Spiritual Reflection – Fruit of the Spirit
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. —Galatians 5:22
We look to the Bible for good news, but sometimes what we read sounds very much like bad news.
In the Old Testament book of Numbers, we encounter a complaining people and an angry God. Moses is leading the children of Israel through the wilderness. Behind them lies Egypt, where they had been held in bondage; up ahead is the Promised Land of freedom. But along the way the people complain to Moses about their rations. They long for the good old days in Egypt when they had meat, fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic, rather than this strange manna sent by God from heaven. “Then the Lord became very angry, and Moses was displeased.”
In the New Testament book of James we are reminded that our life is but “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” Those of us who may be considered rich are advised to “weep and wail for the miseries that are coming. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire.”
In the gospel of Mark we read words from Jesus Christ that are immensely challenging. Jesus says if our hand or foot causes us to stumble as we are entering the kingdom of God, we should cut it off. If our eye causes us to stumble, we should tear it out, because “it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”
Every autumn my Northern California hometown hosts a Vintage Festival at the culmination of the growth cycle of the surrounding vineyards. The cycle begins in the dead of winter when the vineyards are nothing more than manicured rows of bare trunks and branches. Then comes spring, when the vines send out curling tendrils and leaves of the brightest green. During the long days of summer, the blossoms on the vines transform into tiny grapes. As summer turns to autumn, the grapes grow heavy on the vine. The leaves turn red, yellow, orange—ablaze with what Jack London calls the “autumn glory of the grape.” Then in late September, we celebrate the harvest and the crush with our beloved Vintage Festival.
We could say this annual cycle follows the law of seasonal change or the law of germination, but such laws are nothing more than objective descriptions of observable phenomena. We could postulate: when autumn comes, the fruit on the vine matures. But is this a law or simply a description of the way things are?
A central teaching of the Old Testament is summed up in the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” This same is affirmed in the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God. … You shall have no other gods before me.”
The teachings of Jesus Christ centre on the kingdom of God—a set of right relations with God and among humankind. This is what the parables of Jesus are about; this is what his life, death, and resurrection are about. Christ opens a way, by grace through faith, for us to enter God’s kingdom, for us to become the people God wants us to be, to find wholeness of life, completion, salvation, shalom. The gospel message, good news or bad, is that we cannot enter the kingdom of God unless we first accept God as the Lord of our lives.
Certain natural consequences flow from a life centred on self rather than on God. We could call these consequences spiritual laws, or we could say they are simply statements of the way things are. In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul says that if we have the Spirit of God within us, then we will bear the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Jesus gives us a catalogue of fruit borne by a self-centred life: theft, murder, adultery, avarice, deceit, envy, slander, and pride.
The opening scene from the book of Numbers is just one episode in the ongoing story of God’s attempt to teach the ancient people of Israel to accept God’s sovereignty in their lives. This is what the gift of manna is about. The people have a “strong craving” for other food. They are unwilling to accept their dependence on God, and so the Lord is angry and Moses displeased. Their old cravings threaten to take them back to bondage, to divert them from the freedom lying ahead on the way the Lord has set before them.
The passage from the letter of James, quoted earlier in this reflection, begins with the bold command “Submit yourselves therefore to God.” It warns against a life centred on self and points to one centred on God. Contrary to what the dominant culture proclaims, a self-centred life is not a happy one. That is why James comes down hard on those of us who may be considered rich. We are the ones most likely to be seduced into thinking wealth is the way to happiness. In desperation, we may be drawn into theft, deceit, slander, and even murder in service to the great god self.
In the challenging passage from Mark’s gospel, Jesus uses hyperbole to teach us not to allow anything to divert us from entering the kingdom of God. None of the good things of this world—nothing we experience with our hands, travel to with our feet, look upon with our eyes—can rival the importance of our reply to the question of who is at the centre of our lives.
If we can admit the Lord is God, our lives will begin to bear the fruit of the Spirit. No longer distorted by self-interest, our relationships with others will fill with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Rawls, James J.. On the Way: 100 Reflections on the Journey of Faith. WestBow Press. Kindle Edition.