Of all the modern era Christian writers God has blessed mankind with, the late Brennan Manning tops my list. His books have affected me deeper than most because I’m prone to tunnel vision and too often overlook what he calls “The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus” (one of Manning’s most endearing works). He’s also someone I can identify with because he was always transparent about his weaknesses. Brennan was born in Brooklyn in 1934. 29 years later he graduated from Saint Francis College and was ordained into the Franciscan priesthood. In the late 60s he relocated to Spain where he joined an order called the Little Brothers of Jesus of Charles de Foucauld, choosing to live an austere life working alongside and ministering to the poor. At one point he spent six months meditating alone in a cave in the Zaragoza desert. In the 70s Manning returned to the states, ending up in Ft. Lauderdale where he fell into a pit of alcohol addiction that almost killed him. He hit rock bottom on April Fool’s Day, 1975. He wrote, “I was thick in an alcoholic fog, sniffing vomit all over my sweater, staring down at my bare feet. I didn’t know a wino would steal my shoes during the night to buy a bottle of Thunderbird, but one did. I’d been out on the street for a year and a half, drunk every day, sleeping on the beach until the cops chased me away. You could find me in doorways or under the bridge, always clutching my precious little bottle of Tequila.” On that particular morning, sprawled in a doorway, he spotted an attractive woman coming toward him with her four-year-old son in tow. “The boy broke loose from his mother’s grip, ran to the doorway and stared down at me. His mother rushed in behind him, tucked her hand over his eyes and said, ‘Don’t look at that filth. That’s nothing but pure filth.’ Then I felt her shoe. She broke two of my ribs with that kick.” He stepped out of denial that day. It took six months of rehab to restore him to health. He went on to pen over a dozen books, including the popular “Ragamuffin Gospel” and became a highly sought-after lecturer the world over.
What does Manning’s story have to do with the subject at hand? Billy Graham said, “Perhaps this is what the fruit of the Spirit is all about. If life were always kind to us, if people were always pleasant and courteous, if we never had headaches, never knew what it was to be tired or under terrific pressure, the fruit of the Spirit might go unnoticed.” In the case of Brennan Manning it was his arduous, humbling journey through addiction that enabled him to bear rich spiritual fruit that touched hundreds of thousands of people. He spent the rest of his life as living proof of God’s healing power and he led many to the cross once he chose holiness over selfishness. It’s no mistake the Bible calls the Third Person of the Trinity the Holy Spirit. One of His premier functions is to impart the holiness of the great I AM to us. He accomplishes this by developing in every believer a new character modeled after Christ’s so they can bear spiritual fruit. Ephesians 4:13 says that God’s purpose for implanting the Holy Spirit in me is so I’ll become “a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature.”
Why fruit? It’s important to note untainted water was hard to find in Biblical days so the grapes necessary to make safe-to-drink wine were invaluable. Plus what was gathered from fruit trees supplied the majority of the vitamins essential to maintaining general health so fruit wasn’t something one casually picked up at the grocery store because it looked inviting. It was a mainstay of their diet and besides, it was sweet to the taste. Thus “fruit” is employed often in Scripture to describe what God expects His children to produce. In earlier essays I shined a bright light on the fact that an important task the Holy Spirit performs is that of bestowing spiritual gifts upon members of the body of Christ. I tried to emphasize that my gift is different from yours and vice versa. Yet the Bible teaches there’s a distinct difference between the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit in that the latter isn’t given to Christians. We’re to produce it. All followers of Jesus are to yield spiritual fruit. We do that by being persistent seed sowers wherever we go. That’s what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 13. We’re to be faithful farmers of the faith. We’re not to fret over where the seeds land. Our assignment is to scatter them indiscriminately. He acknowledged that some will be snatched up by birds the second they hit the ground. Some will land in the gravel and never get a chance to sprout. Others will end up in shallow dirt and start to grow but eventually get starved out by weeds. But Christ assured us our efforts won’t be in vain because some pods will sink into healthy soil, develop deep roots and thrive to produce more crops than we can imagine. Only the Heavenly Father knows where the seeds end up so we should be content to let Him handle that end of things. And notice that fruit isn’t plural. There’s one fruit. We may all be like trees in a grove but the Holy Ghost is the one and only source of spiritual fruit.
