When I was in college, I had to take a number of different biology classes. I found most of them very interesting and engaging, but there was one class that struggled to keep my attention—botany. Studying the intricacies of how plants worked and the differences between different types of plants just didn’t interest me. One of the things we were required to do in the class was to be able to identify different types of trees by sight. We were taught to pay attention to the differences in leaves, bark, and seeds in order to distinguish one tree from another. Each species of tree has characteristics that make it easily identifiable. Sycamore trees have enormous leaves that instantly identify them as such. Walnut trees are easily identifiable because of the walnuts that are everywhere beneath them. Apple trees have apples on them. Every species of tree has unique characteristics that make them easy to identify if you know what to look for.
Jesus told his disciples that just as trees have distinguishing characteristics, so do people.
A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. 18 A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit….Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions. (Matthew 7:17-18, 20, NLT)
Jesus said the fruit our lives bear is a good indicator of what kind of person we are—the way we live shows whether we are controlled by our sinful nature or by the Holy Spirit.
We are in a portion of Galatians that speaks on this very same subject. Last week we looked at the characteristics of a life that follows the sinful nature. Paul gave us a list of all sorts of things that are red flags of a life lived in sin. This morning we turn our attention to a second list—one that serves as a stark contrast. This list shows us the characteristics of a life lived according to the Holy Spirit, rather than our sinful nature.
Paul calls this list the fruit of the Spirit and we see it in verses 22-23.
22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! (Galatians 5:22-23, NLT)
There are 9 characteristics listed here, and together they are evidence of a life controlled by the Holy Spirit instead of the sinful nature. For the next three weeks we will be working our way through this list in groups of three. So this morning, we want to look at the first three characteristics: love, joy, and peace.
The first element of the fruit of the Spirit is love. Our society talks about love all the time and Christians often point to love as the chief virtue. But the love Paul speaks about here is much different than the definition of love common in our society. The world tells us that love has to do with how we feel towards a person—it says that we can fall in love and fall out of love. The worldly definition of love has a lot to do with how we feel about a person in the moment, and how we feel about a person often has a lot to do with what we get from them. We “love” people who give us what we want (whether that is stuff, affection, laughter, influence, etc.), and we find it much harder to love people when there’s nothing in it for us.
The biblical definition of love, however, is much different. In the Greek language (the language Galatians was written in), there were four different words for love. Eros was used to describe romantic or erotic love. Storge referred to familial love, especially the love of parents and children. Philia was used to describe close friendship, what is sometimes called brotherly love (thus the nickname for Philadelphia). The fourth type of love was agape. Agape love is a love that is unconditional; it describes a love for a person because of who they are, not because of how they make you feel. It is interesting that the word agape is rarely used in ancient Greek texts, but it is used frequently in the Bible. That is because the kind of love described in the Bible is so vastly different from the love of the world.
When we talk about love as part of the fruit of the Spirit, I think there are two sides to it. The first is love for God, and the second is love for others. The two really are linked.
The person who lives according to the Spirit has a love for God that recognizes Him for who He is. It comes from recognizing Him as the Creator and Sustainer, the One who loves perfectly, and the source of everything that is good. We love God not simply because of the gifts He gives to us, but because He is eminently good. The more we come to know God, the more we grow to love Him. But love for God doesn’t end with feeling good about Him. Real love affects the way we live. If we love God we will live in a way that honors Him. Those who love God do what God tells them to do. Love for God leads to obedience to His commands.
In 1 John 4 we read these words:
We love each other because he loved us first. 20 If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? (1 John 4:19-20, NLT)
John tells us that it is impossible to have a genuine love for God and to not love the people around us. A genuine love for God results in a genuine love for others, because God loves others just as He has loved us. So we should love all people, just as God does. That’s a pretty simple statement; it’s easy to say we should love everyone, but when we really think about it, we realize how hard that is. There are a lot of people we don’t feel very loving towards, people we’d rather not love, because they won’t love us back. But that’s the difference between worldly love and God’s love. Listen to what Jesus said to His disciples,
If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. 47 If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. (Matthew 5:46-47, NLT)
The world loves those who will love them back. Biblical love is unselfish. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul talks about what real love looks like. If you think through what Paul says there, you realize that he is telling us that true love is genuinely concerned about others, true love is unselfish. If we love like this we will:
- Be patient because we understand that no one is perfect, and we want to give the person the benefit of the doubt.
