Fruit of the Spirit

Walking with God is not about the destination. …As with Abraham, we may walk our whole lives without reaching an apparent destination, but when we are in danger of becoming discouraged, we should have markers along the way that remind us of how God has led us and delivered us in the past. (Walking Humbly)

So it is with Christian character. We are told to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33), and too often think of that as some remote future place, but just prior to that, in Christ’s model prayer, He seeks for “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) The kingdom is a reality here and now, and must be lived in our present-day lives. Indeed, the only way some people will be able to be part of the future kingdom is if those that profess Jesus Christ live out kingdom principles daily.

It is reported that when Gandhi was asked what he thought of Christianity, he responded, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” And so we come to the heart of the matter of building Christian character (more…)

So, I was going to go a whole different direction with this, but I guess the benefit of not having posted earlier is that it gives time for God to offer His insight. I can’t even remember what prompted it now, but for some reason today, the picture of Christ hanging on the cross came to mind, and it occurred to me that that was the ultimate in self-control…for God to hang on the cross, not calling on the legions of angels, nor simply taking Himself down, but allowing Himself to be nailed to that instrument of torture and allowing God to be killed, as it were!

And why? Because there was something greater to be accomplished! Could He really see it then? Not so much as the sense of being forsaken set in, but how much greater, then, is the demonstration of self-control? In the moment of greatest separation in one sense, the Father and Son are closest in their unity of purpose as the Son hangs on the cross! (The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, Moltmann)

Our self-control, then, is not dependent on our own will or feelings. It is not something we can accomplish in and of ourselves or at any given moment — it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit and through a continued experience of walking in God’s will.

In light of the self-control demonstrated by Jesus in order to accomplish the greater good of our salvation, what excuse have we for not demonstrating the little self-control asked of us along the way that we, too, might accomplish the greater purpose God has for our lives now that He’s endured the cross to redeem them?

The world puts a lot of emphasis on self-esteem, and those living in the United States are particularly ready to argue their “right” to do a whole host of things, and talk to this generation about “turning the other cheek” and they’ll let you know they’d do just about anything but look “weak.”

Contrast all this with the fruit of the Spirit meekness. Like so many Christian teachings, this one has been too often twisted so there is little understanding of the Biblical idea of meekness. The definition of an “attitude of humility toward God and gentleness toward people” I think is an interesting one to consider. Think of the three components given in Micah 6:8 as to what it is the Lord desires: (1) act justly; (2) love mercy; and (3) walk humbly with your God. It is the walking “humbly with your God” that makes the other elements possible, for we cannot know or understand God’s justice or love of mercy until we have walked with Him. [But "Walking Humbly" is a whole 'nother message...]

This meekness, then, is a thing of strength and not of weakness. This is where what Oswald Chambers terms “God-esteem” must trump self-esteem. We must see ourselves and others through God’s eyes and with His heart instead of our own sin-tainted ones.

Take a moment to think of those in history you would consider meek. Were they “weak”? Did they conform to how the world tends to define meekness as something akin to doormats? Besides Jesus, Mother Teresa and Gandhi come to mind for me…hardly people lacking in confidence, inner strength, courage, or fortitude!

Let us, then, walk with our God, trusting in His goodness and control over all things, and allowing that attitude to manifest itself also in how we relate to others, giving glory to God in all things.

As I reflected on the importance of God’s faithfulness in our lives, I was reminded of a prayer of Soren Kierkegaard:

Father in Heaven! You have loved us first, help us never to forget that You are love so that this sure conviction might triumph in our hearts over the seduction of the world, over the inquietude of the soul, over the anxiety for the future, over the fright of the past, over the distress of the moment. But grant also that this conviction might discipline our soul so that our heart might remain faithful and sincere in the love which we bear to all those whom You have commanded us to love as we love ourselves.

You have loved us first, O God, alas! We speak of it in terms of history as if You have only loved us first but a single time, rather than that without ceasing You have loved us first many times and every day and our whole life through. When we wake up in the morning and turn our soul toward You – You are the first – You have loved us first; if I rise at dawn and at the same second turn my soul toward You in prayer, You are there ahead of me, You have loved me first. When I withdraw from the distractions of the day and turn my soul toward You, You are the first and thus forever. And yet we always speak ungratefully as if You have loved us first only once.