Of the Holy Spirit Frederick Buechner wrote, “Like its counterparts in Hebrew and Greek, the Latin word spiritus originally meant breath (as in expire, respiratory, and so on), and breath is what you have when you’re alive and don’t have when you’re dead. Thus spirit = breath = life, the aliveness and power of your life, and to speak of your spirit (or soul) is to speak of the power of life that is in you. When your spirit is unusually strong, the life in you unusually alive, you can breathe it out into other lives, become literally in-spiring.” The gist is this: Christians need the Holy Spirit’s living water overflowing in us because without Him we can’t manufacture even the scrawniest of fruit. Left to our own devices we’re too preoccupied with self-centered urges and desires to be of any use to God. That’s why we must repent of our sinful ways, kill them and throw them out with the trash. After that we must usher the Holy Spirit into our lives and appoint Him our personal CEO. Colossians 3:5 states, “So put to death whatever in your nature belongs to the earth: sexual immorality, impurity, shameful passion, evil desire, and greed which is idolatry.” Verse 12 says to “clothe yourselves with a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience…” Here’s a simple illustration. All human hearts have a spiritual door. A door can let things in and keep things out. The sinful stuff in us need to be locked out permanently while God must be granted entry and given full access. Yet the Bible says we don’t have the power to do either one. None but the Holy Spirit has that ability. When we surrender our lives to Christ He sends the Holy Ghost to dwell in us and begin working His makeover miracle.
The more we turn our entire existence over to the Holy Spirit’s control the more He can assist us in jettisoning the garbage we’ve hoarded and piled up in our hearts and minds. He becomes our infallible restoration expert. In addition to cleaning the place up He brings in new attitudes, new motivations, new devotion and a whole lotta love. He also reinforces our door’s fundamental strength so the devil can’t poke holes in it. Before we know it our run-down habitat is spilling over with life-affirming spiritual fruit and at last we can experience what true fulfillment feels like. Manford George Gutzke compared a Christian’s spiritual fruit to light. He wrote, “All the colors of the rainbow are in every beam of sunlight. They’re all there at any one time. They may not always come into vision, but they’re all present. It’s not necessary to think of them as being so many separate colors. Just as these colors of the rainbow are present in light, so these traits of personal conduct are in the working of the Holy Spirit.”
An appropriate question at this juncture is, “So how does the Holy Spirit help us bring forth fruit?” Two Scripture passages come to mind, starting with the first Psalm wherein a godly person is compared to a strategically-planted tree. “How blessed is the one who does not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand in the pathway with sinners, or sit in the assembly of scoffers! Instead he finds pleasure in obeying the Lord’s commands; he meditates on his commands day and night. He is like a tree planted by flowing streams; it yields its fruit at the proper time, and its leaves never fall off. He succeeds in everything he attempts.” (Psalm 1:1-3) It’s plain to see the amount of spiritual fruit we can yield is directly related to how much time we spend in and contemplating upon God’s Word. When we meditate on Scripture the Holy Spirit – the one who inspired the Bible authors in the first place – convicts us of sin and gives us a moral compass to follow based on God’s standards. In other words, without God’s Holy Word as our guide we’ll be as barren as the fig tree Jesus cursed in Mark 11:12-14.
The other passage is John 15:4-5. There the Lord likened our relationship with Him to a vine and its branches: “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me – and I in him – bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing.” One of my favorite preachers is Alistair Begg. When he brought that last word up in one of his sermons he said something along the lines of, “If you look up the root word in the original Greek you’ll find out the term employed means… (pregnant pause) …“Nothing!” In essence, unless we’re connected to Christ we can’t do anything considered even vaguely worthwhile in the kingdom of God. This is a poignant Bible passage and one we can’t afford to skim over. Notice the command Jesus issues to every believer: “Remain in me.” That means we can’t let anything come between Christ and ourselves. To paraphrase Abraham Heschel, “Jesus Christ is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance.” I think our Savior was referring to Himself in Matthew 13:44-46 when He said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure, hidden in a field, that a person found and hid. Then because of joy he went and sold all that he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he found a pearl of great value, he went out and sold everything he had and bought it.” Nothing matches Christ. Our relationship with Jesus should be so precious to us we’d gladly give up every material possession to own it.