- Be kind because we see the value in another person and want to treat them in a way that shows them how important they are.
- Not envy because we want the other person to have the best.
- Not boast about our accomplishments because we want to hear about theirs.
- Not be proud because we want to build others up rather than ourselves.
- Not be rude because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.
- Not be self-seeking because we want to meet another’s needs.
- Not be easily angered because we want to extend grace like we have been given, and we assume the best motives rather than the worst.
- Keep no record of wrongs because we want to help others move forward rather than continuing to beat them up with their past mistakes.
This kind of love is foreign. It doesn’t come naturally to us because we are naturally self-centered. This kind of love is only possible when we begin to focus on the love God has shown to us. It is only when God begins to change our hearts that we can love this way. When we let God change our hearts we will start showing this kind of love not only to those who are nice to us or can give us things we want, but we will love everyone. It means that we will:
- Go talk to the person that others avoid
- Help out people who cannot help us in return
- Rejoice with those experiencing good times, even when we are not
- Mourn with those experiencing hard times, even when life is going good for us
- Be gentle with those who are living in ways that are contrary to God’s commands
- Choose to deal kindly with people who are being unkind toward us
These are just a few ideas of what Agape love looks like. It isn’t easy and it isn’t natural. But the Bible tells us that if we love God and seek after Him, we will begin to love others the way He has loved (and continues to love) us.
The second element of the fruit of the Spirit is joy. When we think of being joyful, our minds typically gravitate towards being happy, to laughing and having a good time. But biblical joy is far deeper than just a feeling of happiness. Happiness is fleeting and depends on the circumstance, but the joy Paul describes is much more deeply rooted and lasting, it is not dependent on the changing circumstances of life.
True joy comes from knowing God. It comes from knowing that the King of the Universe loves us and cares for us. It comes from the assurance that no matter what happens we know that God is in control. And because of this we can relax and rejoice.
The Bible is consistent in its teaching that Christians should be joyful regardless of the circumstances. At the end of Philippians Paul tells us,
Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! (Philippians 4:4, NLT)
In James 1 we are told,
Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. (James 1:2-3, NLT)
Joy comes from confidence in the One who is in control of all things, rather than in our circumstances at the moment. This means we can be joyful even in difficult times, because we know that God will take care of us.
Imagine a family whose car breaks down far from home. They may be stranded on the side of the road or waiting at a service station or riding in a tow truck. Think about how the parents would respond in that situation, they would probably be under a great deal of stress as they concerned themselves with trying to get things fixed. But think about a small child in the family. The child doesn’t view the car breaking down as a tragedy; they view it as an adventure. The child will find things to play with on the side of the road, in the tow truck, or at the service station. They don’t let the change in plans stop them from being a kid. They’ll continue to run and play and enjoy life, regardless of the circumstance. Why can the child remain joyful while the parents fret and worry? Because the child isn’t concerned with how things will work out; they trust their parents to handle what they can’t.
That child is a picture of how we can have joy. True joy comes from resting in God, and trusting Him to take care of the things outside our control. It means that we can live life to the fullest no matter what happens. We can keep doing what God created for us to do, and we can do it with gusto. Maybe it’s silly to think about, but I think about Dory from Finding Nemo. She said that no matter what life hands you, just keep swimming!
It doesn’t mean we won’t be sad, and it doesn’t mean that we have to pretend that everything is all right when it’s not. But it does mean we should be people who are not beaten down by the circumstances of the world. We should be people who are not paralyzed by the fear of “what if?” Instead, we should follow the Lord with real joy in every circumstance, trusting that He will work all things for ultimate good.
The third element of the fruit of the Spirit is peace. We tend to think of peace as the absence of conflict. We think world peace means there won’t be wars anymore. We think having peace in our homes means that we no longer fight with one another. But the biblical definition of peace is much more than just the absence of conflict.
You can avoid conflict by simply refusing to engage or refusing to care. When we do those things we may not have conflict, but we won’t have peace. The kind of peace the Bible talks about is all-encompassing. It means that we are at peace with God, at peace with others, and even at peace within ourselves.
Peace with God and peace within ourselves is closely related. In order to have peace with God, we need to recognize our place before Him. We need to admit to our sin and stop making excuses for it. It is only once we have done that that we can experience the peace that comes from the forgiveness we have in Jesus Christ.