And so we see again, the inextricable relation of love with another one of the fruit of the Spirit. And we see again how God’s first action should result in our own proactiveness in relation to others. Let us love the unlovely, offer joy amidst sorrow and depression, bring peace in turmoil, be patient with the restive, be kind to the unkind, repay evil with good, and prove faithful in this ever-changing, fickle world.

This transformed life we are called to live by the power of the Holy Spirit is not simply for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others. It is for those that we encounter, and for those that will follow behind us. As the Steve Green song says, “May those who come behind us find us faithful.” Just as we stand on the shoulders of the faithful from Hebrews 11 through those who we have been blessed to encounter in our own lifetimes, so we must be found faithful for those God has placed within our sphere of influence.

But what happens when “The Older Brother Syndrome” kicks in? When one gets tired of being the dependable, honest, loyal, faithful one? As someone who made a decision for Christ at an early age, I’ve always tended to sympathize with the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. But here we come full circle, for the Father is faithful in His restoration of all His children. While the younger son’s complete severing of relations is overt, the older son, in his anger, similarly distances himself:

“The prodigal is no longer his brother; he is “this son of yours” (v. 30).  The pejorative “this” (Fitzmyer 1985, 1091), “son” instead of “brother,” and “yours” instead of “mine” bespeak the radicality of exclusion….The older one will not be the “brother-of-the-prodigal” and hence for him the prodigal is not “my brother.” …For the first time in the whole story, in the older brother’s explanation of his anger, the father is not addressed as “father.” He has become just another “you” (vv. 29-30)….

…But though the older son “un-fathers” the father, the father not only holds on to him (as he held onto the prodigal while the prodigal was in the distant country), but states clearly that the relationship has not been broken….

…For the father, the priority of the relationship means not only a refusal to let moral rules be the final authority regulating “exclusion” and “embrace” but also a refusal to construct his own identity in isolation from his sons, He readjusts his identity along with the changing identities of his sons and thereby reconstructs their broken identities and relationships. He suffers being “un-fathered” by both, so that through this suffering he may regain both as his sons (if the older brother was persuaded) and help them rediscover each other as brothers. [Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, Miraslov Volf, pp. 156-165]

Let us, then, draw on that faithfulness of God, knowing that in every moment, it is He that loves us first, transforming us through His love that we may be found faithful, and that our relationships might be restored not only with our Father, but with our brothers and sisters.

 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. (Mark 10:18)

When Jesus questions someone calling Him good, what hope have we in manifesting goodness in our lives?

It is a striking reminder of the standard against which we must be measured. All are capable of both good and evil, but reflecting the true goodness of God our Father is only possible through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 7:18-19; 8:13-15) It is a very transformation of our character to not only desire the good that is God’s will, but also to actively exhibit that good in our lives and avoid all evil.

Perhaps this is part of Jesus’ objection to being called good, for many are called good without the ability to know their hearts. Instead, we are called to reflect God in His revelation of good rather than it merely being a fleeting appellation. In a cursory search, it doesn’t seem the word “good” is even used to refer to God until Exodus 33:19, but clearly all that has been revealed of God prior to that — from creation to the salvation of man through Noah’s family to His covenant with Abram to His guiding of Joseph’s life to the exodus to the reestablishment of His covenant people and so much more — we see that God is good so much more than if we had simply been told this and been expected to believe it at face value.

How, then, is this fruit being manifested in your own life? Do the things that cause people to see you as “good” flow from a right motivation, — that “inward devotion and love toward God” that will ultimately reveal the God we serve to others so they can see beyond our apparent goodness to the One that alone is good?

There is a truism that states, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Herein lies the centrality of kindness to the effectiveness of our Christian witness. We are told we will be known by our love, not our doctrines, not our knowledge, not our beliefs, not our educational and health institutions, but our LOVE.

Indeed, kindness is a “witness in and of itself of what our God is like.” Indeed, part of the answer to the question posed in Micah 6:8 as to what it is the Lord requires is to “love mercy.” That’s an interesting way of putting it…it doesn’t say to “show” mercy or “do” mercy,” but to love it. We are to be so in tune with God’s heart that we desire mercy for others, just as He desires it for us!

