.
When indeed did the work of the Holy Spirit, which all trinitarian Christians understand to be God himself and Christ himself, become optional?
It didn’t, of course.
A while back, I saw a post that said, “‘The way of Jesus’ is code for progressive ‘Christian.’”
I clicked on the account, sure it would be a hilarious parody account. It was not.
Jesus said, “By their fruit you will recognize them.”
Then, just a few verses later in the New Testament book of Matthew, Jesus offers a chilling warning, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
What is the will of God?
Well, the Hebrew Bible sums it up nicely in the sixth chapter of the book of Micah:
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians is a kind of gloss on this passage. Justice, mercy and humility are Christian virtues. To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God both requires and reaps the fruit of love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Notice, too, that it’s not fruits, plural. It’s fruit, singular. When we are filled with the Spirit, we bear all the fruit. Not just some. There is no tree that can bear so many varieties except one: the tree of life.
As I have been tested and tried (and have failed more than I wish to admit) in my very public (and private) Christian life over the past few years, months and even days, the only answer I know is to ask the Lord to fill me, and fill me again, with his Spirit.
It’s not optional.