Peace within ourselves is a natural byproduct of submitting to God. Have you ever noticed that the times when you feel closest to the Lord also tend to be the times when you have the greatest peace? The worries of life seem to slip away, and you can just rest in Him. Conversely, when we live in open rebellion to God, we are robbed of the peace He intends for us. When we know what God wants from us, but we don’t do it, we begin to distance ourselves from Him. So the best way to have peace within ourselves is to tend to our relationship with God. Stay close to Him, follow His commands, deal with the sins he wants you to change, and you will find that you have a peace that isn’t affected by the things of this life. You will be able to rest in Him.
Peace with others doesn’t only depend on us—which in some ways makes it harder. It requires us to work with the people around us to bring peace in our relationships. It’s hard work, but it is something we need to do. Listen to what Paul says in Romans 14,
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:18, NIV)
Paul tells us that it will not always be possible to be at peace with everyone. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, another person will refuse to make peace…but we should never be the reason there is not peace. Jesus told us that the peacemakers would be blessed (Matthew 5:9); so we should be people who make peace with those around us. Making peace is an active endeavor; peace with others doesn’t just happen on its own. So how do we pursue peace?
The question of how to make peace has as much to do with our hearts as it does our actions. We have to approach conflict situations with a desire for reconciliation rather than a desire to get our way. This means we have to actually listen to the other person and to evaluate our own sin in the conflict. Rarely, if ever, is there a person who is 100% at fault in a conflict. There is usually blame to be shared on each side of the issue. If we want to pursue peace with others, we need to admit to our sin (without making excuses), correct the areas where we are wrong, and be willing to do the hard work of repairing the damage our actions have caused. To be a peacemaker we have to check our egos at the door—the process of making peace requires humility.
The kind of peace described here can only come from God. Peace with God and with ourselves comes from drawing close to Him and following Him. It comes from admitting our sin and seeking to change it. The same principle is true in seeking peace with others—we must swallow our pride, admit and deal with our sin, and seek to draw close to the other person. We must be more than just peaceful people, we should be peacemakers.
Each of these elements is a characteristic that should be present in every believer. One of my (and Dad’s) pet peeves is when people talk about the “fruits” of the Spirit. It’s probably petty for us to get annoyed when people say that, but there is a theological reason why it bothers us. All of these elements taken together make up the fruit of the Spirit. It is not that some Christians demonstrate the fruit of love, while others demonstrate peace, and others bear the fruit of joy. Every element is to be present in every Christian’s life.
If you’re like me, you may be discouraged as you look at this list, because you feel as though your life doesn’t look like this. You may struggle with love, joy, peace, or one of the other characteristics listed in these verses. There are two possible explanations for why that is. The first is that maybe you have never really trusted Christ. The fruit of the Spirit requires the Holy Spirit to be working in our lives. If you have never truly trusted in Jesus, then the Holy Spirit is not working to bring about this fruit in your life. The remedy to that problem is simple: turn from your sin, give up trying to save yourself, and admit what you know deep down—that you are a mess and you need a Savior. Then turn to Jesus and ask Him to save you, and commit to following Him. If you’ll do that, you will begin to see this fruit growing in your life.
The second reason you may not see the fruit of the Spirit being displayed as fully as it should be in your life is because of maturity. If you were to plant an apple tree in your yard, you may not have very many (or any) apples right away. And the next year, you still may not have a lot. But if you care for that tree, if you cultivate it and feed it and help it grow, over time, it will give more and more fruit. The same is true with our spiritual lives. As Christians, we may not see nearly as much of the Spirit’s fruit in our lives as we would like, but we need to keep doing the hard work of preparing ourselves for growth. Over time, as we grow deeper in the Lord, our lives will bear more and more of the fruit of the Spirit.
Here’s the key I think Paul was trying to get us to see: being a Christian is a full-time job. We need to constantly work at submitting our lives to Christ. Our faith can’t be something that only matters for a couple hours on Sunday, after which we just abandon it until next week. True faith, saving faith, changes the way we live. It sets us apart from the world, and it gives us the fulfillment we long for. The person who lives for Christ day in and day out will find their lives bear fruit that sets them apart from the world. Part of that fruit will be an ever increasing measure of love, and joy, and peace.