Another saying — not so true — hold that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” This is perhaps one of the most terrible lies we ever teach our children, who learn soon enough that words DO hurt. And too often, they’re the weapon of choice, particularly with those closest to us. Perhaps the most effective way we can demonstrate kindness is to speak encouragement, always seeking to build others up…or at least never to tear down.

The story of Jonah provides a unique insight into various aspects of God’s patience, namely His patience and forbearance with those who know no better AND His patience with His people.

The same dichotomy can be seen in the opening chapters of Amos, where a list of horrendous crimes committed by the nations surrounding Israel is catalogued before coming to what, in comparison, seem “minor” infractions, but because they are committed by God’s people who are held to a higher standard, the oppression of the poor is held on a par with the murder of a pregnant woman.

Whenever considering characteristics of God that we in some way share, it is critical to understand that God’s perfect manifestation of said characteristics will always differ from ours. We see various instances throughout the Bible where God’s patience reaches a limit, but this is in the context of omniscience and eternity (as it usually takes multiple generations for His limit to be reached). Since we share neither of those characteristics, we must be careful of allowing our patience to run out (and mostly careful of what form this takes).

Mostly, as we consider God’s patience with His people, we would do well to remember with humility His patience with each of us individually. As we consider how we should bear with others who might not be in the same place as us, we would also do well to remember that we’re a work in progress…therefore, we’re likely not where someone else is, who hopefully is bearing with us in patience as we continue on our path of Christian maturity. May we all bear with one another in love and humility, encouraging and building up the body of Christ!

How are we to find peace in a world ravaged by war? In a world where terrorism is an ever-looming threat? In a world where catastrophes such as the devastating earthquake in Haiti can strike at any moment?

What is this peace that is promised as a fruit of the Spirit? That Christians are promised in this tumultuous world?

God’s own overtures of peace offer the best example, for He entered His created world that had been overrun by the enmity caused by sin and offered His creation reconciliation — a way back to the edenic fellowship between man and God.

Note that He was not the cause of the problem, but He offered the solution. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) We must be proactive in finding resolution to conflict, regardless of who is in the wrong.

We must also find balance in understanding that any peace on this earth will be imperfect, and must be achieved among turmoil. Right now, people around the world are overwhelmed by the devastation in Haiti, wishing they could do more, but we must not be so overwhelmed that we don’t do what we can, while recognizing that it is not enough and allowing that to motivate us to continue in our efforts long after it has passed from the headlines.

The peace that Christ demonstrated was not easy — it takes a constant connection with God and a commitment to doing His will.

At this time when we honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech helps us to understand further the struggle and long-term commitment to achieving the peace God has promised:

…I must ask why this prize is awarded to a movement which …has not won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize.

After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time — the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.

…nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.

If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. …

…I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him.

I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.

I believe that … there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.

I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up. …

“And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.”

I still believe that we shall overcome.

This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. …

I’ve encountered some bad (albeit well-intentioned) teachings in my life about how a Christian should always have a smile on their face. This negates the reality of suffering in a sin-infested world, doesn’t take into account the many ways in which God speaks to us in His Word (including Lamentations), and certainly does not have Gethsemane nor the cross in view. In short, such teaching fails to make the distinction between a superficial happiness and deep inner joy.

As we see, the command to ‘rejoice always’ is conditioned by this rejoicing being “in the Lord.” (Phil 4:4) This is not a superficial smile pasted on to gloss over pain and ease others’ discomfort, but a knowledge that “this too shall pass,” and that we are living in the expectant hope of the ultimate realization of a place with no more tears, nor sorrows, nor pain. That time is not now, but we are encouraged in John to “be of good cheer,” despite tribulations of this world, for Christ has overcome.

And so it is Christ’s example we should follow in seeking to understand this joy, for certainly He fulfilled the prophecy foretelling He would be a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3), but He endured suffering for the “joy set before Him.” (Hebrews 12:2-3) This joy, then, must see things with heaven’s eyes, in light of eternity. We would do well to consider what we are willing to endure for the joy set before us, for Christ has secured that joy for us!

Lest we fall into the other errant teaching that would have us think there is nothing to enjoy in this world, and we should be ever-vigilant that we not be caught having fun, Christ left us plenty of examples to counter that, as well. In When God Whispers Your Name, author Max Lucado points out that Jesus took his followers to a party on His first journey:

His purpose wasn’t to turn the water to wine. That was a favor for his friends.

