The Fruit of the Spirit: the Path That Leads to Loving as Jesus Loved
THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT
VERSUS THE WORKS OF THE FLESH
Paul’s identification of the fruit of the Spirit is the central part of a larger teaching. That larger teaching is the landscape through which this path to loving as Jesus loved cuts. It guides our understanding of the fruit of the Spirit.
The Flesh and the Works of the Flesh
The nine traits Paul identified as the fruit of the Spirit stand in marked contrast to what Paul called the flesh. Paul emphasized this contrast with the words with which he introduced the fruit of the Spirit: “by contrast.” This contrast is foundational for understanding the fruit of the Spirit.
Paul had a deep understanding of human nature. His use of the term the flesh referred to more than the physical desires of the body. It was the shorthand term he used to speak of the self-focused, self-serving spirit that is inherent to our human condition. The flesh refers to our default nature. In today’s language, the flesh refers to the ego-centric needs and desires that drive how we live and govern how we relate to others. These ego needs lead us to unconsciously operate out of a what’s-in-it-for-me spirit. This self-focused, self-serving spirit is driven by deep-seated anxiety and fear, robbing us of joy and peace. Living out of this default nature, we live out of a spirit of scarcity. We think in terms of us-them, me-and-mine. We easily become impatient with others and, thereby, critical and judgmental of them. We distance ourselves – emotionally and physically – from “the other.” We use our power and abilities to take care of me-and-mine, often using those abilities against “the other.” This default nature stands in marked contrast to the self-giving love which the Spirit seeks to produce within the followers of Jesus.
Paul spoke of the impact on human relationships of this self-serving, what’s-in-it-for-me spirit as the works of the flesh. “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19-21).
This listing divides into three broad categories of behavior that the self-serving, what’s-in-it-for-me spirit produces. The first set of behaviors involves the self-indulgence of physical appetites and desires in the relentless pursuit of pleasure: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, drunkenness, carousing. These behaviors reflect an insatiable hunger for “more.” They seek to fill an inner emotional-psychological-spiritual emptiness through the gratification of physical desires. The second group of behaviors expresses a desire for power as reflected in the reference to idolatry and sorcery. These two practices were an attempt to have power over the unnamed forces beyond the physical realm for one’s own profit and advantage. They reflect a desire for control. Finally, the flesh produces division and broken relationships: enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy. In this listing of the works of the flesh, Paul tied the brokenness and chaos of human relationships directly to the self-serving, what’s-in-it-for-me spirit this is our default human nature, i.e., the flesh.
The Law: the Human Attempt to Control the Flesh
The way we humans have historically dealt with such life-depleting behaviors is through laws. We create religious, moral, and legal codes that define what is acceptable and what is not. These laws become tools we use in seeking to control our basic nature. This reliance upon law to govern the chaos we inevitably create is the larger context of Paul’s fruit of the Spirit. In his letter to the churches of Galatia, Paul warned his readers about the inadequacy of the law, first, as a means of relating to God and, then, as a means of living as the followers of Jesus.
First, he reminded the Galatians that grace was the basis of relationship with God, not obedience to the law. His letter challenged the teachings of those teachers who had come into the churches of Galatia behind Paul. Whereas Paul had proclaimed that God relates to us out of grace, these teachers insisted that the Gentiles had to be circumcised and submit to the Jewish Law. Paul’s letter is full of anger and disappointment as he confronted this emphasis upon law. He challenged his readers’ thinking with hard statements and pointed questions. Paul appealed to the example of Abraham to argue that faith, not obedience to the Law, is the basis of our relationship with God (Galatians 3:6-9). He argued that those who attempted to relate to God based upon obedience to the Law must obey all of the Law without fail and, thus, are under a curse (Galatians 3:10-14; 5:3). Paul called the Law a guardian or disciplinarian designed to lead us to God’s grace. The violation of the Law creates an awareness of sin (Galatians 3:19-26) and, thereby, the awareness of the need of grace.
In chapter five of his letter, Paul advanced his argument. Having reaffirmed grace as the basis of the Galatians’ relationship with God, he turned to what was to guide how they lived. Paul argued that the followers of Jesus do not live by obeying the Law because they have been set free from the Law. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). Here Paul spoke of living by the Law as living in slavery, under a harsh task master. Instead of living by the Law, Christ followers live by the Spirit, guided by the Spirit and empowered by the Spirit.
The Law can tell us what to do, but it cannot empower us to do what it says. In his letter to the churches in Rome, Paul described the Law as powerless. It can tell us what to do, but it cannot empower us to do what it says. The Spirit, by contrast, does what the Law cannot do. The Spirit empowers us to live the ways of God by setting us free from the power of the flesh. The Spirit produces the fruit of the Spirit within us. In his description of the fruit of the Spirit, Paul noted: “there is no law against such things” (Galatians 5:23).
Live by the Spirit: Moving beyond the Patterns of the Flesh
The Spirit, not the Law, is the means by which the followers of Jesus deal with the flesh and the chaos it produces in human relationships. “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other” (Galatians 5:16-17a).
To live by the Spirit is to live in an intentional, conscious relationship with God, allowing the Spirit, rather than the Law, to be our guide for living. The Spirit teaches us the ways of God that Jesus taught and then guides us in how to put those ways into practice in our relationships. To live by the Spirit also involves depending upon the Spirit for the power to do what we cannot do in our own strength. The things Jesus taught go against the natural inclinations of our default human nature. Thus, we need a power beyond our own to live as his followers. So, to live by the Spirit is to live in glad dependency on the Spirit for guidance and power. The Spirit becomes our silent partner who enables us to learn and live the ways of God that Jesus taught.
In this section of his letter (Galatians 5:16-26), Paul identified two things the Spirit produces in our lives. The Spirit leads us beyond “the flesh,” our default, fear-based, self-focused, self-serving, what’s-in-it-for-me spirit. This work of the Spirit is more than controlling the works of the flesh. The Spirit moves us beyond the old reactive patterns that produce those works. But the Spirit’s work is not complete until our lives are filled with the fruit of the Spirit. The Spirit empowers us to love as Jesus loved.