The New Year means it’s time to return to writing the Horizons of the Possible Blog.
I’m excited about a new sermon series that I’m doing called “Fruitful Disciplines.” It’s a 9 week exploration of the fruit of the Spirit, as described in Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Update on January 11, 2017: Listen to this series on our Covenant-First Presbyterian YouTube Channel)
As I’ve been preparing for this series, I’ve found myself challenged to new spiritual growth and a deeper relationship with Christ. I pray that this series will be of great benefit for the people of Covenant-First Presbyterian. However, we’re also sharing it online in various formats, praying that it would be of benefit to many others.
In addition to posting sermon audio on our YouTube channel, we’ll try to use these blog posts to go a little deeper into the topic. There’s always material that doesn’t make it into the Sunday sermon – illustrations that get cut or scripture cross references that I forget to mention. We’re going to use the blog to give the best nuggets from the Sunday series, as well as sharing some tidbits that wound up on the cutting room floor. I hope you enjoy!
For this post – a quick preamble about the fruit of the Spirit in general.
Most commentators on Galatians 5 point out that the Greek word for fruit is singular, not plural, and this difference is significant in Greek. In other words, we’re not talking about the “fruits” of the Spirit, as though it were some kind of picnic salad with apples, bananas, grapes, blueberries and the lot. The singular “fruit” implies that there is a unity among the nine qualities. They are a whole, a unit, a complete thing. Imagine a crystal with many different sides and facets.
The nine qualities help define one another, and each informs our understanding of the others. For instance, goodness without patience or kindness quickly devolves into a legalistic browbeating. Self control without joy and kindness quickly degenerates into a smug self righteousness. Gentleness without goodness or joy quickly degrades into a simpering wishy washy-ness. And so on. The nine form a harmonious whole, and you can spot a counterfeit quality when one of the nine is notoriously absent.
Fruit as Discipline
We talk a lot about these qualities as something the Holy Spirit grows within us. I’m schooled in the Calvinist tradition where we emphasize that God acts first in our lives through His grace (grace being God’s favor that we didn’t earn – it’s just something God freely gives). We are saved by God’s grace alone, and God’s grace is the vehicle through which we are shaped into the people God calls us to be. So the fruit of the spirit is something that God graciously grows within us.
However, I think it also helpful to think of the fruit of the spirit as a set of spiritual disciplines to which we are called.
In other words, God’s grace sparks our response and fuels our actions. Consider what Paul says in his letter to the Philippians 2:12-13
“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (emphasis mine)
Paul calls his readers to act, trusting that God is working in them, enabling them to act.
Or put another way: one way grace functions is through our response to it.
Relationship: the Key to Understanding
This only makes sense if we understand faith as a relationship with a living God, rather than a transaction with abstract principles. Consider the scriptural stories: God spoke to Abraham, telling him to pick up his family and move to the land where God would lead him; Abraham responded and went. God appeared to Moses as a burning bush, sending him back to Egypt with orders for Pharaoh to release the captive Israelites; Moses responded and went. Jesus walked up face to face with Peter and told him to follow him and become a fisher of men; Peter dropped his nets and followed. Each one of these (and so many others) were personal callings that entailed distinctive tasks. Yet the dynamic is the same: the living God speaks person to person with a human, calling that human to risky action with an uncertain future. And in the process of responding, the human always finds that God’s resources were within them all along, growing them into saints.
We might say that our actions are a response to God’s work within us, even when we’re not yet aware of that inward work.
Maybe this is why Paul says that we work out our salvation “with fear and trembling;” because the fear of the Lord entails something more than mere terror. The fear of the Lord implies awe, reverence, respect, and wonder. It implies amazement that the God of the universe would deign to call us his children. Oh, there is terror for those who shake their fist at God and say “Back off – I’ll do it my own way” – the terror that comes when God says “thy will be done” and withdraws the common grace that he showers upon all creation. But for those who love God and are called according to his purpose, the emotional feeling of the fear of the Lord is much more akin to a reverential respect and awe.
So then, we’re challenged to do something: to practice the disciplines of the fruit of the Spirit. We’re challenged to strive, to grow, and to exhibit these qualities in our lives. This is a challenge fitting for New Year’s resolutions – more important than losing weight and more beneficial than dieting. This is a call to spiritual growth that will produce exponential benefit in our lives.
I hope you’ll join us over the coming weeks and incorporate these disciplines into your life in 2017. In the next post, we’ll start right in with 3 Disciplines for Practicing Love!