This passage about branches and the vine informs us we’re incapable of bearing spiritual fruit if we don’t remain in Christ. Remember, He said without Him we can do nothing. Sure, we can probably show off our gifts of the Spirit even when we’re not being loyal and faithful to the Lord but they won’t be able to produce any fruit of the Spirit if we’re out of touch with Jesus. When we, the branches, remain in Christ the Holy Ghost fills us with Jesus’ living water. We must stay firmly connected to our Savior, the one true vine. What’s our part in remaining in Christ? Practicing unwavering obedience. When we observe the disciplines of prayer, Bible study and fellowship with other Christians we’re living obedient lives. Then, and only then, can the potent vine deliver the energy and power necessary for us to produce life-giving fruit. Fruit that glorifies our Heavenly Father and provides spiritual nourishment to the people in this fallen world who are starving for truth and peace.
The branches and vine analogy comes about as close as we can get to what’s really happening. Most of the process is beyond our comprehension. A grape-laden branch doesn’t know how it yields such abundant fruit, it only knows for certain it’d wither and die if it were cut off from the vine. So it is with a Christian’s life. No matter how determined or ambitious we are about producing beneficial fruit from our labors, without Jesus we can produce nothing of substance. But if we remain in Christ by maintaining a close, faithful and dependent relationship with Him we’ll bear spiritual fruit in our lives. This whole thing takes time, though, so we must be patient. Fruit trees have to gradually mature and they must undergo seasonal pruning. Believers are no different. My wife and I are blessed to live in a semi-rural area on an acre of land with several large trees on the property. In the fall most of their leaves drop off and scatter to the winds but the red oaks keep their dead leaves attached until spring arrives. As the sap begins to flow into their branches new leaves form, crowding out the old leaves that finally detach and float away in the strong southerly breeze. The figurative analogy to our lives is inescapable. 2 Corinthians 5:17 reads, “So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away – look, what is new has come!”
Now, I don’t like the pruning deal any more than anyone else does because sometimes God takes away things I’ve become attached to and don’t want to relinquish. Every year around Valentine’s Day I have to go around and prune the rose bushes back and I hate doing it. Usually they’re just starting to show signs of sprouting tiny leaves and it pains me to pare the branches down half their length because, frankly, it just feels wrong to do that to the poor plants. But I’ve learned the hard way that if I don’t do what’s necessary the beautiful blooms we so look forward to seeing and smelling months later will be fewer and farther between. Only through careful, timely pruning will they flourish and grow healthier in the long run. Yet our God is a merciful, loving Father so His acts of spiritual pruning are usually far less drastic and severe than that. In John 15:2-3 Jesus states, “He prunes every branch that bears fruit so it will bear more fruit. You are clean already because of the word that I have spoken to you.” In other words, by remaining in Jesus and studying/applying what we glean from the Bible we get gently pruned of our old, unproductive shoots because there’s power embedded in God’s Holy Word. In this way the indwelling Holy Spirit makes us stronger, more productive Christians in a compassionate yet efficient manner.
In Acts we’re told about Apollos. His enthusiasm for the Gospel and his infectious spiritual gift of preaching warmed the hearts of Priscilla and Aquila. However, the headstrong fellow was immature and somewhat naïve, causing him to be less than impressively fruitful. He hadn’t first taken time to fully grasp and absorb the fundamental precepts of the faith. He needed pruning. But this godly couple refrained from being overly critical of Apollo’s ignorance. Rather, they took him into their home and, with loving care, “…explained the way of God to him more accurately” (Acts 18:26). In the years that followed Apollo was better equipped to reach his potential and use his great gifts for the glory of God. He brought many thirsty souls to a saving knowledge of the amazing grace of our Lord and was instrumental in establishing the early Church.
Here are a few questions we must ask ourselves: “Am I remaining in Christ 24/7?” “Is Jesus the most important person in my life?” “Is my connection to the vine tenuous or am I and my Savior inseparable?” I’m really the only person who can answer those questions for myself and, if I’m honest, there’s no doubt I can daily choose to remain in Christ and therefore be able to produce more fruit of the Spirit in His name.