His purpose wasn’t to show his power. The wedding host didn’t even know what Jesus did.

His purpose wasn’t to preach. There is no record of a sermon.

Really leaves only one reason. Fun. Jesus went to the wedding because he liked the people….

So, while we’re promised tribulation, if we have that love of which we spoke last week and truly like these other people God has created and given us fellowship with, we will surely experience joy on this earth, as well as in the world to come. And if we are true to Christ’s example, our lives here should be lived in such a way that they bring joy to others. After all, Christ enjoyed His short earthly life so much that He was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, and was counted a friend to sinners and tax collectors (Matthew 11:18-19)…who do you count among your friends?  Perhaps we need to widen our circle!

Imagine what our homes, schools, workplaces, churches, communities would look like if those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ truly exemplified the “noblest and highest form of self-sacrificing love” described in this lesson! What if we each had this love that included every facet of our being and let if flow out to those with whom we come into contact, acting intentionally for the good of other? Indeed, reflecting the way God Himself would act toward His beloved creation… 

While we know we cannot create a heaven here on earth, we are to called to be Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20), which indicates that we are to live as citizens and representatives of heaven within this sinful world. When we pray, “Thy kingdom come,” it is at once both a present and future reality. Indeed, as Walter Rauschenbusch notes in Christianity and the Social Crisis: 

The kingdom of God [in Hebrew tradition] was a social and collective hope and it was for this earth. The eternal life [of the Greco-Roman world], was an individualistic hope, and it was not for this earth. The kingdom of God involved the social transformation of humanity. The hope of eternal life, as it was then held, was the desire to escape from this world and be done with it. 

How, then, can we properly balance the future hope with the kingdom of God on this present earth? 

By demonstrating His love to self. While I’d steer clear of the kind of self-esteem taught within today’s secular society, Christians should not swing so far to the other extreme that they neglect the part of the command to love our neighbor that indicates how, namely “as yourself.” If seen in its proper perspective, this is actually incredibly helpful in our understanding how to love others. As C.S. Lewis describes in his classic Mere Christianity: 

Now that I come to think of it, I have not exactly got a feeling of fondness or affection for myself, and I do not even always enjoy my own society. So apparently ‘Love your neighbour’ does not mean ‘feel fond of him’ or ‘find him attractive.’… Do I think well of myself, think myself a nice chap? Well, I am afraid I sometimes do (and those are, no doubt, my worst moments) but that is not why I love myself. In fact it is the other way round: my self-love makes me think myself nice, but thinking myself nice is not why I love myself. So loving my enemies does not apparently mean thinking them nice either…. In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know that I am a very nasty one. I can look at some of the things I have done with horror and loathing. So apparently I am allowed to loathe and hate some of the things my enemies do. Now that I come to think of it, I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate a bad man’s actions, but not to hate the bad man: or, as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner. 

For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction…. But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life — namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things. 

By demonstrating His love to our neighbor. [Luke 10] When questioned about what must be done to inherit eternal life, Jesus first turned the question back around to the inquirer, who rightly answered about loving one’s neighbor, but then asked, “Who is my neighbor?” It should be noted in Jesus’ response through the parable of the good Samaritan that He did not actually answer who “my neighbor” is, but “reframed the…question…to ‘To whom will I be a neighbor?'” (Frank Tupper, A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God

By demonstrating His love to our enemies. There is no more limitation on this command than there is on “loving one’s neighbor” or being one’s “brother’s keeper.” The objection to this often comes from what seems unrealistic in this world — turning the other cheek and appearing “weak.” What must always be remembered, however, is that it’s about the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of this world, or the tyranny of the here and now. 

Too often, we fall into the same pattern as the one who questioned Jesus — we ask questions we already know the answer to; questions God has clearly answered. So what does this love we’re called to look like? Look no further than 1 Corinthians 13. Is it easy? No. Can it change the world? Absolutely! Is it worth it? Jesus certainly thought so when He came while we were yet sinners that we might be saved.

[RELATED: "Faith, Hope, Love – the “Trinity” of the Christian Life?" Why do 'these three remain'? Why is the 'greatest of these' love?]

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